Folk-Lore/Volume 7/The Hood-Game at Haxey, Lincolnshire

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Folk-Lore. Volume 7
Number 4. (December) The Hood-Game at Haxey, Lincolnshire
1014973Folk-Lore. Volume 7 — Number 4. (December) The Hood-Game at Haxey, Lincolnshire



(Read at Meeting of 19th May, 1896.)

An interested observer of folk-custom who has lived for many years in the Isle of Axholme informs me that the ancient game traditionally known as "Haxey Hood" seems to be losing its popularity, and that there is reason to fear it will soon have to be numbered among the bygone amusements of English country life. Such being the case, the present seems the fitting time to set in order and to print the more important notes which I have been able to collect with regard to this curious custom—a custom which almost certainly dates from a period when the great mid-winter feast was still understood by all men to be held in honour of the sun, and of the powers connected with light and organic development. It will be observed that although the following descriptions of the game differ in completeness of detail, and vary more or less on small points, being distinguished by many slight discrepancies which it is impossible to harmonise; yet so far as they go they all agree in the main facts. Indeed, they tally so closely in this respect that it would be unnecessary to print them in full were it not advisable to preserve every fragment of original information relative to a usage so archaic in its essence as this belated instance of solar ritual.

"Throwing the hood," then, is an annual diversion indulged in at Haxey, in the Isle of Axholme, by a gathering of men who assemble from several adjoining townships; old Christmas day or Twelfthmas being the proper day for the game, which may, however, be played on the 7th of January if the 6th fall on a Sunday.

The Rev. W. B. Stonehouse says in his account of the parish of Haxey[1] that this place, though at one time the most considerable in the Isle, never had the the privilege of a market or fair. "It has, however," he adds, "two feasts, one on the 6th of July, called Haxey Midsummer, and the other on the 6th of January, called Haxey Hood. The midsummer festival has nothing to distinguish it from other similar meetings, but that held on the 6th of January has a sport or game peculiar to the place. The hood is a piece of sacking rolled tightly up and well corded, and which weighs about six pounds. This is taken into an open field on the north side of the church about two o'clock in the afternoon, to be contended for by the youths assembled for that purpose. When the hood is about to be thrown up, the plough-bullocks, or boggins,[2] as they are called, dressed in scarlet jackets, are placed amongst the crowd at certain distances. Their persons are sacred; and if amidst the general row the hood falls into the hands of one of them the sport begins again. The object of the person who seizes the hood is to carry off the prize to some public-house in the town, where he is rewarded with such liquor as he chooses to call for. This pastime is said to have been instituted by the Mowbrays, and that the person who furnished the hood did so as a tenure by which he held some land under the lord. How far this tradition may be founded on fact I am not able to say, but no person now acknowledges to hold any land by that tenure."

Peck's account of the sport is earlier in date than the above description, and contains important particulars which Mr. Stonehouse leaves unmentioned. His statement connects the Haxey custom with the ordinary twelfth-tide mummers or plough-jags of the county, whose traditional drama, rough and artless though it be, is still of indisputable interest as a lingering survival from the days when the awakening energy of vegetation was allegorically represented in show at the termination of the Yule feast. According to this authority, the hood, "a roll of canvas tightly corded together, weighing from four to six pounds, is taken to an open field and contended for by the rustics, who assemble together to the number of many hundreds; an individual appointed casts it from him, and the first person that can convey it into the cellar of any public-house receives a reward of one shilling, paid by the plough-bullocks or hoggins. A new hood being furnished when the others are carried oflF, the contest usually continues till dark . . . . . . The next day the plough-bullocks or hoggins go round the town to receive alms at each house, where they cry "Largus." They are habited similar to the morris-dancers, are yoked to and drag a small plough. They have their farmer and a fool, called Billy Buck, dressed like a harlequin, with whom the boys make sport. The day is concluded by the bullocks running with the plough round the cross in the marketplace, and the man that can throw the others down and convey their plough into the cellar of a public-house receives one shilling for his agility."[3]

