A recently discovered court roll has uncovered evidence that the game of football was played as early as 1320 in the town of Hollesley in Suffolk, England. It is one of the earliest records to show that a version of the popular sport was played in the Middle Ages.
John Ridgard’s article, “Suffolk’s Earliest Football Match at Hollesley in 1320 (in Whitsuntide Week ?)” details how in 2010 historians uncovered several Hollesley manor court-rolls and other medieval documents about the village, which lies just off the southeast English coast.
One of the longest documents is the proceedings of the local court (known as a Leet Court) on Saturday, June 14, 1320. This includes a reference to four pairs of men involved in bloody assaults (‘traxit sanguinem’) during ‘campyng’. Rigard writes that “the men had been involved in one or more ‘Camping’ match(es) and the Leet had considered it appropriate to penalise them by a fine equivalent to one day’s pay for a labourer.”
Camping, also known as campyon, campan, or campball, is the earliest English version of football. While several references exist to the game from the fifteenth-century, this is one of the earliest records about it. It was a team-game played with the feet moving a ball, and was often played in a special field set aside, sometimes near the local church. Rigard notes that the game was played in Suffolk area for at least six centuries.
Rigard, who has focused his research on medieval Suffolk and its role in the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, adds:
If it can be assumed that the ‘Campyng’ assaults occurred at the same fixture, possibly in the Whitsunday week (three weeks before the leet court met), a number of observations could be made. It appears two brothers from a very influential villein family were on opposing sides. This was not, therefore, as can still be seen in Gaelic football matches in rural Ireland, a match between two extended families. All the traceable participants were from the villein ‘caste’: there is a strong impression that this was a game played by the common man. One of the players, Roger le Warde also had connections with Ramsholt, where (at Ramsholt with Bromeswell) a Margery Warde paid 12d. in the 1327 Subsidy. It was a Margaret Warde who was fined for brewing on the same occasion as Matilda Brunsack in 1320. Although overstretching the available evidence, it appears possible that the ‘assaults’ took place during an inter-village match, Hollesley versus Ramsholt, both teams being based at inns or beer-houses.
The historian also found that some of the participants were middle-aged men and prominent people in the community – one individual, Edmund Brunsack, would go on to become the reeve of Hollesley in 1329-30.
Although we know about this game from the four assault cases connected to it, Rigard notes that “it cannot be assumed that the levels of violence documented in connection with the 18th-19th century matches were also typical of the earlier form of the game. ‘Drawing blood’ may be no more than the modern ‘elbow in the face’.”
The article “Suffolk’s Earliest Football Match at Hollesley in 1320 (in Whitsuntide Week ?)” appears in Suffolk Review, No.59 (2012) pp.23-27. You can learn more about the journal by visiting the Suffolk Local History Council website.