Tudor Sports and Pastimes

In Tudor times sport was strictly controlled by the government. For example, only the upper classes were allowed to take part in tournaments. These involved two armoured knights separated by a four-foot-high wooden barrier. Each knight carried a lance and the objective was to knock your opponent off his horse as he galloped past.

Henry VIII was a skilled jouster. However, in 1536 he was seriously injured while jousting and was forced to retire from the sport. Henry also enjoyed playing tennis. In Tudor times tennis was played indoors and balls were made of leather shells filled with hair.

Henry was also a keen hunter. He often spent six hours a day hunting stags. Only nobles were allowed to hunt stags. Yeoman farmers could hunt foxes and everyone else hunted hares and rabbits.

It was important to the Tudor government that English people spent most of their time working. A law was passed in 1512 that banned ordinary people from a whole range of games including tennis, dice, cards, bowls and skittles.

In the early 1500s football became a popular sport in England. It was a very different game from the one played today. The two sets of goal posts were placed about a mile apart. There was no limit to the numbers that took part and players could kick, throw or pick up the ball in an attempt to put it between the opponent's goalposts.

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In 1531 the Puritan preacher, Thomas Eliot, argued that football caused "beastly fury and extreme violence". In 1572 the Bishop of Rochester demanded a new campaign to suppress this "evil game". In his book, Anatomy of Abuses (1583) Philip Stubbs argued that "football playing and other devilish pastimes.. withdraweth us from godliness, either upon the Sabbath or any other day." Stubbs was also concerned about the injuries that were taking place: "sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their legs, sometimes their arms, sometimes one part is thrust out of joint, sometimes the noses gush out with blood... Football encourages envy and hatred... sometimes fighting, murder and a great loss of blood."

In 1540 people in England were banned from playing football. Two years later more games were banned including a new popular activity called shuffleboard (shove-halfpenny). However, there were some people who thought that football was good for the health of young men. Richard Mulcaster, the headmaster of Merchant Taylors' School, wrote in 1581, that football had "great helps, both to health and strength." He added the game "strengtheneth and brawneth the whole body, and by provoking superfluities downward, it dischargeth the head, and upper parts, it is good for the bowels, and to drive the stone and gravel from both the bladder and kidneys."

The records show that young men refused to accept the banning of football. In 1589, Hugh Case and William Shurlock were fined 2s for playing football in St. Werburgh's cemetery during the vicar's sermon. Ten years later a group of men in a village in Essex were fined for playing football on a Sunday. Other prosecutions took place in Richmond, Bedford, Thirsk and Guisborough.

Local councils also banned the playing of football. However, young men continued to ignore local by-laws. In 1576 it was recorded in Ruislip that around a hundred people "assembled themselves unlawfully and played a certain unlawful game, called football". In Manchester in 1608 "a company of lewd and disordered persons... broke many men's windows" during an "unlawful" game of football. It was such a major problem that in 1618 the local council appointed special "football officers" to police these laws.

One pastime that all classes enjoyed in Tudor England was bear-baiting. Individual bears were chained to a post in a bear-ring. A group of dogs were then set on the bear. The dogs tried to kill the bear by biting its throat. A German visitor, Paul Hentzner, watched a blinded-bear forced to fight in London: "The bear cannot escape from them because of the chain; he defends himself with all his force and skill, throwing down all who come within his reach... and tearing the whips out of their hands and breaking them."

A woodcut of a bear-garden (c. 1620)
A woodcut of a bear-garden (c. 1620)

Henry VIII and Elizabeth both enjoyed watching bear-baiting. A ring was even built in the grounds of Whitehall so that the Tudor monarchs could watch bear-baiting from the windows of the palace. Queen Elizabeth went on her tours of England, towns put on large bear-baiting shows for her. When the House of Commons in 1585 voted to ban bear-baiting on Sunday, Elizabeth overruled them.

Elizabethans also enjoyed watching other cruel events, for example, bears-that had been blinded being whipped by five or six men. Another event involved donkeys and bulls being attacked by teams of fierce dogs.

People also paid to visit mental institutions like Bedlam Hospital in London, where they enjoyed watching the strange antics of the patients. Bedlam even hired out patients to appear as entertainers at weddings and banquets.

Primary Sources

(1) George Owen, describing the playing of football in Wales (c. 1550)

There is a round ball prepared... so that a man may hold it in his hand... The ball is made of wood and boiled in tallow to make it slippery and hard to hold... The ball is called a knappan, and one of the company hurls it into the air... He that gets the ball hurls it towards the goal... the knappan is tossed backwards and forwards... It is a strange sight to see a thousand or fifteen hundred men chasing after the knappan... The gamesters return home from this play with broken heads, black faces, bruised bodies and lame legs... Yet they laugh and joke and tell stories about how they broke their heads... without grudge or hatred."

(2) Philip Stubbs, The Anatomy of Abuses (1585)

Football is more a fight than a game... Sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their legs... Football encourages envy and hatred... sometimes fighting, murder and a great loss of blood.

(3) Paul Hentzner was a German who visited England in 1598. While he was in London he watched a blinded bear being whipped by a group of six men.

The bear cannot escape from them because of the chain; he defends himself with all his force and skill, throwing down all who come within his reach... and tearing the whips out of their hands and breaking them.

(4) On 16th June, 1670, John Evelyn recorded in his diary what he saw when he visited a bear-garden.

I went with some friends to the bear-garden... there was cock-fighting, dog-fighting, bear and bull-baiting... One of the bulls tossed a dog into a lady's lap, as she sat in one of the boxes at a considerable height from the arena. Two poor dogs were killed.

(5) Celia Fiennes visited Windsor Castle in 1698. While she was there she saw a race between two men. Each round was almost four miles.

They were to run it so often as to make up twenty-two miles... The English man gained the lead on the second round. He kept the lead until the fifth round and then the Scotch man came up... The English man fell down within a few yards of the post... many hundred pounds were won and lost about it.

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