The Super Bowl of medieval football: A brief history

A man crowd-surfs upside down while trying to catch a painted football.

The ritual game, eagerly awaited all year, is about to kick off. Two teams of burly dudes spoiling for a fight will line up to tussle over possession of a pigskin. Every inch the ball advances on either side will be paid for in mud and blood. For the lucky few who make it to the goal line, glory will be eternal.

We’re not talking about the Super Bowl. Nor is this rugby or soccer. The burly dudes number in the hundreds, the pitch stretches past the horizon, the game will take days. We’re talking about the great-grandaddy of all football sports, a people’s contest in which everyone in a community can play. And yet one so brutal and demanding, so wide-ranging and long-lasting, it makes the Super Bowl look like a tea party in a tent.

Welcome to the massively multiplayer and mostly rules-free world of medieval football — also known as “folk football” or “mob football.” Little remembered anywhere, forms of medieval football cling to life in just six provincial locations in the UK. Nearly all of them have been played once a year on Shrove Tuesday, the pancake-based feast that precedes Lent (in 2022, it falls on March 1), going back at least to the 12th century.

Like gridiron, this original form of football was played with the hands as well as feet (the name referred to players being on foot). In fact, it’s easy to see elements of medieval football in all the 19th century versions that sprung from it: Rugby (1845), Australian Rules (1859), Association or “soccer” (1863), American (1869) and Gaelic (1887).

Its raw energy was refined, the size of its scrums (sometimes known as “hugs”) were reduced, its violence was curbed, its playing area was condensed. Perhaps in future types of football, as suggested by SB Nation’s speculative fiction 17776, the game will go back in the other direction, and range across entire landscapes.

The people’s football

A sepia photograph of a man in a shop window throwing a ball out to the crowd.
Game on: Medieval football in my hometown circa 1920. Credit: Chester-le-Street Heritage Group

We don’t know exactly how far back the history of medieval football stretches — it could have been the “playing at ball” briefly mentioned in a 9th century history of Britain — and legends that it began with kicking around the severed heads of enemies have no basis in fact. What we know for sure is that elites spent centuries trying to get this most working-class tradition shut down. Kings from three separate English royal dynasties — Edward II, Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV, Edward IV, and Henry VIII — all issued edicts banning football, fearing the game distracted from the archery practice required to send men off to war.

None of the edicts were successful, suggesting games were widespread, frequent, and very popular. But by the 19th and 20th centuries, as more genteel rules-based forms of football began to take hold, merchants and lawmakers succeeded in shutting down a game that often damaged property in location after location.

The town I grew up in, Chester-le-Street in County Durham, northern England, was one of these locations. That’s where my interest in football’s raucous history began. The Shrove Tuesday game in this 1,100-year old town had been played since “time immemorial,” according to a newspaper from the 1850s, which noted that an attempt to shut it down had failed years earlier. The game was played on the town’s central artery, a hilly old Roman road called Front Street. The two team were the Upstreeters and the Downstreeters, with more than 200 people on each side, and the ball was thrown out at 1pm from a shop in the flat town center.

The winning side was the one that had the ball at 6:00 p.m. If other rules existed, we don’t know about them.

Sounds like a spectacle worth witnessing? Indeed it was. Even the collapse of a bridge full of spectators in 1891 had not dented Chester’s enthusiasm for the game. Finally, as in so many sports, money talked. Front Street shop owners were sick of having to board up their windows, and the game was banned permanently in 1932. Only one known photograph, above, remains. But that only increased my fascination. (And bafflement: Why not just hang back until 5:00 p.m., then chase whichever exhausted fool was running around with the ball? “They couldn’t afford tactics in those days,” my sister wryly suggested.)

For all its mayhem, medieval football seems to have been genuinely beloved by athletic amateurs forced to run really long distances. It was an ancient, ritual assertion of the public’s right to public space. In any case, to this kid it seemed more fascinating — and genuinely communal — than Premiere League matches played on a relatively tiny pitch between two teams of 11 millionaires.

