Thursday, June 18, 2015

Josias Priest: Master of Late 17th Century Dance

by Margaret Porter

Josias Priest (occasionally Preist) and his relatives were the foremost English choreographers, performers, and dance instructors of their era, starting during the Restoration and spanning many reigns.

His first notable public appearance was in the 1667 production of Sir Martin Mar-All at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He performed with Moll Davis, noted for her skill in the dance as well as her singing—but mostly for her liaison with King Charles II. Several years later, at the Duke's Theatre in Dorset Gardens, Priest danced in a production of Davenant’s version of Macbeth, creating and performing the choreography.

His first known connection with the King's court came in in 1675, when thirteen-year-old Princess Mary of York (later Queen Mary II), commissioned a court masque titled Calisto, or the Chaste Nymph. Based upon  the  myth in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as adapted by John Crowne, it featured dances by Josias Priest, who was paid £100 for his work.

Moll Davis
 The royal sisters Mary and Anne and other court ladies performed: Margaret Blagge (later Lady Godolphin), Sarah Jennings (later Duchess of Marlborough), Lady Henrietta Wentworth, and more. All wore lavish costumes adorned with real gemstones. Priest’s friend and former colleague Moll Davis—by then the mother of the King’s bastard daughter—was one of many professionals filling out the cast.

The principal male dancers included the King’s illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, “a good judge of dancing, and a good dancer himself,” and the celebrated Monsieur St. André. The Frenchman had been lured to London from Louis XIV’s court by the dancing duke, who had performed with him there in the ballet Les Fêtes de l'Amour.

At that time Priest, assisted by his wife Franck, was master of a young ladies’ school. In November 1680 they took over a similar establishment in Chelsea, as noted by the Gazette:

Advertisement: Josias Priest, Dancing-Master, that kept a Boarding-School for Gentlewomen in Leicester-Fields, is removed to the great School-House at Chelsey, which was Mr. Portman’s, where he did Teach, there will continue the same Masters, and others, to the improvement of the said School.

Those “same Masters” included Jeffrey Bannister, court violinist, and James Hart, singer. Musical instruction was a significant part of the curriculum. Priest’s involvement meant that the pupils had the advantage of instruction from the foremost teacher of dancing. The school occupied the former residence of Sir Arthur Gorges, slightly to the west of the Duke of Beaufort’s grand mansion and its extensive formal gardens.
Beaufort House, showing Gorges House, the Priests' school,
centre left with red rooftop

Eight year old Mary “Molly” Verney arrived at “Mrs. Priest's genteel establishment for young ladies” in 1683, by which time it had become an elite institution, educating the daughters of the noble and the wealthy. Verney papers show that her board for a year cost £5, with additional charges for specific lessons in the arts. The following year the school staged John Blow’s opera Venus and Adonis, in which Molly appeared.

Henry Purcell
by or after John Closterman
oil on canvas, 1695, NPG
She was still a boarder at the time of its most famous and historic production, one whose popularity has endured for centuries: young composer Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. It was staged, likely for the first time, at the Priests’ school, with the pupils taking part. Possibly Queen Mary herself attended a performance. That original production included seventeen dances devised by Priest. 

The result was unexpected controversy, endangering the school’s reputation. Mrs. Buck, a lady investigating London academies, reported, “Priest’s at Little Chelsea was much commended; but he hath lately had an opera, which I’m sure hath done him a great Injury, and the Parents of the Children not satisfied with so Public a shew.” Their daughters' involvement in what is now regarded as a significant development—a full-length opera in English—was apparently not appreciated by the upper classes.

Compounding Priest’s unwelcome notoriety, his associate Thomas D’urfey wrote a satirical comedy titled Love for Money, or The Boarding School, clearly modelled on the school at Gorges House, with lead roles performed by the celebrated players William Mountford and Mrs. Bracegirdle. The play holds pupils and their dancing master up to ridicule. The audience at its performances at the Theatre Royal surely identified the location as the school at Gorges House. The setting, “Chelsey, by the River,” was a giveaway, as were certain bits of dialogue.

To demonstrate the girls’ dancing abilities, the school held a ball during Easter week. In March 1691, Molly, who up to that time had chiefly studied singing, wrote to her family, “I began to larn to dance of Mr. Prist today,” perhaps a private lesson in preparation for the annual event. 

Dorset Gardens Theatre
Subsequent Purcell-Priest collaborations were King Arthur (1691), written by John Dryden, and The Faery Queen (1692), based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and likely adapted by Thomas Betterton. Both were staged at the Dorset Gardens theatre. Purcell did not long survive his patroness Queen Mary, who died of smallpox at the close of 1694. Eleven months later he followed her to the grave. Like her, he was interred in Westminster Abbey, near the organ with which he was so very familiar.

Priest continued at Gorges House until about 1697, at which time another gentleman assumed its mortgage. Returning to the stage, he danced in The Island Princess at Drury Lane in 1699. The Priest name—either that of Josias or one of his offspring—surfaces repeatedly in connection with dances. As late as 1711 there is a reference to a “Minuet by Mr. Priest” for twelve ladies. His connection to Chelsea endured. His wife Franck died there and was buried in April 1733, as was Josias in January 1735.

What were the popular dances of the day? The minuet de la cour, the bransle, the coranto or courante, the rigadoon, brought from Europe to the English court by Charles II’s son by Nell Gwyn, Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans. These, singly or in combination, with country dances, hornpipes, and other common forms, were the raw material of Priest’s choreography for the early masques and the later stage plays, and operas. Period dance groups regularly revive, re-create, and perform these dances, and YouTube offers a wealth of examples.



Gazette, 22 November, 1680
Jennifer Thorp, “Dance in Late 17th-century London: Priestly muddles,” Early Music
Ifan Kyrle Fletcher, “Ballet in England, 1660-1740,” Famed for Dance
Adrian Tinniswood, The Verneys: A True Story of Love, War and Madness in Seventeenth Century England
John Weaver, An Essay Towards a History in Dancing, 1712

Image Sources
Wikimedia Commons, National Portrait Gallery

Margaret Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of several historical fiction genres, and is also published in nonfiction and poetry. A Pledge of Better Times, her highly acclaimed novel of courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans, was recently released in trade paperback and ebook. Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.



  1. Thanks for the fascinating post! Early dance is an interest of mine; I learned Renaissance dance from the expert Helga Hill, who also does Baroque dance with her advanced students. It's a world of its own, with gesture as well as dance, and famous dancing masters, though the ones I know about are the ones who created ballroom dances. I imagine they would have done masques as well.

  2. Thanks for you comment, Sue. I have long enjoyed Englishcountry dance and court dance, and trained in ballet. Dance histort some how finds its way into my novels sometimes! Josias Priest is quite a fascinating figure, though relatively little is known about him.

  3. I really enjoyed the post, Margaret.


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