It was fashionable, about 60 years ago, to say that childhood was a recent invention. In the past, it was argued, children’s lives were nasty, brutish and, often, short, deprived of the loving care and self-expression of modern times. That theory ignored what people in previous centuries actually thought – and wrote – about children.


Human life in Tudor England was seen as a series of stages – the “seven ages of man”, famously summed up by William Shakespeare in As You Like It. Each age had its own character, and that of childhood – the ages of seven to 14 – was playfulness.

“I am called Childhood,” says a boy, in the words of Thomas More in the 1490s. “In play is all my mind, to cast a quoit, a throwing stick, and a ball… If only I could burn all my schoolbooks,” he continues, “then might I lead my life always in play.”

Tudor parents and educators did not, of course, approve of unrestricted play. Children had to learn good behaviour, religious duties and the skills needed for adult life. Some critics wanted to direct children’s play, or even to prevent it, but play persisted nonetheless.

Children invented their own playthings. Some toys were mass produced, to be sold in shops and at fairs. Spare time, on Sundays and the many holidays, was spent in social games. Every open space was used for activities such as running, chasing and ball games including tennis and football.

Dolls and action figures: for both girls and boys

Many parents bought toys for their children. Tudor family portraits depict babies with rattles, and dolls, known as “puppets” or “babies”, were common. These were easily made from scraps of fabric, or bought in the form of wooden truncheons with heads, which were then dressed. There are many references to girls playing with dolls, and mentions of boys doing so, too – some dolls were male figures.

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In 1599–1601, William Cavendish of Hardwick in Derbyshire bought dolls for his children, including his young son, James. Boys also played with dolls together. A children’s Latin dictionary of 1584 contains the sentence: “Thy puppets bring with thee, if thou wilt play with me.” This book was produced for use in a school classroom, which would have contained only boys.

Metal toys were also popular. Many have been discovered by detectorists on the Thames foreshore in London, but they were not limited to the capital. Some were flat human figures with widely splayed arms, dressed as gentlemen or gentlewomen. Fingers were inserted within the splays to manipulate the figures.

Coaches and horses were produced too: in 1601, a “little coach” was bought for James Cavendish, at a cost of 14 pence. There were miniature cauldrons, skillets, cups, ewers and dishes, as well. Cupboards and dressers have been found, stamped from sheets of pewter. These were bent or slotted into three-dimensional forms, much like modern model kits. Children used these toys in make-believe scenarios, based on what they knew of adult life.

Games of strategy and skill: for more sedentary playtime

Apollo Shroving, a play acted by the scholars of Hadleigh School, Suffolk in the 1620s, mentions a number of pastimes that would have been known to the boys. These included blow-point, dice, check-stones, football, hide and seek, leap-frog, morell (nine men’s morris), nine holes, quoits, mumble-the-peg, mumchance, scourge top, span-counter, spurn-point, tick-tack, trap-out and truss.

And these were just a few of the games that children in Tudor and early Stuart England played. Some games were sedentary, others more active. Boys and girls who wanted to play sitting down could easily find cherry stones for the flicking game of “cherry pit”. Or they might scratch a grid on to a pavement and use pieces of gravel to play nine men’s morris.

A game of chess, depicted in a 17th-century painting.
A game of chess, depicted in a 17th-century painting. Chess, along with dice, draughts and playing cards, was the preserve of wealthier people. (Image by Bridgeman)

Old coins were used in shove-ha’penny, or “shove groat” as it was known. The wealthier had access to dice, draughts, chess and playing cards. In the 1960s and 70s, excavations at the site of a Tudor grammar school in Coventry unearthed many metal tags and discs that had slipped through the floorboards, as well as some marbles. These tags were the currency used in children’s games.

In 1581, the guardian of Richard Fermor, a six-year-old orphan in Oxfordshire, paid three pence “for a dozen of points [tags] for him to play with”, and four pence for “two little boxes to keep his points and counters in”. A further two pence was spent “for pins for him to play with at Christmas”.

Chasing games: from “base” to “hot cockles”

Running-and-chasing games were commonly known as “base” or “prisoners’ base”. In Cymbeline, Shakespeare mentions “lads more like to run the country base” than to fight in a battle. The Oxford scholar Gerald Langbaine recalled the rhyming dialogue that preceded a chase when he was a schoolboy in the 1620s:

Chased: Pe, pe, postola, How many miles to Beverley?

Chaser: Eight, eight, and other eight.

Chased: Think you I shall get thither tonight?

Chaser: Yes, if your horse be good and light After these lines were recited, the chase began.

A portrait of a group of Tudors plays blind man's buff.
The tag-like game blind man’s buff is played at Athelhampton House in Dorset in this lithograph. (Image by Bridgeman)

The rhyme is interesting because it resembles one recorded in a sermon of the 13th century. This indicates that children’s customs were passed down through the generations, though wordings and rules might change from time to time. Other active games recorded before 1600 included “king-by-your-leave” and blind man’s buff, both of which involved a player being blindfolded.

The first of these is described in Richard Huloet’s 16th-century Latin dictionary: “King-by-your-leave: a play that children have, where one sitting blindfold in the middle hideth so till the rest have hidden themselves, and he then going to seek them, if any get his place in the mean space, that same is king in his room.”

In another variant, “hot cockles”, a player lay or knelt with their eyes covered, and tried to guess which player struck them on the back. This may have led to a chase, as it did when I played it in the 1940s.

