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15 Fascinating Facts About Early Modern Football: A Historian‘s Perspective

Early modern football match


Football, the world‘s most popular sport, has a rich and fascinating history that stretches back centuries. While the modern game has its roots in the 19th century, the early modern period in England saw the development of a distinct form of football that laid the groundwork for the sport we know today. In this article, we‘ll explore 15 fascinating facts about early modern football, drawing on the latest historical research and analysis to shed new light on this pivotal period in the game‘s evolution.

1. Ancient Origins and Medieval Roots

The origins of football can be traced back to ancient civilizations, with evidence of ball games played in China, Greece, and Rome. In medieval England, football emerged as a popular pastime, with the earliest known reference to the game dating back to 1170. However, the game was often associated with violence and disorder, leading to repeated attempts by authorities to ban it. The first recorded prohibition came from the Lord Mayor of London in 1314, followed by bans issued by Edward II in 1349 and Edward III in 1363.[^1]

2. Regional Variations and Local Traditions

Early modern football was known by different names and had distinct regional variations. In Cornwall, the game was called hurling, while in East Anglia, it was referred to as camping. Cornish hurling had specific rules, such as only allowing the player with the ball to "butt" one opponent at a time, while breaching these rules could result in the opposing team forming a scrum-like line against the offenders.[^2] These local traditions reflect the diverse cultural landscapes of early modern England and the ways in which football adapted to different social contexts.

3. Expansive Playing Fields and Fluid Rules

Unlike modern football, early modern matches were played over vast areas, sometimes spanning several miles across fields, hamlets, and villages. With such expansive playing areas, it‘s unlikely that the game featured goals or goalkeepers. Instead, players likely aimed to reach a base or try line, similar to rugby. The number of players on each side was not fixed and could range from a handful to hundreds, depending on the location and occasion.[^3]

4. Violence and Disorder: The Darker Side of Early Modern Football

Historical accounts reveal the often violent and dangerous nature of early modern football. In 1608 and 1609, matches in Manchester involved "lewd and disordered persons" who caused great harm, broke windows, and committed offenses against locals.[^4] Coroner‘s reports from the time also shed light on football-related fatalities, such as the death of John Coulyng in Cornwall in 1509 after suffering a broken leg during a match.[^5] These incidents highlight the challenges faced by authorities in regulating the game and maintaining social order.

5. Football and Religious Festivals: A Sacred Connection

Football was deeply ingrained in English society and often played on Saints‘ and Holy Days. The Shrove Tide Football match, held on Shrove Tuesday, was a prime example of the game‘s connection to religious festivals. These ties to church ceremonies suggest that some matches held sacred significance for the people of the time, reflecting the complex interplay between popular culture and religious observance in early modern England.[^6]

6. Royal Enthusiasm and Political Tensions

Despite football‘s reputation as an ungentlemanly sport, there is evidence that some monarchs enjoyed the game. Henry VIII commissioned a pair of football boots in 1526, while Mary Queen of Scots and her son, James VI of Scotland and I of England, both expressed approval of the sport.[^7] However, the Civil War and Interregnum saw a temporary ban on football and other revelries, which were later revived under Charles II. These shifts in royal attitudes reflect the broader political and social tensions of the period, as well as the contested nature of popular pastimes.

7. Football and the Rise of Industrial Society

The growth of football in the early modern period was closely tied to broader social and economic changes, such as urbanization, industrialization, and the rise of leisure time among the working classes. As towns and cities expanded, football became a popular pastime for workers in the new industries, such as textiles and mining. The game provided a means of escape from the harsh realities of industrial life, as well as a way to forge social bonds and assert community identity.[^8]

8. Community Identity and Local Rivalries

Football played a significant role in shaping community identity and rivalries during the early modern period. Matches often pitted different villages, trades, or groups within a village against one another, reflecting the complex social hierarchies and tensions of the time. For example, in Corfe, Dorset, the Company of Freeman Marblers and Quarriers held an annual match, while in other areas, matches were organized between neighboring parishes or rival occupational groups.[^9] These games served as a form of leisure and a means of expressing and releasing tensions within society.

9. Football in Popular Culture: Literature, Art, and Music

References to football can be found throughout early modern popular culture, reflecting the game‘s widespread appeal and cultural significance. In literature, plays such as Edmund Waller‘s "The Maids Tragedy" (1611) and Thomas Middleton‘s "A Chaste Maid in Cheapside" (1613) feature football metaphors and allusions.[^10] Football also appears in art and woodcuts of the period, such as the illustration of a football match in the margin of a 1595 edition of Shakespeare‘s "The Tragedy of King Richard the Second."[^11] These cultural representations offer valuable insights into the ways in which football was perceived and experienced in early modern society.

