This is really a topic for my co-blogger, Mark, who actually follows football and knows something about its history. I’m sure he’ll speak up to correct me if I say anything too absurd.
Football has a long history in England, having been played in one form or another for at least a thousand years. The most famous medieval example is the Shrovetide match at Ashbourne (Derbys.) which continues to today. These were often very rough games with few rules: broken bones were common and the whole parish might join in.
In the early modern period there were increasingly regularised matches, but there was also plenty of sporadic opposition from the authorities. They were sometimes associated with social protest, particularly riots against the enclosure or ‘improvement’ of common lands.
Heather Falvey (a fellow Hindlite) has come across some interesting cases of ‘rioting under the guise of football’ from the fifteenth century onwards, many taking place in the fens. In early 1699, for example, ‘an estimated 1,100 rioters attacked drainage works and enclosures in Deeping Level, just north of Peterborough’, having originally gathered ‘Under Colour & pretence of Foot ball playing’. And soon after, someone posted a notice inviting local people to ‘a Foot Ball play & other sports’ at the nearby village of Whittlesey, which the authorities believed was simply a cover for more unrest.¹
My own encounter with football at Whittlesey in the archives is sadly not quite so politically-charged. Instead, I came across it whilst trying to figure out how local people used manor courts in the early modern period. Trawling through the records of the court leet of the manor there, I came across the following order, dating from May 1759:
Whereas great Complaints have been made to the Jury of this Manor against a great Number of Young Persons who for some time past have practiced playing at Foot-Ball on the Market-hill whereby they have not only greatly damage the Slate-covering of the Market-Cross … by Climbing upon the said Roof to recover the said Ball; but also some of the Windows of the Adjoyning houses have been broken by their violently forcing a Ball against them And also have greatly obstructed the passage on the said Market-hill, by rendering it very Dangerous and unsafe for People, and especially for Women and Children to pass or Walk on the said Market-hill whilst such a Number of inconsiderate Persons were there rudely at play, Therefore in order to prevent the like irregularities for the future we do whereby Order that if any Person or Persons shall at any time … Kick any Ball to play at Foot-ball … on any part of the said Market-hill, such Person or Persons shall forfeit … 2s 6d²
Naughty boys breaking widows with an overeager kick of the football is hardly as dramatic as hundreds of people smashing up the fences of hated enclosers. Still, I rather like the idea that youth ‘rudely at play’ can turn a quiet street into ‘Dangerous and unsafe’ terrain. It’s also a useful example of the point I tried to make in my article on manor courts (gated; ungated): their records are packed full of weird and wonderful incidents and historians of early modern England should not dismiss them as decaying relicts of the middle ages. Finally, the attempt by local authorities to stamp out any trace of unregulated fun in the lives of ‘Young Persons’ has a shockingly contemporary ring to it.
I did, however, come across one case of football-related rioting during some recent archive-grubbing. In 1676, the Daventry Borough Assembly voted to pay for the charges of
the prosecution of such persons as have beene guilty or abbetting those persons that did concern themselves in playing att Footeball or in the Mutany or disturbance that did arise thereupon³
Without any context, it is not clear if this is an instance of social protest ‘under the guise of football’ or simply a case of seventeenth-century football hooliganism. Whatever the circumstances, the burgesses of Daventry saw a threat.
¹ Heather Falvey, ‘Custom, resistance and politics: local experiences of improvement in early modern England’ (PhD thesis, University of Warwick, 2007), pp. 356-7. For earlier and later examples, see ibid., pp. 360-2. She also discusses the connection between rioting and football in her ‘Voices and faces in the rioting crowd: identifying seventeenth-century enclosure rioters’, The Local Historian, 39: (2009), pp. 148-9
² Cambridgeshire Archives, 126/M70, unfol. (May 1759).
³ Northamptonshire Record Office, ML 106, f. 34.