by Ben Johnson
The Tudors were sporting fanatics, from football matches that involved hundreds of people, to the more sedate game of bowls. But what were the most popular sports in the sixteenth century?
Hugely popular even back in Tudor times, the 16th century form of football was quite different to the sport we know today. Instead of a 100 metre pitch, games of football would be played through the open countryside between rural villages. The object of the game was to capture the ball and bring it back to your own village, although as you can imagine, the referee may have had some problems keeping up with the ball! This led to some quite brutal games, as Philip Stubbs wrote in his Anatomy of Abuses of 1583:
“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.”
Above: A game of Tudor football. The well laid-out pitch and seemingly wealthy spectators suggests that this was an upper-class match.
The larger inter-village games of football were especially poopular on occasions such as Ascension Day and Shrove Tuesday when entire villages would play each other in all-day encounters.
The authoritories of the time frowned on football, concerned that it was diverting the villagers from the much more useful pastime of archery. By 1540 this concern had become so great that the government passed a law banning the game of football all together!
Popular with the lower and upper classes alike, bear baiting was considered a cruel sport even for the Tudors and the House of Commons voted to ban it in 1585 (although Queen Elizabeth subsequently overruled them).
The ‘sport’ involved a bear being chained to a wooden post in the centre of a ring. A group of dogs would then be released, attacking the bear and attempting to kill it by biting its throat. Paul Hentzner, a German lawyer who travelled extensively throughout Elizabethan England, wrote a vivid account of a bear baiting exhibition:
There is still another place, built in the form of a theatre, which serves for the baiting of bulls and bears; they are fastened behind, and then worried by great English bull-dogs, but not without great risk to the dogs, from the horns of the one and the teeth of the other; and it sometimes happens that they are killed upon the spot; fresh ones are immediately supplied in the places of those that are wounded or tired. To this entertainment there often follows that of whipping a blinded bear, which is performed by five or six men, standing circularly with whips, which they exercise upon him without any mercy, as he cannot escape from them because of his chain; he defends himself with all his force and skill, throwing down all who come within his reach and are not active enough to get out of it, and tearing the whips out of their hands and breaking them.
Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I thoroughly enjoyed watching bear-baiting, so much so that they ordered a purpose built ring in the grounds of Whitehall Palace!
In fact, the steps leading into one of these old royal cockpits can still be seen today in the centre of London. If you’re planning a visit be warned though… the area is said to be haunted!
Full of glitz, glamour and celebrities, jousting was the most prestigious sport in Tudor England. It was even quite common for a young King Henry VIII to take part in the larger competitions, with thousands of local folk turning out to cheer him on from the crowd.
Unfortunately Henry VIII was badly injured in a jousting accident in 1536, and it is thought that his later obesity and general poor health can be traced back to this event. The wound that Henry suffered on his leg could not be effectively treated by the medicine of the time, and the wound festered for the remainder of his life.
Royal (or Real) Tennis
The forerunner of lawn tennis, Real Tennis was played indoors with balls made of hair! The playing of the game was similar to that of tennis today, except that the balls could also be bounced off walls. It was also possible to score a point by hitting the ball into one of three ‘goals’ which were situated high up in the court.
Due to a lack of purpose built courts, Real Tennis was a sport restricted to the nobility. Henry VIII enjoyed the sport so much that he had a court built for himself at Hampton Court in 1530 and he would spend huge amounts of time within its four walls. It is even rumoured that Henry was playing tennis at Hampton Court when news was brought to him of Anne Boleyn’s execution.
Another popular sport in Tudor England was bowls, with some of the middle and upper classes developing lawns for the sole purpose of playing the sport. Also played on these lawns was a game called ‘Pall-mall’, an early form of croquet.
Cards and board games were also extremely popular, with games such as Trump being invented during the Tudor times. It is even said that Queen Elizabeth used to cheat mercilessly at card games and always played to win!