(This article is based on the podcast, originally researched by Esther Arnott, presented by Professor Suzannah Lipscomb)
The game of football goes back centuries. You’ve no doubt heard stories of people playing with a ball made from an inflated pig’s bladder, but what was the purpose that early modern football served in society – a form of leisure or something more?
Who played it, where it was played, and what were the rules people played by (or didn’t)? Here we explore the development of early modern football.
Earliest reliable references to ‘football’
Some of the earliest reliable references to a game called ‘football’ come from the 14th century.
The first time that ‘football’ is referenced is in a proclamation by King Edward II in 1314, prohibiting the game in order to preserve peace. Our first reliable reference to football, in other words, is it being banned. The King was bound for war with Scotland and commanded there be no ‘great uproar’ in London ‘through certain tumult arising from great footballs in the fields of the public’.
Then later, in 1365, during the reign of Edward III, an order was given that on feast days men had to ‘use bows and arrows’ and not ‘under pain of imprisonment to meddle … in football.’
No written rules
Unfortunately, no written rules survive for the game of early modern football in the 16th century and there were also no central organisations responsible for football. Nonetheless, documents refer to playing ‘with a football’ and ‘playing football’, typically involving an inflated pig’s bladder that was sometimes encased in leather, and was quite plausibly carried as well as kicked.
At the heart of the game was a struggle between different groups who could be people from different villages, trades, or just one village split into two teams. Based on evidence from court cases against people who broke the law by playing football, there was no upper limit on the number of people in a team, and sides did not have to be equal in number.
Football was not regarded as a game for nobility and there isn’t evidence that women played football… but then nor is there evidence they didn’t.
The playing area could be vast, covering an area of some 3 to 4 miles, across and through fields. With such distances involved, it is unlikely there were goals or goalkeepers. Instead, it is more likely the players attempted to reach a certain base – perhaps more like a try line in rugby – such as gentlemen’s houses, balconies of churches, or a distant village.
Government edicts against ball-games
Roughly every 15 years between 1314-1615 (and sometimes as often as every 3 years), the government issued an edict against ball-games, including football. Sometimes the edict made clear the authorities resented that men were being drawn to play football instead of performing their military training in archery.
Every man was expected to practice archery on a Sunday in medieval and Tudor England, ready to be called to arms if ever the monarch commanded – and this rule was still in operation in Elizabethan London.
Edicts also made specific reference to the disorder football created.
Football was wild
Evidence of games such as in Manchester in 1608 and 1609, show how great harm could be done by playing football in the streets.
Coroners’ reports also show that football was rough – players could be tackled whether they had the ball or not. An account written in 1602 explained that ‘hurling’ (a Cornish name given to football) involved a tackle that was basically a punch. If the player with the ball wasn’t stopped, he could be butted by another (and he himself butt others) until he with the ball touched the ground with some part of his body, or cried ‘Hold’, at which point the ball had to be thrown, ideally to a fellow player.
Football’s very nature was violent and could even cause death, as made clear in Coroners’ reports. The many accounts of violence erupting during football matches help to explain why authorities were so worried by it.
Why did early modern football matches involve vicious behaviour?
One theory is that footballing fights were not accidental brawls, but a sort of equilibrating type of leisure. There is evidence that on some Saints and Holy days, villages would arrange fights as entertainment, allowing people to express hostility and release tensions. In this way, early modern football was a form of letting off steam.
Violence erupted when people playing broke the rules, and can also be attributed to the desire to win. Although many sources report violence, we only have evidence of the matches that went wrong. It’s possible that many – perhaps most – matches did not break into violence at all, and therefore left no record in court books or coroners’ reports.
The game was certainly part of the fabric of society. Of all the saints’ day and holy days when football was played, the Shrovetide Football match in particular became a ritual. Played annually on Shrove Tuesday in England, the match took local forms – in Chester, the shoemakers challenged the drapers; in Derby, different towns played each other.
What did monarchs make of the game?
On the surface, monarchs disapproved strongly. Henry VII passed a proclamation against football in 1496, and Henry VIII passed one in 1540. In both instances, king and country were under threat, and the Henrys didn’t want able-bodied men – who could fight for them in war – squandering themselves in a mere game.
But there is evidence Henry VIII did actually play himself. Research discovered that Henry commissioned a pair of shoes for playing football in 1526, aged 35. It appears that these were to be used in a Shrovetide Match, most likely played with a group of young men at Henry’s court.
The world’s oldest football was found at Stirling Castle, suggesting Scotland’s royals also enjoyed the game. The ball must have been kicked high, because at some time in the 1540s, as it lodged in the rafters of the Queen’s Chamber during James V’s reconstruction of the castle between 1537-1542. James’ daughter Mary Queen of Scots was also known to have an interest in football, recording a game of it in her diaries while at Carlisle Castle.
James VI of Scotland and I of England wrote approvingly of ‘faire and pleasant field-games’ and when he became king, he made a speech supporting ‘honest recreation’. In 1618 he issued The King’s Declaration to His Subjects Concerning Lawful Sports to be used, condemning Puritan attempts to ban sports, and ordering most sports to be continued in parishes on Sundays and holy days.
Many were ‘scandalised’ by the license the king had given to Sunday recreations, yet James’s son, King Charles I, issued a version of The King’s Declaration (the Book of Sports) going one step further by insisting clergymen read out the Book in every parish church. Many Puritan ministers refused.
The impact of the Civil War
The coming of the Civil War saw significant changes. In September 1641, the Commons ordered that all sports on Sundays be stopped and, in May 1643, that the Book of Sports be burned. Sport thus became highly politicised: Puritans argued that those for the Book of Sports were against parliament.
The Civil War and Interregnum saw, in theory, the banning of all revelry and games, and it was only from the Restoration that people could officially freely play football again.