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Leisure & sport: Archery, bearbaiting & skittles

(Added 9 July 2006)

Finsbury Archers at the time of Queen Elizabeth I

Pre-modern Leisure and Sport

Traditional plebian recreations were thwarted by elites. English Kings, like Edward II in 1365, outlawed ball games, bowling and hurling because they competed with work and were associated with crowd disorder. And…clerical and reform-minded Puritan attacked sport as a threat to Sunday worship and work. Elites, however, participated in socially exclusive sports such as hunting and the mock war of tournaments. For relatively affluent merchant and tradesmen, there was archery, which kings supported as essential for military preparedness until the 17th century. While King Henry VIII forbade laborers from playing games (except at Christmas and in the presence of the master), he tacitly allowed it for the propertied, and Queen Elizabeth enjoyed bearbaiting while her 17th-century successors were fond of skittles and golf.

Following the defeat of the Puritans and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, well-to-do Englishmen tolerated and even encouraged popular sports. The Whig oligarchy in London accepted the rough play of the masses (probably more than on the European continent) as a worthwhile price for a weak king and army; the landed gentry (mostly Tories) actually patronized village sport.

For the rich, sport was a way to display privilege and status. Many innovations in aristocratic sport can be traced to the landed elite of England, which emerged from the late 17th century with a great deal of local autonomy and prestige. Not only did they own hunting lands and blooded horses, but they developed a rich culture of sporting clubs. A center of this society was New-market, a horse track inaccessible to all but those with carriage and horse, from which the races were usually watched.

While most of these aristocratic sports were rural in origin, in 17th century capitals, more “civilized’ games like tennis emerged. This sport was developed in France by the urban aristocracy and spread to England in Elizabeth’s day. Tennis and cricket (a rural sport taken over by the English gentry in the 18th century) came to be characterized by the genteel notions of “sportsmanship” and courtesy, codes of honor that shapes the modern ideals of amateurism”

Excerpted from A Social History of Leisure by Gary Cross (Venture Publishing, Inc. 1990)

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