As swift in motion as a ball


Well after today I have to get on the football bandwagon really don’t I?

Football is an old game. I mean like oooooold. It was played through the medieval era as a brutal, complex, gang game where huge teams would use any means possible to get their inflated pig’s bladder in their goal (which could be some distance – in Ashford, where the games is still played, they are three miles apart).


And people have been talking about it almost as long. Chaucer mentions it in The Knight’s Tale*, as part of a description of the big battle between Palamon and Arcite which Shakespeare reduced down to single combat which happens offstage:

“Ther stomblen stedes stronge and doun goth al

He rolleth under foot as dooth a bal”

I’m quite glad Shakespeare did change this bit when he turned it into The Two Noble Kinsmen!

Those Shakespearean Kings Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V had a part in the history of the sport – Richard II made a statute against it, with a penalty of six days imprisonment. When this proved ineffective, Henry IV made stricter laws which allowed for a fine of 20 shillings from the mayors and bailiffs of any town where the game was played. Henry V banned it again and ordered the practice of the bow in its place. So that’s literally a microcosm of the Hollow Crown in football: Richard II was ineffective, Henry IV took more serious steps, and Henry V went all military!

In 1531, Sir Thomas Elyot wrote of “foote balle, wherin is nothinge but beastly furie and extreme violence; wherof procedeth hurte, and consequently rancour and malice do remaine with them that be wounded; wherfore it is to be put in perpetuall silence”. It was outlawed – again – by Edward VI for causing riots. But by Shakespeare’s time, some people were taking a more moderate stance. Richard Mulcaster – head of Merchant Taylor’s School, and St Paul’s School – said that it “could not possibly have growne to this greatnes, that it is now at, nor have bene so much used, as it is in all places, if it had not had great helpes, both to health and strength”. He advised the game to be played between smaller teams, with coaches** and referees – although rules weren’t really codified until the 1820s.

Anyway, Shakespeare mentions it in his plays, but only twice – less often than tennis. In A Comedy of Errors, Dromio of Ephesus asks

Am I so round with you, as you with me,

That like a football you do spurn me thus?

You spurn me hence, and he will spurn me hither;

If I last in this service, you must case me in leather.

So clearly the game he was referencing was a rough-and-tumble version. This is borne out by reference number two, in King Lear:

Lear: Do you bandy looks with me, you rascal? [Strikes him.]

Oswald: I’ll not be strucken, my lord.

Kent: Nor tripp’d neither, you base football player? [Trips up his heels.]

I am sure this kind of antic never happens in the modern game…


* Alas not this one


** Well, a “trayning maister”

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