Evidence for the game of football in England can be traced back to the medieval period, when there were repeated attempts to ban it. But what is there to know about football in early modern England? How was the game played and did it have rules? Was it violent and, if so, did monarchs and government shun the sport?
And what did the game mean to ordinary people – was it an integral part of society as it is today?
1. It was a mixture of football and rugby
It is most likely early modern footballs were kicked and carried, in a similar way to a rugby or American football today. An account from 1602 explained that the game involved a tackle called ‘butting’ where the player with the ball could thrust another in the chest with a closed fist to keep them off.
2. Football had regional names and possibly regional rules
In Cornwall football was called hurling and in East Anglia it was called camping. It is possible that games had regional variations in how they were played. For example, hurling in Cornwall was noted as a game where players ‘are bound to the observation of many lawes’, including that the person with the ball could only ‘butt’ one other person at a time. A breach of these rules allowed the other team to go up against the opposition in a line, perhaps like a scrum.
3. The playing area could be vast with no goals or goal keepers
There was no football pitch to speak of. Instead play could cover an area of 3 to 4 miles, across and through fields, hamlets, and villages.
As the playing area was so large, it is unlikely there were goals or goalkeepers. It is more likely the players attempted to reach a base, akin to a try line in rugby. Accounts tell us that these bases could be gentlemen’s houses, balconies of churches, or a distant village.
4. The game involved a struggle between groups of any size
At the heart of the game was a competition between two groups. These groups could be people from different villages, different trades, or just one village in two teams. For example, in Corfe in Dorset, the Company of Freeman Marblers or Quarriers played annually against one another.
As for the number of players, based on evidence from court cases against people who broke orders not to play, there was no upper limit on the number of people in a team – it could be hundreds, and sides did not have to be equal in number.
5. Teams did not play in football kits
There was no football kit to speak of, although some accounts describe players stripping down to ‘their slightest apparel’ (possibly their linen undershirts or shifts).
But football-boots did exist. Research by Professor Maria Hayward at the University of Southampton discovered that Henry VIII commissioned a pair of boots for playing football in 1526. Made of Italian leather, the boots cost four shillings (about £160 today) and were stitched together by Cornelius Johnson, Henry’s official shoemaker.
6. The game could be disorderly and dangerous
Some historians have described the game as ‘wild’ thanks to evidence of games such as those in Manchester in 1608 and 1609, where great harm was done by a ‘company of lewd and disordered persons usinge that unlawfulle exercise of playing with the ffotebale in ye streets’. Windows were broken and the players committed many offences against locals.
The dangerous nature of the game is evident from coroner’s reports. On Sunday 4 February 1509, in Cornwall, a game took place in which John Coulyng ran ‘very strongly and rapidly’ towards Nicholas Jaane. Nicholas threw John to the floor with such force that the tackle broke John’s leg. John died 3 weeks later.
In Middlesex in 1581, a coroner’s report tells us that Roger Ludford was killed when he ran to get the ball, but was blocked by two men, each having raised an arm to block Roger at the same time. Roger was struck so forcefully under his chest that he died instantly.
7. Authorities tried to ban the game or offered alternatives
Medieval kings and local government issued orders to ban the game, and the Early Modern era was no different. For example, orders were issued against the playing of football in 1497 and 1540 by Henry VII and Henry VIII. Orders coincided with times of war (Henry VII feared a Scottish invasion in 1497) and also with times of Puritan sobriety when they objected to the playing of any sports on Sundays.
Some towns tried alternatives, such as the Mayor and Corporation of Chester who, in 1540, announced that to stop ‘evil disposed persons’ they would instead introduce a footrace, supervised by the Mayor. It didn’t work.
8. Players possibly enjoyed the violence
One theory is that footballing fights were not accidental brawls but a sort of equilibrating type of leisure. In support of this theory is evidence that on some Saints’ and Holy Days, villages would arrange fights (like boxing matches) as entertainment, which allowed people to express hostility and release tensions. Early modern football could have been a similar form of letting off steam.
9. Football was part of the fabric of society
Some historians refer to the game as ‘folk football’, implying it was a custom in society. Football was certainly played on Saints’ and Holy Days, including the Shrove Tide Football match, played on Shrove Tuesday in England. Being tied to religious festivals meant that football was tied to church ceremony so to understand football in its folk sense, we need to regard some of the matches as sacred to the people of the time.
10. The game was enjoyed by royalty
Although football was not regarded as a gentlemanly-sport (such as fencing, real tennis, falconry, and jousting), it is possible kings and queens may have enjoyed it. In Stirling Castle a football was discovered in the rafters of the Queen’s Chamber, dated to some point between 1537-1542 when King James IV was redecorating. James’ daughter Mary (later Mary Queen of Scots) was in Stirling Castle at this time and enjoyed football, later recording a game of it in her diaries. Perhaps the young Mary had been playing indoors while all the furniture was out of the way for renovation?
Following Mary Queen of Scots, her son James VI of Scotland and I of England wrote approvingly of ‘faire and pleasant field-games’. In 1618 James issued The King’s Declaration to His Subjects Concerning Lawful Sports to be used to condemn Puritan attempts to ban sports.
James’ son, King Charles I, issued a version of The King’s Declaration and insisted that clergymen read the Book aloud in every parish church.
The Civil War and Interregnum saw the banning of all revelry and games, but when Charles II progressed through London in May 1660 traditional festivities, of which football was one, were allowed to return.