Tudor England worked hard and played hard: “Sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their legs, sometimes their arms” – not a description of some brutal medieval torture, but 16th century football. This sport was hugely popular, especially on occasions such as Shrove Tuesday and Ascension Day when entire villages played each other in ferocious all day encounters, the object being to capture a ball and bring it back to their own village.
The authorities frowned on football thinking that it diverted villagers from archery, a far more useful recreation which practised military skills. Football was the second most dangerous sport during the period – beaten only by the death toll of 56 from archery. It was followed in joint third place by wrestling, sword-fighting and – oddly – bell ringing, which each caused three deaths.
Higher up the social order, jousting could be equally robust. Huge crowds of ordinary folk paid to watch handsome young Henry VIII and later the charismatic Earl of Essex, although by this time jousting had become more of a colourful pageant than a mock military encounter. Henry was also skilful at real tennis, an intriguing game still playing in Hampton Court. The gentry hunted deer, indulged in falconry and played bowls – even, as legend has it, as the Spanish Armada approached.
Despite the festive mood of the jousting, it could also be very dangerous. Henry VIII was hurt several times competing in jousting matches. The last injury occurred in 1536. While jousting, Henry fell from his horse, which then fell on him. He was knocked unconscious for two hours. The court thought he would die. However, he pulled through.
The Tudors developed lawns largerly for the purpose of playing bowls. “My Lord under a tree… walks with a book in his hand to keep him from sleeping and we ready with bowls, but the weather somewhat too warm yet,” wrote one of Lord Burghley’s retainers. Pall-mall, a form of croquet, was also playing on grass. Bowling is a lawn game, played on a flat open grassy area.
Nine balls are used (four for each opponent, and one which is the target). The target ball (or “jack”) is rolled to the opposite end of the field. Each opponent, in turn, rolls their ball in the hopes of landing closest to it. The winner is determined by who has the most balls closest to the “jack.” This game, developed in the 13th Century, is still very popular in the UK, USA, and Australia today.
Other gentle activities included board games and cards, including whist which was invented in Tudor times. According to the playwright Ben Jonson, Queen Elizabeth cheated at cards – like most Tudors she took games seriously and always played to win. One such card game was “Pope July” (aka Pope Joan). The game grew in popularity during Henry VIII’s nullity suit against Katherine of Aragon.