Why Did Henry VIII Try to Ban Football?

By Joseph Hayes on at

Football might be the beautiful game but it’s had  a very turbulent past. This was definitely the case in the Tudor era where football was  considered to be a violent street game plagued by severe injury and death.

Tudor football was still unmistakably football as we understand it, with Henry Hanson and Andy Harland highlighting the fact it had both fervent supporters and opponents as we do  today. Unfortunately the key difference in the Tudor era was one of those opponents was none other than the King himself. Henry VIII, a man whose reputation is one of violence and brutality. A man who accidentally had his best friend Thomas Moore killed, so who knows what he was capable of.

Henry VIII wasn’t the first aristocrat to try and outlaw football, though. It began way back in the 14th century with the Lord Mayor of London, with  Judy Stubley calculating thirty examples of anti-football legislation from the 14 th to the 17 th centuries. Yet Henry VIII quite vigorously re-enacted anti-football legislation several times throughout his reign, even passing his own ban on the 10 th January 1540. Henry’s opposition to football surpassed his predecessors, though the repression is rather strange. Not only was Henry VIII a very sporty king in his youth, he even participated in football games enough to have had his own football boots made.

So why would Henry VIIIhave such an unlikely dislike for football? The cynical and obvious answer to this, is that he was simply a hypocrite, partaking on a case of “do as I say, not do as I do”. He even went so far as to refer to football as “the vulgar recreation” - but only when it was played by the common people.

As is the case now, Football was a sport popular with the general public, and it’s helped by the fact it requires relatively little set-up and little expense. But it was an ultra-violent game back in those days, and deaths were not unknown. A record from the 6 th July 1515 refers to an incident on the 9 th January in which a Thomas Blyth had accidentally stabbed another person to death during a game. Strangely he was pardoned for this, and the pardon was written by none other than Henry VIII himself. So why would Henry who was so lenient that he pardoned deaths in 1515, but become so hostile to it as a sport later on?

To understand this one must understand Henry VIII as a person and his attitude to sport. Henry VIII was a hugely energetic individual in his youth, but as experts in neurological injuries have asserted, these sports took a toll on him. He was injured taking part in jousting not once but twice: first in 1524 and then in 1536.  As Fitzsimmons notes this seemed to spark personality changes in the king.

The Henry VIII of 1515 who pardoned people for football incidents and obtained football boots in 1526 might have been quite different in temperament than the Henry VIII who wished to see football prohibited in 1540. As he himself became more unable to partake in sports, it seems he might have become less favourable to the sports played by commoners. Henry VIII was also insulted by a rather brave soul called George Taylor who said that the King’s crown was only worth playing football with.

This was more than a personal issue however, and just as it is nowTudor football was highly political. It was a challenge to the government at the time as it caused disorder that government often seemed unable to tackle. The presence of a large number of people playing a highly aggressive game caused concern at a fundamental level, and the sports bettors springing up probably didn’t help either.

The sheer amount of injury caused by football also went someway in making it a problem to Henry VIII and the authorities. While footballers might these days be mocked for diving and feigning injuries, people really were getting hurt back then. However the concerns over these were not from benevolence, but fear that incapacitated football players couldn’t then be used in war.

It is worth pointing out that Henry VIII wasn’t alone at his time in his distaste for football. The Church were also appalled with football because people were out going to football games instead of Church services. In fact actually playing football during the services while the vicar was speaking was not unheard of.

The clergy were known to participate in football games themselves, although they faced fines and the threat of being disrobed if they were caught by their superiors.  This Church attack upon football was particularly important because Henry VIII had cut ties with the Vatican and installed himself as the head of the Church of England, and so an attack upon it was also an attack upon him.

The footballs themselves became the focus of some highly arcane and delightful rituals. One example from Dorset was identified by sports historian Thomas S. Henricks. The idea was if you were given a football as part of a “free boy” occasion, which seemed to just be celebrating that you were free, you also were allowed to get married for free and received the gift of some pepper. Before the days of BMWs and Wags, footballers were quite happy to receive some pepper as a reward. Simpler times.

Henry VIII might have wished to see football banned, but the question is how effective was this edict? The punishments were rather severe, including the threat or whipping, and as historians have noted there are several examples of people being punished (or threatened with punishment) because of football.

Theory and anecdote is however different from regular practice and Henry VIII faced quite a challenge in trying to ban a popular sport that could organised quickly, be played anywhere including indoors. In short the football ban simply didn’t work . However action was taken if the games got too out of hand and too violent, but for the most part banning football was a complete failure.

Henry VIII’s ban on football was one in a long line of previous attempts on banning football. But while he might have been a king with an iron grip, he was not able to suppress football and it continued to thrive afterwards.

This didn’t stop the complaints against football coming up though.Football violence was listed in gratuitous detail in the decades after, and “The Anatomie of Abuses” of 1583 complained that football was basically a bloodbath. But the sport outlasted this criticism and went onto considerable success. Existing  prohibitions against football remained under later Tudor monarchs, but no new laws would explicitly be brought forward.

Football would continue to annoy employers and delight employees into the 17 th century when it was noted that workers would put down tools and play football in such huge droves that even law enforcement could not stop them. Even if there were some “football officers” tasked with clamping down on impromptu games. Some rebellious folk did get brought before the court when their football antics caused a breach of the peace, but was becoming obvious that football was here to stay and serious punishment felt to be unwarranted.

King James I did place a ban on football, but this was not a widespread rules and affected aristocrats and not the general public. Even puritan leader Oliver Cromwell, who the histories noted had played football at university, could not stop football being played when he became Lord Protector. Football became a resistance, with illegal protest games and form of underground movement. Eventually King Charles II (the ‘merrie monarch’) would reverse the bans and after hundreds of years of struggle football had won its fight with the royalty. Football opponents could protest football, but no longer ban it with royal assent.

Football might have been quite a different game back in the 16 th century, but surviving footballs can be tested to FIFA’s rigorous levels. However, the same concerns were raised about it and football continued on undaunted. The monarchy may have tried on several occasions to suppress the game, but someone eventually realised it was futile to crusade against such a popular sport.  Football as a sport might have had some rough patches, but if it can survive Henry VIII and his successors it can survive pretty much anything.