The History of Football: Medieval Football, Pt. 1

Stefan Vasilev@https://twitter.com/GoonersLoungeAnalyst IFebruary 10, 2009

Although different kinds of ball game existed throughout the world during the ancient times, the evolution of football took place on the British Isles and there are many documented cases that prove that.

As early as the 12th century, “football” was practiced by people throughout Britain.

The first documented case of football was recorded by William FitzStephenin the year 1170. While he was visiting London he noticed that “after dinner all the youths of the city goes out into the fields for the very popular game of ball.” He also noted that every trade had its own football team.

It is thought that some of these popular games derived from the Roman game “harpastum,” even though the Romans were long gone from these lands (in 410).

The games of ball, of course, were quite different than their modern counterpart.

The name “football” was referring to the game being played on foot and not because it was played by using your feet. Actually, all parts of the body were allowed to be used to propel the ball. The game was simply called “ball” or “gameball.”

Most often, the sessions of “football” took place in the open country but sometimes they were played inside the towns and villages which caused an abundance of commotion and property damage.

Of course, once again, the ball games served different kinds of purposes for the communities. Sometimes the games of ball were used to settle disputes and other times they were used as some kind of ritual, serving some pagan religious need.

The “Goals” were sometimes set a couple of miles apart and there were no or very little amount of rules. The teams may have consisted of 300 to 500 people each. Wrestling, punching, kicking and other aggressive behavior was as normal as it is today in the Mixed Martial Arts fights.

Due to the riotous nature of the game, property damage and injuries to the people involved were quite the usual outcome. In some cases, the injuries were so bad that they led to the death of the participants.

In one documented case, it was written, “Henry, son of William deEllington, while playing at ball at Ulkhamon Trinity Sunday with David le Ken and many others, ran against David and received an accidental wound from David's knife of which he died on the following Friday.”

In another, “During the game at ball as he kicked the ball, a lay friend of his, also called William, ran against him and wounded himself on a sheath knife carried by the canon, so severely that he died within six days.


Due to the rough nature of the game then, it comes as quite a surprise that there were versions of the game reserved only for women. They sometimes played, split into two teams, one of which would be the married women who would play against the other team which would consist of the unmarried ones.

That proves that football was a very popular game during those times.

Even though it seemed that football was set to flourish, its progress was almost put to a hold by King Edward II. He opposed it with full force and attempted to ban the game.

In 1314, he became quite concerned by the effects that came out of playing “football” so he decided to ban it.

According to him, “football” was only a waste of valuable energy and time for his soldiers. He wanted them to practice theirs skills with the bow instead of playing “football.”

He feared that the impact football was having on his archers in particular would be devastating to the monarchy’s future involvements in wars.

Edward II was only the first of a number of monarchs who attempted to ban “football”. In 1331, his father, Edward III was focused on invading Scotland so he reintroduced the ban on “football.”

Another monarch, Edward IV, continued to battle with the constantly spreading game. In 1477, he converted his believes into a reality with a law that ordered: “no person shall practise any unlawful games such as dice, quoits, football and such games, but that every strong and able-bodied person shall practise with bow for the reason that the national defence depends upon such bowmen.”

However, plenty of records show that the young men who were in love with the game refused to accept the bans. Many people were fined or arrested for playing “unlawful games of football.” Nevertheless, people continued to practice this game.

Despite the heavy opposition there were people who continued to believe that football had its benefits as well, especially to the health of its participants.

According to http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ Richard Mulcaster, the headmaster of the Merchant Taylors’ School, claimed that football had “great helps, both to health and strength.” He also added that the game “strengtheneth and brawneth the whole body, and by provoking superfluities downward, it dischargeth the head, and upper parts, it is good for the bowels, and to drive the stone and gravel from both the bladder and kidneys.”


Despite all its enemies during the medieval times, the most popular game today did not stop its progress there. It was in the hearts of the young men and it steadily continued to gain more and more popularity and support around the British Isles.

Next up, The History of Football: Medieval Football, Pt. 2.