Thus began my quest to find all the individual medieval football games that managed to evade history’s long series of bans, and find the rules that govern each. Here’s a quick tour, starting with the only version that truly retains the mass participation aspect of the original. Call it the Super Bowl of medieval football.

1. Ashbourne: The dream teams

Dozens of men chase a ball through a shallow stream
Up’ards vs. Down’ards fight for the ball in the river that divides the two sides. Credit: Peter McDiarmid / Getty Images

Locally, it’s known as hugball. But the full name of the game played every year in this rural Derbyshire town might give us a clue as to how it survived the cull: it’s called Royal Shrovetide Football. The future King Edward VIII threw out the ball in 1928, and Prince Charles did the same in 2003. The national anthem, alongside Auld Lang Syne, is sung every year while union jacks flutter from a purpose-built stone plinth in the town center.

The patriotic aspect may help explain why local merchants didn’t call for it to be shut down in the 1960s, after one match was literally played through Woolworths, a general store that participants briefly looted while passing through. (Nothing save manslaughter, or the use of a vehicle, is officially prohibited in the game rules.)

Turned out even Woolworths knew the truth of it: In Ashbourne, medieval football is life. Everyone in the town knows whether they are an “Up’ard” or a “Down’ard,” the dividing line being a river that runs through the middle. Runners train year round for the two days the game is played (Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday), preparing to deliver the ball to the opposing team’s goal, because the goals are three miles apart. (Both goals are on the sites of former mills, enhancing the working-class aspect of a game that has lasted for longer than Ashbourne’s own official records.)

The ceremonial ball is hand-painted each year with care and attention, even though the paint will be destroyed within minutes of the ball being thrown into the vast human sea of Up’ards and Down’ards; townspeople brag about having touched it by showing the paint under their fingernails. Those vast scrums are rough as mosh pits, complete with crowd-surfers diving in from walls and trees, all aggro and aching to get a touch.

Amped up on adrenaline, celebratory booze and pre-game motivational speeches, both sides of the river bring their A-game — even though the score, as in soccer, may well end in a draw. That’s what happened in the most recent game, in 2020; COVID cancelled the game in 2021, only the third time it hasn’t been played in known history. (The other two were due to foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks; the game continued through both World Wars; Ashbourne’s regiment played a version in France in World War I, and wrote home to insist that it continue in the town as before.)

There are simply too many fascinating details about the history of the Ashbourne game for one article, so I recommend this YouTube documentary — not least for the story of the schoolteacher and the kid who hid the ball in a hedge in 2019, producing a surprising 1-0 victory for the then-underdog Down’ards. Also worth your time are this shorter student documentary, and this video from a couple of British YouTube stars who got in the thick of 2016’s game.

You’ll notice that the modern version is beset by cameraphones and GoPro sticks, so feel free to time-hop back to 1936 or 1963 if you want to get closer to true medieval football.

2. Atherstone: Everyone for themselves

Men in flat caps stand around an Edwardian gentleman kicking a large ball to them.
Kickoff with Atherstone’s comically large ball in 1914 — year of the last pre-war game. Many of these men would go direct to the trenches. Credit: Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

If Ashbourne represents the positive side of medieval football — where the team camaraderie, strategy and athletic ability outweigh the hard knocks — then Atherstone in Warwickshire is its evil shadow. Because the Atherstone Ball Game, as it’s known, has no teams. The winner is the individual holding the ball when the whistle blows at 5:00 p.m., two hours after the ball is thrown out from the town’s Conservative Club. This leads to what you might call the most on-the-nose visual metaphor for unrestricted capitalism: A bloodthirsty mob where everyone is fighting for themselves.

The Atherstone game comes with a comically large ball — all the better to make it hard for one person to hold on to — and boasts a colorful medieval origin story (it celebrates a football match played with a bag of gold against a neighboring county, which lost, in 1199). But don’t let that fool you. Watch Atherstone clips from the last few years on YouTube, and you’ll not fail to notice the blood, the punches, the clothes-ripping, the crying girl stuck behind her mother against a wall, the crowd that rips boarding and electrical wiring off the front of a bookshop to get at the ball-holder hiding in its doorway.

