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Historian Reveals that Cromwellian Christmas Football Rebels Ran Riot

Originally Published 17 December 2003
Professor Bernard Capp
Professor Bernard Capp

When the Puritans established themselves in power after the civil war, the new regime not only abolished Christmas but also banned sports deemed ‘disorderly’. However, new research by historian Professor Bernard Capp from the University of Warwick reveals that Christmas Scrooge rebels responded to the bar on festive celebrations by playing football as a symbol of misrule, and that winter and Easter ‘football riots’ were fairly common in the 17th century.

While sifting through old archives Professor Capp uncovered pamphlets from the Puritan Revolution outlining examples of how football was used as a rebellious force against the festive bans on Christmas and Easter. For example, when the Mayor of Canterbury proclaimed the ban on Christmas in December 1647, the crowd responded by bringing out footballs as a traditional symbol of festive misrule.

In January 1660 13 footballers were prosecuted at Scarborough, and one of them, who was employed by the town bailiff, whose authority the players had defied, was sentenced to sit in the stocks as a form of public humiliation. At the other end of the country, Bristol apprentices rioted on Shrove Tuesday when authorities banned their traditional sports of football and cock-throwing.

Professor Bernard Capp, from the University of Warwick, said: "In the Puritan Revolution football became a flashpoint for social and political tensions between Puritan authorities and their enemies. Football originated as a seasonal sport, often played between rival villages on Shrove Tuesday or Easter, so during traditional times of seasonal festivities, which were then prohibited, such as during Christmas or before Lent, differences flared."

"In Tudor and Stuart times footballers often played on Sundays, the only regular day off work. This triggered open conflict between young folk and Puritans determined to impose a strict Sabbath by suppressing all profane activities on that day. Church records cite frequent deliberate confrontations, with footballers playing in the Churchyard itself, despite the bumpy pitch, and sometimes even when a service was in progress. Once a minister was so exasperated he even broke off a sermon and stormed out to confiscate a ball."

Young men were occasionally prosecuted throughout the 1650s for playing football, but in the winter of 1659-60 in York a far more dramatic confrontation erupted. When players smashed the windows of a city church the council decided to take action and on 30 March the borough court, with the Mayor presiding prosecuted eleven players and imposed fines of 20s on them all. But, this backfired and triggered a major ‘football riot’.

At five o’clock on the same day a crowd of over a hundred assembled ‘in warlike manner…with halberds, swords, muskets, fowling pieces and other guns and weapons’, marched on the Mayor’s house, and smashed their way in. It was four hours before public order was restored. The badly shaken authorities set up a special commission to identify and punish the perpetrators, and on May 4 the accused ‘chief actor’ was convicted of riot and fined a massive £10. Seventeen other ringleaders were also convicted, but pardoned after making grovelling apologies.

Professor Bernard Capp added: "Football has been a passion in Britain for hundreds of years, and authorities have been worrying about football violence for almost as long. Football history has a frequently rough and bloody side to it. If the Puritans were kill-joys, we should recognise that ‘Merry England’ had its darker side too."

Contacts: Professor Bernard Capp, Department of History, University of Warwick, Tel: 024 7652 3410/ 01926 854622 or Jenny Murray, Communications Office, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574 255/Mobile: 07876 217740