The Christian period of Lent is a time for abstinence.  In times gone by, consumption of meat, eggs, dairy produce and wine was forbidden.  It is not surprising then that our forebears saw the shrovetide period as a time to let their hair down before the time of austerity that was to come!  It was a time for games and an opportunity to use up meat, eggs and butter.

Shrovetide football was played in many towns in England, Scotland and Wales.  One game, in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, survives to this day.  It is played on Shrove Tuesday and the following day, Ash Wednesday. A useful account of other games will be found in "Shrovetide Football and the Ashbourne Game" by Lindsey Porter, ISBN 1 84306 063 9, a 272 page book published by Landmark Publications.

Although it may come as a surprise to the casual spectator, the Ashbourne game has its own set of rules, with a committee to rule on any transgressions.  Since the goals are three miles apart and the game can continue in darkness until 10pm, there are plenty of opportunities for the players to bend the rules.  The use of a motor car to transport the ball as been known though is now forbidden.  There is more about the Ashbourne game on other web sites, so the reader is encouraged to visit them to learn more.  Type "shrovetide football" into Google, or try the following URLs:



An early description of football, dating from the 1660s, is to be found in Francis Willughby's "Book of Games".  My notes follow.

They blow a strong bladder and tie the neck of it as fast as they can, and then put it into the skin of a bull's cod and sew it fast in.

They play in a long street, or a close that has a gate at either end. The gates are called Goals, say A B, and C D. The ball is thrown up in the middle between the goals, as about O, the players being equally divided according to their strength and nimbleness. The players at A must kick the ball towards C D goal, those at C towards A B goal. They that can strike the ball through their opponents' goal first win. They usually leave some of their best players to guard the goal while the rest follow the ball.

They often break one another's shins when two meet and strike both together against the ball, and therefore there is a law that they must not strike higher than the ball.

"Tripping Up of Heels"' is when one follows one of his opponents and (to prevent him from striking the ball) strikes that foot as he runs, that is from the ground, which - catching against the other foot - makes him fall.

The trick is to hit that foot that is moving and just taken from the ground, and then a little touch makes him fall. Suppose A foot fixed, B moving from N to M. If it be struck on the outside before it comes to C, just against the fixed foot, it falls across behind the fixed foot at L and makes him fall.

The harder the ball is blown, the better it flies. They used to put quicksilver into it sometimes to keep it from lying still.

The players must at first all stand at their goals, the ball lying just in the middle between them, and they that can run best get the first kick.


There are two simple illustrations in the original manuscript.  The first shows two goal positions and a point between them, with the goals labelled AB and CD. The second shows two feet.

The kick off (according to paragraph 2) is by "throwing up" the ball in the midway point between the goals.  The same terminology is used today in the Ashbourne game.  However, at Ashbourne the ball lands in the middle of the throng of players, whereas the final paragraph implies that the players in this game must rush from the goals.

Paragraph three has echoes of today's game, with players 'going over the ball' when making a tackle.

"Tripping Up of Heels" brings to mind the debate about hacking in the early years of association football.  Hacking was more than the 'trip' described above, usually consisting of a powerful kick at the opponents shins!


Reference: University of Nottingham Library, Middleton Collection Mi LM 14 p. 155

Francis Willughby's Book of Games: A Seventeenth-Century Treatise on Sports, Games and Pastimes
Edited by David Cram, University of Oxford, UK and Jeffrey L. Forgeng, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, USA, Dorothy Johnston, University of Nottingham, UK

Francis Willughby's Book of Games, published for the first time by Ashgate in 2003 (ISBN: 1859284604), is a remarkable work and an invaluable resource for anyone with an interest in early modern social history. Dating from the 1660s, it was left unfinished when the writer died in 1672 at the age of 36. Nevertheless, Willughby's manuscript, even in its unpolished form is a goldmine of detail providing a snapshot of mid seventeenth century life, language and culture. The manuscript itself lists a wide variety of sports, games and pastimes, including football, hurling, card games, tennis and children's games. As well as providing rules and a description of the various games (often with accompanying sketches to explain particular points) there are numerous fascinating snippets of related information (such as the care of fighting cocks), that bring the subject to life, whilst the section on children's games is particularly poignant. Besides the intrinsic interest of the subject matter, the fact that Willughby embarked on the project from a scientific perspective adds to the value of the book. Willughby had been admitted to the Royal Society in 1661 and for a number of years prior to that had been collaborating with the naturalist John Ray. It is clear that Willughby's Book of Games was highly influenced by his scientific pursuits and was an extension of his natural history work, utilising the same skills of systematic observation, description and classification. Providing not only a word-for word transcription of the Book of Games, this volume also contains a host of interpretative material to complement the original data. As well as a biography of Willughby and a detailed description of his manuscript, a substantial glossary of games and obsolete terms is provided, together with a bibliography of Willughby's literary remains and more general reference works. Taken together, this publication provides an unparalleled resource for scholars of early modern England.