Bad sports? Puritan attempts to ban games in 17th-century England

Alistair Dougall describes how Puritan attempts to ban games such as football, wrestling and bowling divided the people of England in the 17th century.

This article was first published in 2013

A 17th-century woodcut shows people dancing around the maypole. (Topfoto)

When London hosted the 2012 Olympics, the nation united behind what David Cameron described as “the greatest show on Earth”. Four hundred years earlier, in 1612, the Cotswolds hosted its own form of olympics, but, not only was it on a vastly smaller scale, it also took place at a time when, far from uniting people, sports and their celebration were hugely divisive. 

Organised by a local lawyer, Robert Dover, the ‘Cotswold Olimpicks’ were held at a natural amphitheatre now known as Dover’s Hill. The Olimpicks became an annual event, with participants competing in sports that included wrestling, pike-throwing, leaping, running and hunting. 

Dover’s Olimpicks seem to have been designed, in part, to revive the sort of communal festivities that had been held throughout medieval England. May games, ales and wakes were all forms of communal celebration that reinforced neighbourly bonds.

They took place after church on Sundays and holy days, and provided opportunities to feast, dance and play sports such as football, handball, running, bowling, archery and wrestling. Cock fighting and bear-baiting were also common entertainments. 

However, the crown wanted men to focus on archery on Sundays, and numerous acts tried to prevent them from indulging in other sports.

Typical of these is a 1365 decree that forbade men from playing “handball, football, club ball, cock fighting or other vain games of no value” in the hope that they would instead practise the archery skills that were seen as vital to the country’s defence.

 

Day of leisure

When holy days were banned during the English Reformation, Sunday became the day of leisure. Although church attendance now became compulsory, the church remained relaxed about what parishioners did after the church service. 

Yet all that changed with the emergence of so-called Puritans in the late 16th century. Puritans were members of the established church, but believed zealously that both church and society needed further reform.

As a contemporary pamphleteer observed, they were the “hotter sorte of Protestants”. They contended that people should devote Sunday entirely to God, and sought to suppress any form of recreation on the ‘Lord’s Day’. They therefore gained a reputation as killjoys who condemned traditional revelry as either papist or pagan in origin and as an occasion of temptation and sin. 

The Elizabethan clergymen, Richard Greenham and Nicholas Bownd, led the Puritan attack, insisting that no sports whatsoever were permissible on Sundays. Directly challenging established royal legislation, they argued that Sunday was “no fit time” for archery practice and declared that men “must not come to Church with their bowes and arrows in their hands”.  

 

“Filthie exercises”

Numerous Puritan writers denounced all manner of sports as Sabbath profanations. Phillip Stubbes, for example, claimed that wakes led to days of “drunkennesse, whoredome, gluttony, and other filthie sodomiticall exercises”. He also attacked the May custom of going into the woods to collect garlands to adorn houses and maypoles as opportunities for fornication, claiming that of the many young women who went into the woods scarcely a third returned “undefiled”. 

Puritan assertions that these festivities led to debauchery were grossly exaggerated; certainly, there was no discernible increase in illegitimate births following May celebrations. However, ales and wakes could easily get out of hand.

Fuelled by drink, fights often broke out, as in 1614 when men from neighbouring parishes fought each other at May games held in Longdon, Worcestershire. The following year a man was killed in fighting at a Devonshire ale. Disorder was so common that, in Lancashire, the eve of May Day was called ‘mischief night’.

The Puritan attacks on revels came at a time of mounting anxiety over social order, as inflation and population growth led to an alarming increase in poverty. Puritan calls for reform added to these secular concerns about potential disorder, and caused many local magistrates to attempt to restrict popular festivity.

Consequently, ales and wakes steadily declined in many parts of the country. 

The suppression of traditional revels increased tensions within English society. Maypoles, which had historically been symbols of a united community, now somehow represented the struggle between those who were seeking to suppress popular revelry and those who sought to defend it.

Indeed, the decision by many town authorities to ban maypoles frequently led to clashes with sections of the local community. In Shrewsbury, for example, several people were jailed when they struggled with officials taking down the town’s maypole, and the banning of the maypole in Canterbury prompted a group of morris men to dance outside the mayor’s house in protest. 

Yet the dancers had one very influential player on their side: the crown. Elizabeth I herself attended bear-baitings, danced in May celebrations, and allowed a wrestling match to take place in the royal chapel.


James I. (Alamy)

Elizabeth’s successor, James I, was even more in thrall to sport. He wrote approvingly of pastimes such as wrestling, leaping, running and “other faire and pleasant field-games”. He also gave some of his own clothes – including a hat, feather and ruff – to Robert Dover “to grace him and consequently the solemnity” of the Cotswold Olimpicks.

Dover even opened his games wearing James’s clothes to signify the royal endorsement. And, while Elizabeth I never made any formal declaration about recreations, James oversaw a dramatic change in policy. 

In 1616, Puritan magistrates in Lancashire backed an order forbidding recreations after church on Sundays. The following year, as James I was passing through Lancashire on his way to be entertained by Sir Richard Hoghton at Hoghton Tower, he was petitioned by locals omplaining about the order against their traditional Sunday recreations.

James, who disliked Puritanism, made a speech about “honest recreation” and, a few days later, issued a declaration “Concerning Lawful Sports” which licensed the playing in Lancashire of certain sports on Sundays.

