Football in Medieval England: Four Accounts

What was football like in the Middle Ages? Join us as we delve into four fascinating accounts from medieval England to uncover the origins and nature of this historic sport.

We know very little about the origins of football. Ball games involving kicking were common in many ancient and medieval societies, each with its own styles and rules. The game in England that we know as football likely emerged gradually during the Middle Ages, but there are few references to it from that time. Fortunately, Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. collected the various accounts that do exist, providing us with some insight into the early forms of the game.


The first account, written by William FitzStephen in 1174, illustrates how little we know about medieval football. In his biography of Thomas Becket, FitzStephen included a short work known as Descriptio Nobilissimi Civitatis Londoniae, which describes life in the city of London. At one point, he mentions boys playing a game in the fields outside of town:

After lunch all the youth of the city go out into the fields to take part in a ball game. The students of each school have their own ball; the workers from each city craft are also carrying their balls. Older citizens, fathers, and wealthy citizens come on horseback to watch their juniors competing, and to relive their own youth vicariously: you can see their inner passions aroused as they watch the action and get caught up in the fun being had by the carefree adolescents.


The description is vague enough that it could refer to any ball game, but Magoun makes an important observation: this game was being played at Shrovetide, the few days just before the start of Lent. Throughout history, football and Shrovetide have been linked together, suggesting that this was an early example of that tradition.

Wood carving of two youths playing ball on a misericord at Gloucester Cathedral – created around 1350 – photo: Dominic Strange ©

Many of the references to medieval football that Magoun uncovered come from authorities attempting to stop the game. Royal and local governments often found that the game led to violence or was considered frivolous. For example, in 1314, the City of London banned the game, stating:

And whereas there is a great uproar in the City through certain tumults arising from the striking of great foot-balls in the fields of the public, from which many evils perchance may arise which may God forbid-we do command and do forbid, on the King’s behalf, upon pain of imprisonment, that such game shall not be practised henceforth within the City.

Our best description of medieval football can be found in The Miracles of King Henry VI, a late fifteenth-century account. While the work primarily focuses on the piousness and posthumous miracles of the English king, the author includes an aside where he explains the “foot-ball game.” The author was clearly not a fan of it:


The game at which they had met for common recreation is called by some the foot-ball game. It is one in which young men, in country sport, propel a huge ball not by throwing it into the air but by striking and rolling it along the ground, and that not with their hands but with their feet. A game, I say, abominable enough, and, in my judgment at least, more common, undignified, and worthless than any other kind of game, rarely ending but with some loss, accident, or disadvantage to the players themselves. What then? The boundaries had been marked and the game had started; and, when they were striving manfully, kicking in opposite directions, and our hero had thrown himself into the midst of the fray, one of his fellows, whose name I know not, came up against him from in front and kicked him by misadventure, missing his aim at the ball.

The final account comes from a poem called Eclogues, written by Alexander Barclay and published in 1518. In the poem, a character speaks about the joys of the season, including making the bladder of a pig into a ball. Here it is in the original Middle English:

Eche time and season hath his delite and joyes,
Loke in the stretes, beholde the little boyes,
How in fruite season for joy they sing and hop,
In Lent is eche one full busy with his top;
And nowe in Winter for all the greevous colde
All rent and ragged a man may them beholde.
They have great pleasour supposing well to dine,
When men be busied in killing of fat swine.
They get the bladder and blowe it great and thin
With many beanes and peason put within;
It ratleth, soundeth, and shineth clere and fayre
While it is throwen and caste up in the ayre.
Eche one contendeth and hath a great delite
With foote and hande the bladder for to smite;
If it fall to ground, they lifte it up again,
This wise to labour they count it for no paine;
Renning and leaping they drive away the colde.
The sturdie plowman, lustie, strong, and bold,
Overcommeth the winter with driving the foote-ball,
Forgetting labour and many a grevous fall.


To learn more, please read Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr.’s, article “Football in Medieval England and in Middle-English Literature,” which was published in The American Historical Review, Vol. 35:1 (1929). You can read it on JSTOR.

See also: Medieval Sports: An Interview with John Marshall Carter