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Tudor Football - Not quite the beautiful game

Modern day football...11 men versus 11 men, 90 minutes, flair, referees and Robbie Savage. However, step into Marty Mcfly's Delorean, notch the speed up to 88 and set the date for the early 1500s to find the beautiful game a million miles from the 21st century sport we watch today.


The hit series and frankly hilarious children's show "Horrible Histories" recently exemplified what a football match in Tudor times (1485-1603) would be like. Of course the writers had portrayed the sport in their usual eccentric way with the players coming up against bantering striker Jermain Defoe, who apparently plays for two teams "Tott and Ham". I only have to look back around 10 years to remember my year 5 teacher mentioning football in Tudor times and being struck dumb in awe that the game was played centuries before the formation of the Football Association 150 years ago in 1863. The use of a pig's bladder for the ball being a particular source of interest.

Violent clash: Football matches were more like American Football matches - but without the padding. Games in Tudor times would involve dozens of players and last for hours
Tudor depiction of Football

So what was the "game" like? The answer...carnage. The rules were simple, there wasn't any. But the objective of the match was for one village to get the blown-up pig's bladder through the opposing gates of it's rival community. Far away from a modern 7.32m x 2.44m goalposts we see in the current Premier League. Catching a glimpse of the "football" would've been rare for one of the players but to keep occupied, a player would literally kick it out of his opposition. A recent Daily Mail article claimed that new research had discovered more people, 7 to be precise, died in Tudor football compared to sword-fighting.

Scores are in...9.0....9.5....9.0...9.5

Records of knives being used, mass crushes and brutal punch ups highlight the beautiful game a far-cry from the modern day Gareth Bales, Ashely Youngs and Sergio Busquets with their impressive double pikes with full twist rotations. The ruthless nature of Tudor football led to it being made illegal by Henry VIII's government in 1540. Thomas Elliot, a puritan preacher, stated the game was full of, "beastly fury and extreme violence". With the author of the book "Anatomy of Abuses" (1583) writing, "football playing and other devilish pastimes.. withdraweth us from godliness, either upon the Sabbath or any other day." The nature of the game was in keeping with the usual Tudor sports like Bear-baiting and the non-violent but money driven shuffleboard. 

150 years of The Football Association

So Tudor Football in short offer us an overwhelming difference between what was known then and what we watch today. A Tudor player would make Gennaro Gattuso or Joey Barton look like mere kittens among lions 500 years ago. The game took another 300 years before it was officially given rules and legislation by the F.A whose birthday is to celebrated later with a match between England and 5-times world champions Brazil. This was partly due to the effeminate Georgian era (c.1715-1837), but maybe after the most brutal sporting period in history perhaps we needed a break, powdered wigs and early David Beckhams!

Ben Jones (Follow me on Twitter @benny_j)

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