Tracing the origins of football is tricky. In the 9th century, a Welsh monk named Nennius recorded groups of young men “playing at ball”. In 1147, a charter in Normandy recorded payment for “seven balloons of the greatest dimension”, probably relating to games of la soule. This was a popular game that involved two parishes challenging each other to get a ball across the countryside to the other’s parish church. The ball in la soule was often made of wood, or leather stuffed with something like hay.
In the later years of the same century, William Fitzstephen recorded the Shrove Tuesday festivities in London: “After lunch, all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls.”
The dangerous game
Games of ball could be played amongst a community or might pit one village against another. Players would set a target – the goal – to get the ball to. Numbers of players were unlimited, and rules were very relaxed, if any existed at all. Kicking the ball was part of the game, though there is evidence that using hands and sticks was also permitted to get the ball to its goal. These games could resemble mass brawls and were frequently dangerous.
In 1280, a game at Ulgham in Northumberland resulted in a fatality when one player ran onto an opponent’s dagger. In 1283, some Cornishmen indulged in a game of la soule, following the continental tradition, during which a man named Roger was struck on the head by the stone ball and killed.
In 1303, students from Oxford University partook, only for one of their number, called Adam, to be left dead, “and it was alleged that he was killed by Irish students, whilst playing the ball in the High Street towards Eastgate”. In 1321, a canon of Scoldham named William was issued a papal dispensation to excuse him that:
“During the game at ball as he kicked the ball, a lay friend of his, also called William, ran against him and wounded himself on a sheathed knife carried by the canon, so severely that he died within six days. Dispensation is granted, as no blame is attached to William de Spalding, who, feeling deeply the death of his friend, and fearing what might be said by his enemies, has applied to the pope.”
With all these incidents, and presumably uncounted injuries that didn’t prove fatal, the authorities began to grow worried about the sport. In 1314, the Lord Mayor of London, with the backing of King Edward II, decreed that “as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large foot balls in the fields of the public from which many evils might arise which God forbid: we command and forbid on behalf of the king, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future.”
In 1331, King Philip VI of France banned la soule. By 1363, King Edward III was cracking down on games of all sorts in England, declaring, “we ordain that you prohibit under penalty of imprisonment all and sundry from such stone, wood and iron throwing; handball, football, or hockey; coursing and cock-fighting, or other such idle games.”
This may have been a military concern because Edward would enact the Archery Law just two years later, requiring all Englishmen to practice with a bow on Sundays and making any sport that interfered with this illegal. England and France were joined by Scotland early in the following century when King James I issued a statute stating:
The King forbids that no man play at fute-ball under the pain of fifty schillings to be raised to the Lord of the land, as oft as he be tainted, or to the Sheriff of the land or his ministers, if the Lords will not punish such trespassers
The last provision suggests that the nobility did not share the king’s desire to criminalise football.
Game (still) on!
Games of medieval football are still played in a number of places, often as part of Shrove Tuesday celebrations. The Scoring the Hales game starts at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland with the Duke of Northumberland dropping the ball from the castle walls. Members of St Michael’s and St Paul’s parishes then engage in a 150-a-side game to try and be the first to score two goals.
Corfe Castle in Dorset, Ashbourne in Derbyshire, Workington in Cumbria, and a Firemen v Fishermen game on South Bay beach in Scarborough on Boxing Day are amongst the other surviving games of medieval football. In Scotland, it exists as Ba’ game and is played around Christmas and New Year in Scone, Jedburgh, Kirkwall in Orkney and a few other spots. Outside Europe, Cuju in China, Kemari in Japan, Ki-o-rahi in New Zealand and Marn grook in Australia bear strong similarities to European medieval football.
The efforts to ban football in England, Scotland and France all failed in the long run. Although the sport most of us know now is hugely codified, organised and restricted to 11-a-side, the roots of that game lie in mass participation in dangerous running brawls. At least wearing a dagger during modern football is prohibited.
In 1921, the FA in England banned women’s football, declaring “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. This was despite women’s football being more popular and often drawing larger crowds than men’s matches at the time. The ban was only lifted in 1971, with the Women’s Super League created in England in 2011 and turning fully professional in 2018. Ultimately, people have been banning football for over 700 years, but never successfully.