Book of Sports


Book of Sports
(1618, 1633)
   The King's Declaration of Lawful Sports, commonly called The Book of Sports, was first issued by James I in 1618, as a response to zealous Lancashire justices who had banned all popular sports and games on Sundays. This was but one skirmish in a long and bitter battle over the correct manner of keeping Sunday (the 'Lord's Day') which was not fully resolved until the Puritans achieved complete control in the 1640s. James was caught between the growing power of the Puritans on one side and still potent fears of Roman Catholicism on the other. It was seriously believed that Sunday sports were a Catholic plot: 'It was no small policy in the leaders of the Popish party to keep the people from church by dancing and other recreation even in the time of divine service' (John Bar-wick, quoted by Tait, p. 562).
   The Book of Sports attempted a compromise by identifying which sports should be allowed on Sundays, while prohibiting others, and most crucially stipulating that the lawful entertainments must only take place after evening service, and that anyone who had not attended that service (i.e. Catholics) was excluded from this liberty. Those pastimes allowed were listed as: dancing, either of men or women, archery for men, leaping, vaulting or any such other harmless recreation . . . (such as) . . . May Games, Whitson Ales and Morris-dances and the setting up of Maypoles . . . and that women shall have leave to carry rushes to the church for the decoring of it, according to their old custom.
   Those forbidden entirely on Sundays were bear- and bull-baiting, interludes, and bowling (for the meaner sort of people). Bowling had previously come under fire from those in authority because the popular craze for the game had threatened to eclipse archery as a regular pastime, and there were fears of its effect on the military prowess of the populace.
   The Book of Sports angered the stricter Puritans and Sabbatarians at the time, and was reissued by Charles I in 1633, in response to a similar hard-line approach to Sundays taken by a group of Somerset magistrates. By this time the Puritan faction was in a much stronger position, and the declaration proved a major focus of bitter debate. Nevertheless, at local level, it helped to strengthen the hands of the authorities by codifying what was and was not allowed, and numerous prosecutions of miscreants followed. There was certainly still much flouting of the law:
   And when the people by the book were allowed to play and dance out of public service-time, they could so hardly break off their sports, that many a time the reader was fain to stay till the piper and players would give over; and sometimes the morrice dancers would come into the church in all the linen and scarfs, and antic dresses, with morrice bells jingling at their legs. As soon as common-prayer was read they did haste out presently to their play again. (Quoted in Govett 1890: 120-1)
   ■ Govett, 1890 (includes a transcript of the text); Julian Davies, The Caroline Captivity of the Church (1992); James Tait, 'The Declaration of Sports for Lancashire (1617)', English Historical Review 32 (1917), 561-8; Thomas G. Barnes, 'County Politics and a Puritan Cause Celebre: Somerset Church Ales 1633', Trans. Royal Historical Soc., 5s:5 (1959), 103-22; Underdown, 1985.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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