James’s Book of Sports – as it came to be known – stated the official view of the crown on the matter of Sunday recreation. Although bull-baiting and bowling were not permitted, as they often led to excessive gambling, people were expressly allowed to take part in dancing, archery, leaping, vaulting and “anie such harmeles recreation” after they had attended church. In 1618, James issued a similar declaration for the whole country. 

Many people were scandalised by the licence that the king had given to Sunday recreations. Among them was a Yorkshire minister, William Clough, who told his congregation: “The king of Heauen doth bid you keepe his Sabboath… the king of England is a mortall man and he bids you breake it. Chuse whether of them you will followe.”

Yet, while some were outraged by James’s Book of Sports, others cited it to support their revelry. In Northampton, a Puritan woman who scolded servants for playing games on a Sunday was met with the response that they “must play upon the Sabboth... and obey the king’s laws in that point or else be hanged”.

She replied that “they might choose whether the king should hang them for not obeying him or the devil burn them for so breaking the Sabbath”.

In Exeter, a constable who tried to stop men playing trap-ball was defiantly told that “they played att noe unlawfull game and that the King [himself] did allowe it”. And, in Marlborough, a parishioner cited the “king’s book” when challenged for taking part in summer games.

Those who resented attempts to stop them enjoying traditional sports were, it seems, in little doubt as to who was to blame for the crackdown. While parishioners were in church at Albrighton, Staffordshire, a mob gathered outside beating drums, firing guns and shouting: “Come out, ye Puritans, come out”. 

Tensions between the two camps may have been running high during James’s reign, yet they were as nothing compared to the ill-feeling that would sweep the land once his son Charles I ascended the throne.

In October 1633, following moves to ban Sunday recreations by magistrates in Somerset, Charles issued an amended version of his father’s Book of Sports. Charles deeply disliked Puritans, and regarded their attempts to suppress traditional Sunday recreations as dangerous.

Charles’s father had prudently decided not to punish those ministers who refused to publish his declaration, but Charles was determined to assert his authority in this matter. He believed in the power of the pulpit, once telling his son that “people are governed by the pulpit more than the sword”. He therefore ordered clergymen to read out his Book of Sports in every parish church.

However, by 1633, political, social and religious tensions had increased considerably, and the enforcement of Charles’s declaration meant that the reaction to it was correspondingly more intense. 

 

Duly punished

Numerous Puritan ministers refused to read Charles’s Book of Sports, and were duly punished. Some bishops were zealous in rooting out dissenters. For example, Bishop Wren of Norwich suspended 30 ministers for refusing to read the declaration, while Bishop Piers of Bath and Wells suspended at least 25. Bishop Curle of Winchester reportedly suspended five ministers in a single day.

The fact is, most ministers did read the book, but even many moderate clergymen felt uncomfortable about promoting sports and revels from the pulpit. The Northamptonshire rector Nicholas Estwick recorded that the Book of Sports caused “distraction & griefe in many honest mens hearts”. He was particularly unhappy about condoning ales and May games, which he believed led to “sin & ... great disorder”. 

Charles’s declaration did not just offend the Puritans. Thomas May claimed that, although it allowed “country people… sports, and pastimes of jollity”, many people “were ashamed to be invited by the authority of Church-men, to … a thing of infirmity”. One such was Richard Conder, who had been addicted to playing football after church as a young man. When his minister read the Book of Sports from the parish pulpit, Conder had a dramatic change of heart, as he later recalled: “Now, thought I, iniquity is established by a law, and sinners are hardened in their sinful ways!” 

 

Short-lived revival

Having said this, the Book of Sports was popular with thousands of ordinary men and women who cherished their traditional way of life, and it gave many people the courage to hold revels again in places where they had previously been suppressed. Parishes in various parts of the country revived ales in the 1630s, and maypoles were once again set up in places like Symondsbury in Dorset, Dundry in Somerset and Birchington in Kent, where the church wardens had paid to take down the maypole in 1606.


A woodcut showing Elizabethans enjoying "a bloody and murthering" game of football. (Bridgeman Art Library)

Yet the revival in revelry was to prove short-lived. When, in April 1640, Charles I called his first parliament for 11 years, many MPs seized their opportunity to attack the Book of Sports. Puritan MPs pushed to impose strict Sabbath observance and, in September 1641, the Commons resolved that all sports on Sundays “be foreborne and restrained”. In May 1643, parliament ordered the burning of copies of the Book of Sports by the common hangman at Cheapside.

By then, the country was embroiled in a bitter civil war that forced people to choose sides. The Puritan Richard Baxter recorded that “People that were for the King’s Book, for Dancing and Recreation on the Lord’s Days… were against the Parliament”. In fact, many factors determined people’s allegiances in the war, but some undoubtedly fought to protect their traditional way of life.

They were right to see it as under threat.

The Cotswold Olimpicks were brought to a halt in 1643, and were not revived until after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Indeed, the Interregnum saw the banning of all ales, wakes and summer games, and it was only with the Restoration that people were once again free to enjoy their traditional revelry.

Charles II’s progress through London in May 1660 included a maypole and morris dancers and signalled the end of the suppression
of traditional festivity.

From an early 21st-century perspective, it is easy to see why the restoration of traditional festivities was accompanied by such widespread popular celebration. And it is perhaps fitting to end this account of how sport divided the English in the 17th century with the words of Robert Dover, written in a poem celebrating his own ‘Olimpick’ games: "And let Content and Mirth all those attend, That doe all harmless and honest sports defend!”

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