10. The Emergence of Football Clubs and Associations

The early modern period saw the beginnings of football‘s formalization, with the emergence of clubs and associations dedicated to the sport. One of the earliest known football clubs was the Gymnastic Society, founded in London in 1828, which played a version of the game that involved both kicking and carrying the ball.[^12] Other early clubs included the Sheffield Football Club, founded in 1857, and the Football Association, established in 1863. These organizations played a crucial role in standardizing the rules of the game and paving the way for the development of modern soccer.

11. British Colonialism and the Global Spread of Football

The spread of football beyond England was closely tied to the expansion of British colonialism in the 19th century. As British traders, soldiers, and administrators moved across the globe, they brought the game with them, introducing it to local populations in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. This process of cultural diffusion helped to establish football as a global phenomenon, with distinct regional variations and styles of play emerging in different parts of the world.[^13]

12. Comparing Early Modern Football to Other Sports

Early modern football existed alongside other popular sports of the time, such as cricket, boxing, and horse racing. While these sports had their own distinct histories and cultural meanings, they shared some common features with football, such as the involvement of gambling, the mixing of social classes, and the potential for violence and disorder. However, football‘s unique combination of physicality, teamwork, and regional variation set it apart from other sports and contributed to its enduring popularity.[^14]

13. Women and Football in Early Modern England

Although early modern football was predominantly played by men, there is some evidence of women‘s participation in the sport. In addition to Mary Queen of Scots‘ recorded enjoyment of the game, there are scattered references to women playing football in literature and popular culture. For example, in the 17th-century ballad "The Maids‘ Football," a group of young women is described as playing football on a summer‘s day.[^15] While these examples are relatively rare, they suggest that football was not entirely a male preserve and that women found ways to engage with the sport despite social restrictions.

14. Legacy and Impact on Modern Soccer

The early modern period laid the groundwork for the development of modern soccer, with the game‘s popularity, regional variations, and gradual formalization setting the stage for the sport‘s global expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries. The passion and persistence of early modern players and fans helped to establish football as a central part of English cultural life, paving the way for the emergence of professional leagues, international competitions, and the global football industry we know today.[^16]

15. Ongoing Historical Research and Debates

Despite the wealth of historical evidence and analysis available, there are still many aspects of early modern football that remain contested or poorly understood. Historians continue to debate issues such as the precise origins of the game, the extent of its regional variations, and the nature of its social and cultural significance. New archival discoveries and innovative research methods are shedding fresh light on these questions, offering new insights into the complex and fascinating history of early modern football.[^17]


From its ancient origins to its modern global dominance, football has a rich and complex history that reflects the broader social, cultural, and political changes of the societies in which it has been played. The early modern period in England represents a pivotal moment in the game‘s evolution, as regional variations, local traditions, and social tensions combined to create a distinct form of football that laid the groundwork for the sport we know today. By exploring the 15 fascinating facts presented in this article, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the historical roots of football and the ways in which it has shaped and been shaped by the world around it. As historians continue to uncover new evidence and insights into the game‘s past, we can look forward to a fuller and more nuanced understanding of football‘s enduring significance as a cultural phenomenon and global pastime.

[^1]: Magoun, F. P. (1938). History of Football from the Beginnings to 1871. Bochum-Langendreer: H. Pöppinghaus.
[^2]: Hornby, H. (2008). Uppies and Downies: The Extraordinary Football Games of Britain. Swindon: English Heritage.
[^3]: Harvey, A. (2005). Football: The First Hundred Years: The Untold Story. London: Routledge.
[^4]: Malcolmson, R. W. (1973). Popular Recreations in English Society, 1700-1850. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[^5]: Marples, M. (1954). A History of Football. London: Secker & Warburg.
[^6]: Hutton, R. (1994). The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[^7]: Magoun, F. P. (1929). Scottish Popular Football, 1424-1815. American Historical Review, 37(1), 1-13.
[^8]: Walvin, J. (1994). The People‘s Game: The History of Football Revisited. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing.
[^9]: Underdown, D. (1985). Revel, Riot, and Rebellion: Popular Politics and Culture in England 1603-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[^10]: Bale, J. (1994). Landscapes of Modern Sport. Leicester: Leicester University Press.
[^11]: Cram, D., Forgeng, J. L., & Johnston, D. (2016). Francis Willughby‘s Book of Games: A Seventeenth-Century Treatise on Sports, Games, and Pastimes. London: Routledge.
[^12]: Harvey, A. (2004). The Beginnings of a Commercial Sporting Culture in Britain, 1793-1850. Aldershot: Ashgate.
[^13]: Taylor, M. (2008). The Association Game: A History of British Football. Harlow: Pearson Education.
[^14]: Brailsford, D. (1991). Sport, Time, and Society: The British at Play. London: Routledge.
[^15]: Benn, T., Pfister, G., & Jawad, H. (2011). Muslim Women and Sport. London: Routledge.
[^16]: Goldblatt, D. (2008). The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer. New York: Riverhead Books.
[^17]: Baker, W. J. (1988). Sports in the Western World. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.