“This murdering play”: the violent origins of English football

Football in the form that we recognise today didn’t really begin to coalesce until the 16th and 17th centuries, but English references to games of “fote-ball”, “fute-ball”, “ffootballe”, and so on, start in the late medieval period. At this early stage there were few, if any, regulations. There was no set number of players and no clearly marked out pitch. The game involved an unlimited number of people, which could number several hundreds on the annual Shrovetide football match between neighbouring towns and villages. If that many people were involved, the area played on could cover several miles and the game could last for hours or even days.

The aim was to drag an inflated pig’s bladder to the marker in the opposing side’s town or village. Sometimes the mob would attempt to kick the bladder into the balcony of their opponents’ church, something which the local priest probably didn’t appreciate (unless, of course, he was also playing). It’s not surprising that without solid rules or a referee, the game could easily become nasty. Punching, biting, kicking and tripping up your adversary were all, in theory, allowed. A large-scale local football game must have been a flashpoint for inter-community tensions, as well as the perfect excuse to beat up that loathsome neighbour of yours under the cover of sport.

Shrove Tuesday (the last day before Lent) was the most popular day for football matches in medieval and early modern England. Here, in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559), Pieter Breughel the Elder portrays a Dutch celebration of Shrovetide.
Shrove Tuesday (the last day before Lent) was the most popular day for football matches in medieval and early modern England. Here, in The Fight Between
Carnival and Lent (1559), Pieter Breughel the Elder portrays a Dutch celebration of Shrovetide.

The authorities didn’t turn a blind eye to this violence. Indeed, the earliest references to football are to be found in official legal documents relating to football-related fatalities. A Cornish plea roll from 1238 mentions a man named Roger who was accused of striking a fellow player with a stone, a blow which proved fatal. Forty-two years later at a game in Ulgham, Northamptonshire, a player was killed as a result of running against an opposing player’s dagger. These are dry accounts yet, clearly, football-related violence involved much personal tragedy, particularly when a death was accidental.

In 1321 William de Spalding, a canon of Scoldham monastery, accidentally murdered his lay friend William in a game of football. As de Spalding was kicking the ball, his friend ran against him and wounded himself on a sheathed knife which de Spalding was carrying. He died within six days. William de Spalding was distraught, and applied for and was granted a papal dispensation to absolve him of all blame. The dispensation read, “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”.

The next few centuries saw numerous attempts to ban football. The game was generally frowned upon by the authorities as it distracted men from their archery practice, created a lot of noise, resulted in damage to houses and crops and was potentially fatal. In 1314 Edward II was so concerned about the rowdy and violent consequence of football matches that he got the Mayor of London to ban it in the city on his behalf, saying:

“Forasmuch as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large foot balls in the field 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”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems that football was very popular among university students. The first reference to it being played at university is a 1555 decree by St John’s College, Oxford, which bans the game. Given that this was the year of the college’s foundation, it is possible that football had such a bad reputation that it was forbidden preemptorily. Other Oxford and Cambridge colleges soon followed suit.

St John's College, Oxford, the first Oxbridge college to ban football (in 1555). © Caecilia Dance
St John’s College, Oxford, the first Oxbridge college to ban football (in 1555). © Caecilia Dance

By 1500, football was looking more like the game we know today. A late 15th century Latin account of a football game in Cawston, Nottinghamshire, says that “throwing [the ball] into the air” was prohibited and that the players were supposed to kick the ball with their feet to opposing goals. The game was nevertheless still very rough. At a match in Somerset in 1508, Thomas Bryan accidentally fell onto his knife, and died immediately. The official verdict, that he killed himself “by misfortune”, was an important distinction to make in an age where suicide was considered a terrible sin. A Yorkshire death record from 15 years later reads, “John Langbern of Allerston was playing football with Roger Bridkirk of Allerston, labourer, and many others…Roger fell on top of John and crushed his body by misfortune, so that John immediately died”. As in the case of William de Spalding, “there was no malice between them”; this was an unfortunate accident.

As with almost any popular pastime in the medieval and early modern periods, football came in for a a lot of criticism. One 15th century description of football laments its violent nature, whilst the Tudor diplomat and scholar Sir Thomas Elyot dismissed the game as “beastly fury and extreme violence whereof proceedeth hurt; and consquently rancour and malice do remain with them that be wounded”. Most virulent of all was the Puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbes. Stubbes was the author of The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), a polemic which attacked every imaginable aspect of popular culture. Football was not excluded from Stubbes’ righteous wrath; he abused the immoral game of football at length. This extract from his book shows how much football has changed since the late 16th century:

“Football may rather be called a friendly kind of fight than a play or recreation; a bloody murdering practice than a fellowly sport or pastime. For doth not everyone lie in wait for his adversary, seeking to overthrow him and to pitch him on his nose…by this means sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their legs, sometimes their arms…sometimes their noses gush out with blood, sometimes their eyes start out…Is this murdering play now an exercise for the Sabbath day?”

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