Shakespeare had a word to say about most things but it may come as a surprise to modern fans that he mentions football on more than one occasion, when the game was far from beautiful.
In the play, King Lear, one character calls another, “A base foot-ball player,” and in Comedy of Errors someone complains, ”Am I so round with you…that like a foot-ball you do spurn me thus…you must case me in leather?”
By the time the Bard was writing lines like these, the game of “ball-foot,” “fute-ball,” or foot-ball,” was well established in Britain. There was a version called “Camp-ball.” One can only be thankful that the name didn’t catch on, although the phrase, “hand-bags at ten paces,” obviously survived.
The word “game” is old English for “fight” and early contests were certainly that, a huge brawl over an area where the “goals” could be several hundred yards apart or several miles.
There was a ball, made out of leather, stuffed with horsehair or a pig’s bladder filled with dried peas. It was the Elizabethans who later invented the inflatable bladder inside a leather case.
The earliest written confirmation that the ball was kicked comes from an Anglo-French Bishop of Lincoln (who may have been at the match for his own personal reasons) when he described, ”Four and twenty bonny boys, were playing at the ball…he kicked the ball with his right foot.” Which seems to indicate that pretty footballers have always been popular and that there was a shortage of left-sided players even then.
The stream of Geordie players started in the 13th century when a Northumberland man killed an opposition player with his dagger, his plea being that the other man had “run against it.” There were no shortages of West Country hard men, either. In 1283 a Cornish player killed another with a stone to the head. In Oxford it was alleged that a player was, “killed by Irish students while playing foot-ball in the High Street.”
Mediaeval mob-football was organized mayhem. No rules (except to “score.”) no fair play and no Referees. Numerous laws were decreed to ban it, few of which proved successful.
King Edward II thundered, “There is an uproar …arising from the great striking of foot-balls, from which many evils shall arise. We do forbid, upon pain of punishment that such games shall be practised in the city.”
Football was banned in the City of Leicester. (Quiet at the back, please) and at Westminster, “When ye Parliamente is sitting.”
No government would attempt to pass that statute to day. Not if it wanted to remain in office.
By the 15th century, town “teams” appeared and Premiership chairmen will be depressed to know that you could buy a whole team for 20 pence.
Football boots appeared around 1526 and King Henry VIII ordered a pair. He also ordered 45 pairs of velvet shoes, so he wasn’t that keen. Although, being King, it was probably difficult to keep him off the team sheet.
Referees, of a sort, appeared by 1581 and it was, perhaps not surprisingly, an English headmaster who first offered to referee, “for small teams, playing in formation.”
Whatever the formation was, there are no Elizabethan references to 4-1-4-1.
There is a 16th century Scots poem, perhaps written by a McCoyle, which goes: “Bruised muscles and broken bones, discordant strife and futile blows, lamed in old age, then crippled withal. These are the beauties of football.” Nothing’s changed there, then.
“Pitches” arrived in an attempt to limit the carnage and “goals” (generally a gateway) with Elizabethan “Beasts” to guard them and new rules stated that you couldn’t kick higher than the ball. (Hah!)
With games lasting up to four hours the players would resort to the tavern for a little refreshment before the carnage continued. The first “Footballer’s Arms.”?
It wasn’t until 1870 that pushing players in the back was forbidden. Sadly this still doesn’t seem to have been taken on-board.
Sober or not, it would have taken a brave man to foul Henry VIII.
Especially when he was wearing his new Fute-ball bootes.