Football and its enemies

Brodie Waddell

This is really a topic for my co-blogger, Mark, who actually follows football and knows something about its history. I’m sure he’ll speak up to correct me if I say anything too absurd.

Football has a long history in England, having been played in one form or another for at least a thousand years. The most famous medieval example is the Shrovetide match at Ashbourne (Derbys.) which continues to today. These were often very rough games with few rules:  broken bones were common and the whole parish might join in.

‘Mob football’, reportedly drawn in 1721 and depicting Crowe Street, London.

In the early modern period there were increasingly regularised matches, but there was also plenty of sporadic opposition from the authorities. They were sometimes associated with social protest, particularly riots against the enclosure or ‘improvement’ of common lands.

Heather Falvey (a fellow Hindlite) has come across some interesting cases of ‘rioting under the guise of football’ from the fifteenth century onwards, many taking place in the fens. In early 1699, for example, ‘an estimated 1,100 rioters attacked drainage works and enclosures in Deeping Level, just north of Peterborough’, having originally gathered ‘Under Colour & pretence of Foot ball playing’. And soon after, someone posted a notice inviting local people to ‘a Foot Ball play & other sports’ at the nearby village of Whittlesey, which the authorities believed was simply a cover for more unrest.¹

My own encounter with football at Whittlesey in the archives is sadly not quite so politically-charged. Instead, I came across it whilst trying to figure out how local people used manor courts in the early modern period. Trawling through the records of the court leet of the manor there, I came across the following order, dating from May 1759:

Whereas great Complaints have been made to the Jury of this Manor against a great Number of Young Persons who for some time past have practiced playing at Foot-Ball on the Market-hill whereby they have not only greatly damage the Slate-covering of the Market-Cross … by Climbing upon the said Roof to recover the said Ball; but also some of the Windows of the Adjoyning houses have been broken by their violently forcing a Ball against them And also have greatly obstructed the passage on the said Market-hill, by rendering it very Dangerous and unsafe for People, and especially for Women and Children to pass or Walk on the said Market-hill whilst such a Number of inconsiderate Persons were there rudely at play, Therefore in order to prevent the like irregularities for the future we do whereby Order that if any Person or Persons shall at any time … Kick any Ball to play at Foot-ball … on any part of the said Market-hill, such Person or Persons shall forfeit … 2s 6d²

Naughty boys breaking widows with an overeager kick of the football is hardly as dramatic as hundreds of people smashing up the fences of hated enclosers. Still, I rather like the idea that youth ‘rudely at play’ can turn a quiet street into ‘Dangerous and unsafe’ terrain. It’s also a useful example of the point I tried to make in my article on manor courts (gated; ungated): their records are packed full of weird and wonderful incidents and historians of early modern England should not dismiss them as decaying relicts of the middle ages. Finally, the attempt by local authorities to stamp out any trace of unregulated fun in the lives of ‘Young Persons’ has a shockingly contemporary ring to it.

Signs that can be found almost anywhere in England that might otherwise offer the possibility of a good casual football match.

I did, however, come across one case of football-related rioting during some recent archive-grubbing. In 1676, the Daventry Borough Assembly voted to pay for the charges of

the prosecution of such persons as have beene guilty or abbetting those persons that did concern themselves in playing att Footeball or in the Mutany or disturbance that did arise thereupon³

Without any context, it is not clear if this is an instance of social protest ‘under the guise of football’ or simply a case of seventeenth-century football hooliganism. Whatever the circumstances, the burgesses of Daventry saw a threat.


¹ Heather Falvey, ‘Custom, resistance and politics: local experiences of improvement in early modern England’ (PhD thesis, University of Warwick, 2007), pp. 356-7. For earlier and later examples, see ibid., pp. 360-2. She also discusses the connection between rioting and football in her ‘Voices and faces in the rioting crowd: identifying seventeenth-century enclosure rioters’, The Local Historian, 39: (2009), pp. 148-9

² Cambridgeshire Archives, 126/M70, unfol. (May 1759).

³ Northamptonshire Record Office, ML 106, f. 34.

7 thoughts on “Football and its enemies

  1. Mark Hailwood

    Football did indeed have many enemies in early modern England, perhaps the most strident of which was the Elizabethan pamphleteer Philip Stubbes. He wrote in his 1583 diatribe against contemporary pastimes, The Anatomie of Abuses, that football was more of ‘a bloody and murdering practice’ than a ‘sport or pastime’. The main aim of football players, as far as Stubbes could make out, was to injure your opponents and be left as the last man standing, with the result that ‘sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their back, sometime their legs, sometime their arms, sometime one part thrust out of joint, sometime another, sometime the noses gush, sometimes the eyes start out’. This hyper-violent game led to ‘envy, malice, rancour, cholor, hatred, displeasure, enmity’ and sometimes even ‘murder’ and ‘homicide’.

    There was certainly considerable hostility to football from both authorities and pamphleteers, but I’d like to offer a brief counter-point here too. On an April morning in 1648, the Yorkshire yeoman Adam Eyre recorded in his diary that he ‘walked into the Nearcroft, to see the youthes play at football’. The next day Eyre was off to the football again, travelling ‘to Bordhill to see a match at the foot-ball betweene Pensiton and Thurleston’. Its not clear who he was cheering for, but it seems he was just one of a considerable number of spectators, for it was so well attended that ‘the crowd hindered the sport, so that nothing was done’. Here then are a couple of relatively benign incidents in which Eyre engaged in something like the modern pastime of going to watch a game of football.

    As ever, we need to be cautious that our reliance on court records and on pamphlet literature that was often puritan-penned doesn’t lead us to an overly conflictual view of popular pastimes. Football may have been controversial in this period, but there were no doubt many games that were neither riotous nor murderous, and which provided instances of enjoyment and entertainment that have not left much of an imprint on our surviving historical sources.

  2. These posts are fascinating – how amusing to think that Eyre would travel specifically to see a village football match, and during the civil war, too! Do you think perhaps the rural North had a calmer game than the South?

    • Thanks, T&F (if I may). I’m not sure about regional variations. There must have been differences, but I don’t know what they were. The examples I’ve come across don’t suggest any obvious patterns. The fenland examples in my post (Deeping Level, Whittlesey) are southern but also very rural, whereas Daventry and Ashbourne were market towns. I suspect that football was rather rough no matter were it was!
      – Brodie

      • T&F, if you are interested in the regional variations in forms of football, there is an essay by David Underdown that deals with these quite extensively (in a collection of essays on _Popular Culture in England, 1500-1850_ edited by Tim Harris in 1995).

        Needless to say they are rather complicated, but if you will excuse some simplification the main variation he identifies is not so much between north and south, but between communities in which arable farming dominated and communities in which pasture farming dominated. In arable communities football tended to be a more communal, collectivist game, with no restrictions on the numbers of players on a given team (which usually consisted of all the able-bodied young men of a given village), no set positions, and with the playing area constituting the entire open space between the two villages competing. Games were unruly and violent, and acted as a ‘bonding mechanism’ for young males through their shared experience of violence, and in which injuries were a mark of honour. This communal structure reflected the system of agriculture—which in many arable communities still required a considerable amount of co-operation and collectivism.

        Football in pastoral areas was a rather different affair: there were limited and equal numbers of players on each team, and there were recognisable positions and rules, and subsequently less violence. Again this could be seen as connected to the form of agriculture: pastoral communities were more sparsely populated, and farming tasks were more individualised and indeed market-oriented—hence a greater willingness to take on more clearly defined individual roles within the team to mirror a more individualistic socio-economic culture in these communities.

        It’s a fascinating theory, although you have no doubt detected that it is underpinned by a slightly crude Marxist association between economic structure and culture. It is also subject to numerous exceptions of communities whose football playing style doesn’t fit the model, which Underdown concedes. But he certainly succeeds in showing that there were significant regional variations in the forms taken by early modern football. Alas, Eyre doesn’t provide us with enough detail to be able to discern whether he was watching an orderly 11-a-side, or a violent mass-brawl.

        – Mark

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