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Shrovetide Football, A Moveable Riot

Are ye Up'Ard or Down'Ard? The answer determines your place in the grandfather of all territorial ball sports.

Phil Walter

What if the crowds ran towards the bulls in Pamplona?

It might look a bit like Royal Shrovetide Football. A living relic, a mob-sport Coelacanth, demonstrating the ancient origins of the modern games of American football, football (we call soccer), and rugby. In this moveable riot, one can find the shared roots of the Premier League, La Liga, the NFL, modern rugby, and college football Saturdays.

Every Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday (Mardi Gras), the town of Ashbourne, England engages in an ancient contest of wills. A battle that resembles the ancient village mob ball games recorded by Middle Age monks throughout Europe that are the progenitor of all territorial ball sports. Ancient kings sought to ban these games for the rivalries they spawned and the injuries incurred to their levy, but never to much success. The instinct for contest is writ deep in the code of the human tribe.

The game itself is simple. A ball is thrown out to a tightly packed crowd. At first, it looks like a standard outdoor music festival beach ball bounce, but as the less dedicated seek distance and safety, and space is carved out, it morphs into a game of Kill The Guy With The Ball; evolves into a sloppy Spring Break brawl (if the co-eds were mostly pale Englishmen with shaved heads named Basil), finally, resembling something approximating badly played rugby against the backdrop of the Town of The Crazies from Gymkata. Oh, and there's a freezing stream.

The rules fit neatly on a single index card:

  • There are no limits on numbers to a team. Competitors number in the thousands and "ringers" are employed
  • Committing murder or manslaughter is prohibited
  • The ball may not be carried in a motorized vehicle
  • The ball may not be hidden
  • Cemeteries and church yards are off limits as sacred ground (see rules for Immortals in Highlander)
  • Play ends at 10 pm
  • A goal can only be scored with 3 taps on the Goal

Excesses are curbed by a general sense of community fair play. And the violence has diminished substantially from the old days. But being punched, kicked, gouged, or stomped in the service of obtaining the ball is not usually considered excessive. It lasts hours. There are few trained athletes. It's played in poor weather. And the goals are a sensible 3 miles apart.

What could possibly go wrong?

Because of the sheer mass of humanity, the ball can only be meaningfully advanced in giant rugby scrums - called hugs - a flying column of butting heads, trampling boots, and lowered shoulders, raging over the cobbled streets, spilling into icy streams (the leather cork-filled Shrove ball floats, many Englishmen do not - entire games have been played primarily in the stream), steamrolling any physical obstacle in its path. Shops in town are boarded up to hurricane specifications, any parked car foolish enough to be left on the street will test its insurance policy; as two contending masses of humanity from the same village, separated by the mid-village brook from which they derive their team identity - designating for life whether one is Up'Ard (above the brook) or Down'Ard (below it) - battle for the day.

Naturally, the game is stoked by the fuel of all great rivalries: class and self-definition, derived from an arbitrary geographical designation. One group the down-to-earth rabble, the other posh and privileged. Isn't it ever so? Whether any individual or the groups themselves still actually fit the profile, is, of course, completely immaterial. There are roles to be played.

What's at stake? Pride and pub bragging rights. What else is there? One doesn't sublimate the primordial urge to mere marketing.

The game has been cancelled only twice - both times due to the outbreak of Foot-and-mouth disease - but never due to war. In fact, the Ashebourne regiment played a modified version of the game in the trenches of World War I. Unfortunately for them and their brethren, the mob rush also mirrored World War I infantry tactics.

Watch the madness, and know that the seeds of all football are sown between those cobbles, under the pressing mob.