Ball games and brawling: rough-and-tumble for older children

As children grew older, they played more strenuous games. John Stow, the Elizabethan historian of London, described youths there “leaping, dancing, shooting, wrestling, casting of the stone or ball” during holidays.

Wrestling was a widely popular activity among boys. The Cornish historian Richard Carew, writing in 1602, noted that it was common in the west of England: “You shall hardly find an assembly of boys in Devon and Cornwall where the most untowardly [awkward] will not as readily give you a muster [display] of this exercise as you are prone to require it”.

Each combatant stripped to his doublet and hose, then took hold of his opponent; only holds above the waist were lawful. The aim was to cast down the opponent so that at least one shoulder and one foot made contact with the ground.

Ball games, which attracted large numbers of boys and youths, probably took different forms from place to place. One variety that Carew termed “hurling” was, in fact, chiefly a form of hand-ball; in his description, he does not mention kicking. This game was played in a limited area with two goals. There were recognised rules, including an offside convention.

This sport also took place across country, with no restriction on the number of players, nor much in the way of rules. The struggles, said Carew, went “over hills, dales, hedges, ditches, yea, and through bushes, briars, mires, plashes, and rivers, so as you shall sometimes see 20 or 30 lie tugging together in the water”. The result was often “bloody pates, bones broken and out of joint, and such bruises as serve to shorten their days”.

Sport in schools: with a focus on learning, not leisure

Since the 19th century, games have been seen as an important part of education. Thomas Hughes’ 1857 novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays, for instance, extols the virtues of rugby and cricket for building manliness and team spirit. Tudor writers on education who discussed games mainly did so in treatises aimed at the aristocracy.

Because the nobility and gentry still led the nation’s armed forces, their sons were supposed to be trained to ride and be physically fit. Swordfighting, wrestling and swimming were recommended. Hunting was encouraged, too, to develop not only physical endurance but strategic skills: a hunter had to anticipate the wiles of the deer or the fox.

However, interest in pupils playing sports was lacking in most Tudor schools compared with their modern equivalents. Their business was to teach reading and Latin, not games. Timetable hours mirrored those of adult workers, starting soon after dawn and ending in late afternoon, with intervals for breakfast and midday dinner.

Most school pupils were day boys, so their play took place outside school hours, and was nothing to do with the school. One writer mentions whipping tops, playing cards and dice, throwing stones and, in winter, snowballing or sliding on ice. Only at boarding schools did provision need to be made for boys staying on site.

Eton College and Winchester both allocated time for play, usually in the afternoon. At the former, prefects were appointed to supervise the boys “in the field, when they play”, to guard against fighting, torn clothes, or black eyes. They played games including handball, football, quoits and an early kind of or rounders.

Banning games: when teenagers fell foul of authorities

The authorities in Tudor England took no interest in the play of small children. They did, however, try to control that of teenagers, for several reasons. The church disliked gambling and, though children were never required to attend services, teenagers were expected to do so. If playing games resulted in absence from church, it was frowned upon.

And, as Puritanism grew in influence after the Reformation, some people disapproved of any kind of merrymaking on Sundays. The lay authorities also had views on play, particularly ball games. “Tennis” – a term covering a variety of games based on hitting balls against walls – damaged property, especially windows.

Football was seen as socially subversive because, as with hurling, it gave no concession to rank, and disturbed public life. One Puritan writer, Philip Stubbes, complained in 1583 that football caused injuries and led to “envy, malice, rancour, choler, hatred, displeasure, enmity, and what not else”.

Allowing youths to play games was seen as encouraging them in idleness and criminal behaviour. A parliamentary statute of 1495 forbade apprentices, servants and labourers from playing backgammon for any stake except in the form of food or drink.

Other games were banned completely for such people, except at Christmas – and even then could be played only in their masters’ houses. These included tennis, closh (similar to modern-day croquet), bowls, dice and cards. Fines were levied on transgressors, including employers who winked at the practice.

Archery: a must-play practice for the defence of the realm

One of the crown’s grievances about games was that they could distract the male population from the practice of archery with longbows. Tudor England had no professional army, so the defence of the realm, the keeping of peace and the mounting of expeditions abroad depended on amateur soldiers led by the nobility and gentry.

Until the later part of the Tudor era, when handguns became widely available, ensuring a supply of good archers seemed essential. The longbow was part of the national heritage – its virtues exemplified in the tales of Robin Hood, whose exploits were recounted in hugely popular ballads and plays during the 16th and 17th centuries.

A Tudor longbowman, shown in a contemporary woodcut
Tudor longbowmen, shown in a contemporary woodcut. Officials worried that frivolous games might distract boys from learning vital skills. (Image by Alamy)

Accordingly, Tudor governments sought to maintain the skill of archery in the male population, and considered other games to be unwelcome distractions. In 1512, parliament ordered that every man up to the age of 60 should possess a bow and arrows, and must practise using them. Each male child aged between seven and 17 was to be provided with a bow and two arrows, and to be taught the skill of archery.

Targets, known as butts, were to be set up in towns to enable practice, and competing games were to be suppressed. However, as was the case with so many Tudor attempts to meddle in everyday life, the impact of these policies was limited. Complaints that the statute was being ignored continued throughout the century.

Roger Ascham wrote a whole book, Toxophilus (1545), to explain and encourage the use of the weapon – to little effect. By 1603, historian Richard Carew was lamenting that longbows were getting smoky, being left hung up over fireplaces.

In the end, what children wanted prevailed over the wishes of adults. That, in itself, ought to make us take Tudor children and their experiences more seriously.


This article was first published in the April 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine