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Episode 107: Football in Tudor England (a World Cup Special)

Episode 107 of the Renaissance English History Podcast is on football (soccer) in Tudor England. Listen in the player above, or read the transcript below.

Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can shop at my online store filled with Tudor-inspired products like the popular Six Wives leggings!

Hello and welcome to the Renaissance English History Podcast, a part of the Agora Podcast Network. I’m your host, Heather Teysko, and I’m a storyteller who makes history accessible because I believe it’s a pathway to understanding who we are, our place in the universe, and being more deeply in touch with our own humanity. This is Episode 107, and we’re talking about Football. Because England just made it through their first knockout match in the World Cup, and I think we owe it to the team to talk about the history of their sport in their country, don’t you?

But first, I need to thank my patrons who help keep this show independent. I have amazing patrons – thank you to Elizabeth, Kathy, Cynthia, Juergen. Also Jeneane, Sarah, Megan, Lady Anne – Jessica – Olivia, Al, Ashleigh, Kendra, Cynthia, Judith. Melissa, Katherine, Katie, Berta, Renee, Maura, Emily, Celayne, Laura, Ian, Barbara, Char, Keeva, Amy, Allison, Joanne, Kathy, Kristine, Annetta, Kandace, John, Susan, Andrea, Katherine, Rebecca from Tudors Dynasty, Sandor, Philip.  Thank you, you guys. If you want to be part of this group of very intelligent people with exceptional taste, please go to patreon.com/englandcast to sign up.

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FOOTBALL! I did do an episode on Tudor Sports WAAAAY back in the beginning of this podcast – in 2009 it was. Ah, I was just a baby then. But I want to dig a bit deeper and do an episode on football specifically. So here we are. I also want to add that this episode is dedicated to my dearest friend Sandor, who took me to my first English Premiere League match way back in 2001 at White Hart Lane – go Spurs.

So Football was actually banned in 1540 because Henry VIII thought it induced riots. And he was probably right. More people were killed in football-related injuries in the 16th century than with swordfighting. It’s always the stuff you think is going to be all innocent that really gets you, eh?

Football was very different in Tudor England compared to what they’re playing in Russia today, though. To start with, there was no limit to the number of people you could have on each side.The ball was made of a pig’s bladder stuffed with hair. Also, the goals were about a mile apart – so you’d have to go from one town to another to score, and it was largely played in the open countryside.  Also, you could pick up the ball and throw it, as well as kick it. The game was rough.

The object of the game was to capture the ball from the other village and bring it back to your own. Philip Stubbs wrote in his Anatomy of Abuses of 1583:

“Sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their legs, sometimes their arms, sometimes one part is thrust out of joint, sometimes the noses gush out with blood.”

The authoritories of the time frowned on football, concerned that it was diverting the villagers from the much more useful pastime of archery. By 1540 this concern had become so great that the government passed a law banning the game of football all together!

And one of the reasons Henry banned it when he did was because he needed able bodied men for a potential war, and he didn’t want them hurting themselves throwing around a ball.

Seven footballers were killed after riots or fights in English villages between 1500-1575, in research uncovered by Oxford historian Dr Steven Gunn, as part of a project looking into accidental deaths in the 16th century. Interestingly, bell ringing and sword fighting each caused three accidental deaths during the same period. Two of those were accidentally stabbed with a knife during a tackle. So leave the weapons off the field, please.

On February 20, 1508 Thomas Bryan was playing in Yeovilton, Somerset, and had his knife hanging from his belt. Not a good idea. The record says: ‘He fell onto it by misfortune, it struck him in the body and he immediately died. So he killed himself by misfortune.’

Another one in North Yorkshire said a player died when he challenged for the ball. The record reads, “John Langbern of Allerston was playing football with Roger Bridkirk of Allerston, laborer, and many others. They were running after a certain ball, called the foteball, no malice being between them, and both came to the ball at once and fell to the ground. Roger fell on top of John, and crushed his body by miscortune so that John immediately died.” Though that still doesn’t make it as dangerous as archery, which killed 56 people during that time. The sport itself seemed to be a lot more similar to American football, but without helmets or padding. And people would often end up rioting, and get crushed in the mess that would ensue.

