An enthralling Medieval mass football game takes place throughout the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday each year.
Traditional Shrovetide ball games have been played in England since at least the 12th century from the reign of Henry II (1154–89). The Ashbourne game has been played from at least c.1667 although the exact origins of the game are unknown due to a fire at the Royal Shrovetide Committee office in the 1890s which destroyed the earliest records. The earliest surviving reference to the game is from 1683 when Charles Cotton (who penned the fly-fishing supplement for Izaac Walton’s ‘The Compleat Angler’) wrote about it.
One of the origin theories suggests the macabre notion that the ‘ball’ was originally a severed head tossed into the waiting crowd following an execution. Whatever its origins, the ball is now made with cork to help it stay afloat when it inevitably enters a river and is decorated differently each year being hand-painted by local craftsmen specially for the occasion. Once a Once a ball is goaled it is repainted with the name and in the design of the scorer and is theirs to keep. Balls used in previous years are on display throughout the town in pubs and antique shops.
A real ‘local derby’
The fascinating game is heavily woven into the fabric of Ashbourne folk lore, with the two teams – the ‘Up’ards (those born North of the town’s Henmore river) pitted against the ‘Down’ards – (those born south of the same river)
The game is played all over the town and the surrounding areas with no limits to the number of players. The ancient game begins with a ‘turning up’ ceremony at 14.00 on Shaw Croft car park in the centre of the town with thousands of spectators and players in attendance. The ball is thrown into the crowd by a dignitary from a purpose-built plinth with hundreds jostling for position and possession.
The game played between the two rival teams is often credited with being the source of the term “local derby” (although another widely accepted origin theory is The Derby horse race we can only speculate as to its true etymology)
There have also been several attempts to ban the game – the most famous being in 1349 when Edward III tried to outlaw it as he claimed it interfered with his archery practice!
And in 1878 the game was briefly banned after a man drowned in the Henmore. Local land-owners signed petitions and refused to let the game take place on their properties.
Royal Connections and Footballing Greats
The game has received true ‘Royal Assent’ only twice – in 1928 the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, turned up the ball. This is when the event officially earned the designation Royal Shrovetide Football. 75 years later, on 5th March 2003, the current Prince of Wales, HRH Prince Charles turned up the ball.
There were huge crowds in 1966 when footballing hero Stanley Matthews turned up the ball and in 1975 Brian Clough did the honours.
‘Total anarchy reigns for two days’
The shops throughout the town board up their windows and everything shuts down for two days except the pubs and a few local eateries. All but essential traffic is diverted far away from the town centre. The pubs are jam packed with revellers from early morning to late at night with many people walking around the town with a beer in their hand enjoying the day off work and sense of freedom the game brings. The atmosphere was brilliant.
There are several rules which were read out before the ‘turning up’ of the ball and before the faithful renditions of Auld Lang Syne and God Save The Queen.
There is to be no murder or manslaughter, the ball may not be carried in a motorised vehicle or hidden in bags or rucksacks. Cemeteries, churchyards and the town memorial gardens are strictly out of bounds and playing after the 10 pm curfew is forbidden. One of the earliest rules from ancient times, officially states that players must not murder their opponents.
There’s a town still plays this glorious game
The Shrovetide anthem is sung at a pre-game lunch and ceremony at the Green Man hotel. It was written in 1891 for a concert held to raise money to pay off the fines ordered for playing the game in the street.
The original lyrics from 1891 are mounted on the plinth.
There’s a town still plays this glorious game
Tho’ tis but a little spot.
And year by year the contest’s fought
From the field that’s called Shaw Croft.
Then friend meets friend in friendly strife
The leather for to gain,
And they play the game right manfully,
In snow, sunshine or rain.
‘Tis a glorious game, deny it who can
That tries the pluck of an Englishman.
For loyal the Game shall ever be
No matter when or where,
And treat that Game as ought but the free,
Is more than the boldest dare.
Though the up’s and down’s of its chequered life
May the ball still ever roll,
Until by fair and gallant strife
We’ve reached the treasur’d goal.
The Up’ards took the lead at Ashbourne Shrovetide 2020, having goaled the ball at approximately 8.15pm on Tuesday evening. Through the mud, sleet and snow, the hug ground its way through the fields towards Sturston Mill where Up’ard Tom Leighton became the latest Shrovetide hero.
I am fascinated by the historic roots of the game as well as the actual game itself which really appeals to me. The customs, the tradition, the freedom, the passion and the pride which all encompass the town on these two days a year is a sight to behold. Whilst the Ashbourne game isn’t completely unique (I think there are a few other places in the country where a similar mass football game survive, Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders and Atherstone) Ashbourne’s is by far the largest and most famous. In itself is one of the things which makes Ashbourne unique and should be wholeheartedly celebrated by those who wish to visit and be involved.