The ancient and ever controversial game of football (soccer)

December 2, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: history, sports.

Soccer, or what most of the world outside of America calls “football,” is once again in the headlines. It’s not just that the World Cup, the globe’s biggest sporting event, is underway. The headlines involve the politics of the sport, this year revolving around where it is being played.

Such controversies are nothing new. In fact, they are ancient.

The first few documentary references we have to football come from the 1300s when Edward II banned the playing of the game in 1314, and Edward III commanded that people participate in any other sport besides football in 1365. In fact, the game was frowned upon or banned numerous times throughout the following two centuries by officials from priests and mayors to monarchs.

The authorities of the 14th and 15th centuries weren’t just spoilsports. They had good reason for trying to stop the game from becoming popular. It could easily become disruptive, violent, and deadly. The game was played by groups or “teams,” much as it is now, but sometimes these groups had more on their minds than just winning a contest. They might involve families, villages, guilds, or what we might refer to as “gangs.” Generally, none of the members of these teams were members of the nobility. The life of the underclasses at that time offered little hope of advancement from an impoverished state, so the game could easily turn into a release for resentments or frustrations.

Scholars Steven Gunn and Tomasz Gromelski who have studied documents from the Tudor period and have a fascinating website at Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard in Sixteenth Century England have written:

We know that football was a popular sport in the sixteenth century, because governments kept trying to ban it to make men practise archery instead. We don’t know much about how it was played, though it did have regional names: camping in East Anglia, hurling in Cornwall.

On Sunday 4 February 1509, at Tregorden, Cornwall, sixty men were playing in a game of ‘whurlyng’ according, said the coroner’s jury, to ancient custom. John Coulyng of Bodieve, a village one mile west of Tregorden, ran very strongly and rapidly towards Nicholas Jaane of Benbole, a village two miles east of Tregorden, holding a ball in his right hand. They grappled and Nicholas threw John away from himself. John fell on the ground from the force of the tackle and broke the lesser part of his left leg. He died on 20 February, a classic football victim because nearly all matches seem to have taken place in that month.

So football was more like rugby or even American football – other accidents show that players could be tackled whether they had the ball or not – and could be played by large teams from neighbouring and perhaps rival villages. Players often wore knives at their belts and played on fields where they could fall onto stones or tree stumps. The authorities’ claim that it was dangerous as well as distracting, starts to make more sense.

Football continued to be controversial and often condemned throughout the Tudor era. When James I took over the thrones of England and Scotland in 1603, he made it clear that he enjoyed sports and encouraged people to play. This royal sanction was countered with the rise of Puritanism over the next half-century and the condemnation of such worldly pleasures as sports.

The popularity of football grew whether sanctioned or condemned, however, and by the Restoration period beginning in the 1660s, it had become part of the fabric of everyday life in England. The simplicity and elegance of the game has made it the most popular and the most played sport in the world.


Much of the information here comes from Football and the Tudors, an episode of the Not Just the Tudors podcast. 

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