The very first recorded football match took place in London in 1170, recorded by William FitzStephen. Some historians believe that Football started as war games between villages. Larger intervillage games were popular on holidays like Shrove Tuesday when entire villages would play each other for an entire day.

In 1314 Edward II banned it because he was concerned that it was taking the place of archery in the attentions of able bodied men. But it was rare for the matches to be prosecuted, so the ban really didn’t have much effect. There were no teams per se, and matches were more informal and spontaneous, especially during holidays. Sometimes the matches would last for hours, and even days. Eventually Eton, and the universities at Cambridge and Oxford began playing scheduled matches, and the whole thing became much more organized.

In 1514, Alexander Barclay, a monk in Ely, Cambridgeshire, wrote about a game of ball which is named Foote-ball – “They get the bladder and blowe it great and thin, with many beanes and peason put within, It ratleth, shineth and soundeth clere and fayre, While it is throwen and caste up in the eyre, Eche one contendeth and hath a great delite, with foote and hande the bladder for to smite, if it fall to the ground they lifte it up again… Overcometh the winter with driving the foote-ball“.

In 1519, William Herman, who had been headmaster at both Eton and Winchester colleges, produced a book ‘Vulgaria’.  In it, he refers to “We wyll playe with a ball full of wynde“.  Scholars believe that this is the first reference to Football being played at a school in England.  Around the same time, one Richard Mulcaster, who had been a student at Eton and became a teacher and headmaster at various English schools, was a great advocate of Football, and he wrote about Football in ways that we might understand. The History UK website says that, His writings refer to “sides” and “parties” (teams), “a judge over the parties” (referee), “standings” (positions) and “trayning maister” (coach).  He also says “[s]ome smaller number with such overlooking, sorted into sides and standings, not meeting with their bodies so boisterously to trie their strength: nor shouldring or shuffing one an other so barbarously … may use footeball for as much good to the body, by the chiefe use of the legges“.  It would seem that public schools were attempting to reorganise a previously violent game.

Henry the Seventh passed a law forbidding the Game of Football in public areas, purely for military reasons.  However, Henry the Eighth was athletically and spor minded, and, in 1526 he ordered footwear for The Great Wardrobe including “45 velvet pairs and 1 leather pair for football”. So Henry VIII had specially made Football boots!

In 1531, there was some concern about playing Football on a Sunday, and also the level of brutality of the game, though the health benefits were praised.  The preacher Thomas Eliot, in his book “The Governour” discussed the dangers that Football caused (and the benefits of Archery) “foote balle, wherin is nothinge but beastly furie and exstreme violence; wherof procedeth hurte, and consequently rancour and malice do remaine with them that be wounded” – and of Archery (shotyng) ” where, in shotyng, if the shooter use the strength of his bowe within his owne tiller, he shal neuer be therwith grieued or made more feble“.  Then, in 1534 he wrote in ‘Castell of Helth’ wrote about the benefits of “footeball” as part of what he calls “vehement exercise”.  
The oldest surviving Football was found in Scotland, dating from around 1540. It was found behind panelling in The Queen’s Chamber of Stirling Castle in 1981.  It’s made of a Pig’s Bladder, covered in leather and about 6″ (150mm) in diameter, it resembles descriptions of a ball used in the Carlisle Castle game of 1568, watched by Mary Queen of Scots.  Sir Francis Knollys, described the game at Carlisle Castle, Cumbria “20 of her retinue played at football before her for 2 hours, very strongly, nimbly and skilfully”.

So I’m going to leave it there for this week…

You can get in touch with me through the listener support line at 801 6TEYSKO or through twitter @teysko or facebook.com/englandcast. Thank you so much for making it possible for me to do 100 episodes, and for being with me through this journey! I’ll be back in about 2 weeks with another Tudor Times person of the month, Francis Walsingham. Don’t forget to check out TreasuresfromBess.com for your Tudor Treat fix. Talk to you soon!


Remember, if you like this show, there are two main ways you can support it. First (and free!) you can leave a review on iTunes. It really helps new people discover the show. Second, you can support the show financially by becoming a patron on Patreon for as little as $1 episode. Also, you can shop at my online store filled with Tudor-inspired products like the popular Six Wives leggings!