- Traditional football games had virtually no rules, no limit on the number of players, and goals, if they existed at all, could be a mile or more apart. In most cases, the opposing 'sides' were drawn from different parts of the town or from different trades. In London, and other big cities, it was specifically a game of the apprentices. Throughout its known history there have been repeated attempts to abolish or modify the custom, and most of the earliest references are concerned with trying to suppress what must have been an already well-established tradition. In the long-drawn-out struggle between the authorities and the players, the former were bound to win in the end, but it took centuries to achieve. The documentary record starts in c.1183 with William Fitz Stephen's account, which includes no hint of societal disapproval:After dinner (at Shrovetide) all the youth of the City goes out into the fields to a much-frequented game of ball. The scholars of each school have their own ball, and almost all the workers of each trade have theirs also in their hands. Elder men and fathers and rich citizens come on horse-back to watch the contests of their juniors, and after their fashion are young again with the young ... (Fitz Stephen, c.1180: 56-7)Published disapproval started in 1314, when it was prohibited in the City of London, and from then on regular attempts were made to ban it, and Puritan reformers such as Stubbes (1583: 184) inveighed against the game, and the authorities attacked the game on various fronts. Firstly, the popularity of such 'pointless' games drew young men away from other more rational and necessary pursuits, particu-lary archery, and secondly the violence and lawlessness involved held moral dangers both for the individual and society in general. The third factor was the danger to property and trade which was a potential result of allowing rough, mass sports in narrow streets and city centres. An early casualty was the game at Chester, which was abolished in 1539. Opposition at other places went less smoothly. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries there are records of particular communities' games coming under increasing pressure and one by one they were suppressed, or modified out of all recognition. In Manchester in 1608 and London in 1615, Worcester in 1743, Bolton in 1790, the pattern was very similar. By the mid-19th century, there was still a number of examples alive and kicking and in each case the custom was hotly contested between the supressors and the players, with a key turning-point coming with the Police Act of 1840. The game at Derby was gone by 1849, Kingston-upon-Thames (Surrey) by 1868, and Dorking (Surrey) by 1909. The Kingston-upon-Thames case is an example of just how difficult it was to reform or suppress a custom until all the influential people in the community united against it. The first attempt to suppress it came in 1799, but the game lasted until 1868.The origin of the game remains obscure. Although the vast majority of instances took place at *Shrovetide, there seems to have been no formal church involvement. Players from various parts of the country explained that the game started when locals were kicking around the severed head of a Dane (or other invader).See also *Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football, *Hallaton Bottle-Kicking, *Haxey Hood game, *hurling.■ Malcolmson, 1973; Hutton, 1996: 154-7; Hole, 1949: 502; Matthew Alexander, 'Shrove Tuesday Football in Surrey', Surrey Archaeological Collections 77 (1986), 197-205.
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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