Violence has long been endemic to this style of game, and the local council has been trying to curtail it for over a century. A proposed 1901 ban failed to get enough votes. Formerly played throughout Atherstone, the game was restricted to its main drag, Long Street, in the 1970s. That just made Long Street a powder keg. In 1986, more violence led to complaints and the formation of a Ball Game committee, which led to stewards in reflective jackets mixing in with the crowd. In 2020, one of these stewards had a stunning total of five cardiac arrests, and the game was abandoned halfway through.

In 2021, COVID did what World Wars and bubonic plague and the local council could not: shut down the annual Atherstone game for the first time since 1199. So, all eyes on the mood in the town when it returns on March 1 — and the ball will be thrown out this year by the steward who survived his heart attacks. (This is a good point to suggest that medieval football could not have any hope of surviving its many injuries in a country that didn’t have universal healthcare.)

3. Alnwick: Too much pitch

Men and boys kick a ball through a goal decorated with branches.
Out in the fields: The Alnwick game in 1937. Credit: Staff / Mirrorpix / Getty Images

Here’s what happens when the aristocracy succeeds in taming a game of medieval football. Before the 1820s, Alnwick’s annual Shrovetide game (between the parish of St Michael and the parish of St. Paul, with around 150 players a side) was played in the streets of this Northumberland town. After that, the Duke of Northumberland — who threw out the ball from the barbican of his castle — insisted that the ball only be paraded through the town and played in a local field instead, led there by a bagpiper.

The result isn’t that thrilling, alas (although sometimes the field does get nice and muddy), and the number of players appears to have been steadily declining over the years. Recent years have seen roughly 50 players a side. The goals, decorated with leaves and known as hales, sit 400 yards apart. That’s four times the size of a standard soccer pitch, but a mere 1/20th the size of Ashbourne’s play area. The winning side is the first to score two goals, and the player who gets to keep the ball is the first one to retrieve it from the nearby river Aln.

4. Corfe Castle and Sedgefield: Small ball

Men in flat caps kick a ball through the street of a town with a castle on a hill.
Corfe Castle players have a kickabout in 1939, oblivious to approaching war. Credit: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Medieval football in Devon’s Corfe Castle celebrates the rights of stonecutters to use an ancient path around the town. Still, these days, the locals describe it as “just a kick about” with around 40 players, all members of a local stonecutter guild. (It doesn’t seem to have attracted much more interest in 1939, if the above photo is anything to go on.)

Back in my homeland of County Durham, there’s a game in the town of Sedgefield — Tony Blair’s old constituency — that has a slightly higher turnout and more rules. Like Atherstone, it’s a game for individuals. The winner is the first to take the ball (comically small this time, like a baseball) to a river a half-mile away, then return to the town center where they must pass the ball three times through a bull ring locked to a paving stone.

5. Scotland: Play Ba!

A large group of men jostle for a ball outside a town hall.
It’s the Uppies vs. the Doonies in the Orkneys! Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Naturally, the Scots put their own spin on medieval football (or as it’s known north of the border, “Ba.”). They play around Christmas or New Year, not Shrovetide. In the towns of Duns and Scone, Ba is played between one team of married men and one team of bachelors. In Jedburgh, and Kirkwall on the remote island of Orkney, the “Uppies” or uptown families face off against the “Doonies,” with a boy’s version of the game played before the men take the field. Jedburgh has another comically small ball and slim turnout.

But the Kirkwall Ba game, featuring an Ashbourne-like full-sized ball and goals on opposite ends of the island town (the Doonies’ goal is to kick it into the sea), has become increasingly popular in recent years. Up to 500 players participate in a town of 6,000. COVID cancelled the 2022 game, but Ba will be back in 2023. Perhaps by then the organizers might consider reinstating a surprisingly progressive version of the game played in Kirkwall after World War II, and seen nowhere else in the British Isles: Women’s Ba.

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