Popular sports

Tennis match

Tennis was imported into England from France, where it was known as tenez – from the call which then commenced the game. Henry VIII was a great tennis enthusiast and the game was very popular among the elite. John Stowe, in his survey, records to the right of Whitehall ‘be diuers fayre Tennis courtes, bowling allies, and a Cocke pit, all built by king Henry the eight, and then one other arched gate with a way over it thwarting the street from the kings gardens to the said parke.’ He also reports ‘The ball is used by noble men and gentlemen in tennis courts, and by people of meaner sort in the open fields and streets.’ These balls were stuffed with human hair and quickly lost their shape, in fact they usually only lasted one game, which meant a lucrative money-spinner for anyone wishing to sell their hair. Rackets were made of wood and strung with sheep gut. Indoor tennis consisted of hitting the ball off walls across a net, similar to today’s squash game. One contemporary description explains: ‘in a Tennis-Court they play with a Ball which one throweth and another taketh and sendeth it back with a racket.’

Tennis was not the only popular ball sport. Football was also a favourite, although not with the aristocracy.  Indeed, in 1553 it was condemned as ‘nothing but fury, and external violence, whence proceedeth hurt, and consequently rancour and malice do remain with them that be wounded.’  It is true that in the 17th century football was a violent contact sport with few rules. The number of players per team was unlimited, and whole villages and hamlets challenged each other to matches. The ball, usually made of wood, either yew, crabtree, or holly, was just big enough to be held in the hands, and was boiled in tallow to make it slippery.  The players stripped to the waist, and played barefoot. Some played on horseback, in a forerunner to modern polo, using long wooden sticks. The size of the pitch was unlimited and could stretch for several miles. Certain villages played each other at set times of the year; usually on feast days like Shrove Tuesday or Easter Monday. These matches had something of a carnival atmosphere, attracting ‘diverse victualers with meate, drinke and wyne of all sortes’, as well as merchants and peddlers hoping to sell their wares.

Child on stilts

In addition to tennis and football, Stowe records a variety of other sports popular at this time:  ‘In the holidays all the summer youths are exercised in leaping, dancing, shooting, wrestling, casting the stone, and practising their sheilds.’ And contemporary accounts of common activities for children include:

running upon the ice in Scrick-Shooes where they are carried also upon sleds, or in the open field making a line which he that desireth to win ought to touch but not to run beyond it. Runners run betwixt rails to the Goal and he that touch it first receiveth the prize. Tilting (or the quintain) is used, where a hoop is struck with a trunchion. Boys like to play with Bowling-stones, going upon Stilts, at Nine-pins, scourging a Top with a Whip, shooting with a Bow and swinging themselves upon a Merry-totter.

Child having fun on a swing

Multiple primary and secondary sources, including Stowe, Picard, Dodd, Ackroyd, Tames.

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