A far more detailed description of the sport as played about 1858 is given in Notes and Queries, 2nd S., vol. v., p. 94; and here we find mentioned " the smoking of the fool," the significant scene with which the whole performance ought properly to conclude. "Anciently," says the author of the article, "the Mowbrays had great possessions in and about the Isle of Axholme, and a seat at which they principally resided, and were considered the greatest folks in that part of the country. It so happened that on old Christmas Day a young lady (the daughter of the then Mowbray) was riding across the Meeres (an old road, at that time the principal one across the village) to the church [when] a gale of wind blew off her hood. Twelve farming men who were working in the field saw the occurrence and ran to gather up the hood, and in such earnest were they that the lady took so much amusement at the scene, she forbade her own attendants joining in the pursuit. The hood being captured, returned, and replaced on the lady's head, she expressed her obligations to the men, giving them each some money, and promised a piece of land (to be vested in certain persons in trust) to throw up a hood annually on old Christmas Day; she also ordered that the twelve men engaged to contest the race for the hood should be clothed (pro tem.) in scarlet jerkins and velvet caps, the hood to be thrown up in the same place as the one where she lost hers. The custom is yet followed; and though the Meeres on which she was riding has long ago been brought into a state of cultivation and the road through been diverted, yet an old mill stands in the field where the old road passed through, and is pointed out as the place where the original scene took place, and the hood is usually thrown up from this mill. There is usually a great concourse of people from the neighbouring villages who also take part in the proceedings; and when the hood is thrown up by the chief of the Boggons, or by the officials, it becomes the object of the villagers to get the hood to their own village by throwing it or kicking it similar to football—the other eleven men, called Boggons, being stationed at the corners and sides of the field, to prevent, if possible, its being thrown out of the field, and should it chance to fall into any of their hands it is 'boggoned,' and forthwith returned to the chief, who again throws it up from the mill as before. Whoever is fortunate enough to get it out of the field tries to get it to his village, and usually takes it to the public-house he is accustomed to frequent, and the landlord regales them with hot ale and rum. The game usually continues until dusk, and is frequently attended by broken shins and broken heads. I have known a man's leg broken. The next day is occupied by the boggons going round the villages singing as waits, and are regaled with hot furmety; from some they get coppers given them, and from others a small measure of wheat, according to the means of the donors. The day after that they assume the character of plough-bullocks, and at a certain part of Westwoodside they 'smoke the fool,' that is, straw is brought by those who like and piled on a heap, a rope being tied or slung over the branches of the tree next the pile of straw, and the other end of the rope is fastened round the waist of the 'fool,' and he is drawn up and fire put to the straw, the 'fool' being swung to and fro through the smoke until he is well-nigh choked; after which he goes round with his cap and collects whatever the spectators think proper to give. After which the performance is at an end until the following year .... The quantity of land left by Lady Mowbray was forty acres, which are known by the name of the Hoodlands .... the Boggons' dresses are made from its proceeds."

The manuscript notes kindly given me by Miss L. A. Atkinson of Brigg, who made them after witnessing the sport in 1852, also notice the smoking of the fool, with several other details of interest. "At Christmastide," she relates, "for a week or so, twelve men called 'boggans' went round all the villages near Haxey, and called at the farmhouses and cottages, much as plough-jags do. Eleven of them wore short red jackets, something like what post-boys ride in, and the twelfth was dressed in sacking and coloured rags, and had his face 'got up,' and wore a fool's-cap. The men sang songs and begged money, like other Christmas singers, although in this case it was supposed to be for the purpose of purchasing the 'hood,' which is made by the village saddler. It was sometimes made of strong sacking, but as it was subjected to such rough usage, I believe they had to have more than one in case of it being torn to pieces, so the one I saw was made of leather, and stuffed with tow. It was about two feet long and three or four inches in diameter, and was just like a roly-poly pudding in shape.

"It was, I think, as the clock struck one that the proceedings began. A crowd of some hundreds filled the street. On the 'green,' close to the ancient church, there was standing the base of an old stone cross, with one or two steps remaining. Some people said it was the old market-cross, Haxey having been an important market town until it was destroyed by fire. Others, who thought themselves great historians, believed it was put there by pious people, and that either the remains of Queen Eleanor or King John had been borne to the church as a resting-place, and the cross erected to commemorate the event.

"Well, the 'fool' mounted the steps of the cross and made a speech. He soon got down, and he and the boggans and the crowd went just outside the town on the hill, where all the open fields are. The head boggan, called 'The Lord Duke,' then said a few rhyming words and ' threw ' the hood up three times. The third time the crowd may have it. It went up into the air like a bolt, and dozens of hands were outstretched to catch it, as it was not possible to calculate where it would come down, any more than if they had tried to catch a sky rocket. As soon as a man got it, he tried to run away with it, and of course was balked by the crowd, unless he had plenty of his own friends round him. The red-coated boggans always kept pretty well round the outside of the crowd, much as cricketers field, and whenever the crowd threw the hood from one to another and it was possible for a boggan to catch it, or even touch it, it had to be taken back to the Lord Duke and thrown up again from the middle of the field.

"The play was a dangerous, jostling scrimmage, and the modern leather hood was sharper when it hit anyone in the eye than the old sackcloth one. At four o'clock the last or 'Sway Hood' is put up. When I saw it, it appeared to be handed, or passed about, or along, by one party—say Haxey men—and snatched at and scuffled for by another—perhaps Epworth men—and then they shouted loudly, 'Sway, boys, sway,' and a surging crowd, pushing two different ways, and divided into two large masses of people, looked as if they swayed. And it was not safe for women and children to be anywhere but at a fair distance from the players.

"When the 'swaying' begins the boggans no longer try to keep the hood confined to themselves, but allow the crowd to carry it away. The swiftest runners and best jumpers carry it over hedge and ditch, and when it has once been 'laid' on the doorstep of an inn, it cannot be run for again. It is taken inside, roasted before the fire, and basted with ale, the players drinking this ale whilst hot. The rest of the evening is spent at the inn. The landlords of various inns offer sums of money, from five shillings to twenty shillings, to the man who carries the hood to their house.

"The senior boggan, styled the Lord Duke, has the power of settling all disputes.

"The day following the fool is smoked. A rope used to be fastened round his waist, the other end was thrown over the branch of a tree, and held by men, who hoisted him up and down, and dangled him over a fire made of damp straw. But as the boggans had nearly suffocated a fool at Westwoodside, and had some difficulty in restoring him, that part of the performance was dispensed with at the time I attended the 'throwing of the hood.' He also used to be smoked at Haxey and Burnham two other days.

"I never could quite catch the words of the songs, or the doggerel speeches. As to the origin of the game, what I have always understood was that a lady lost her hood, and it was restored to her by a man wearing a red jacket. The Dutch settlers[4] may have originated the game, or it may have been brought from the south by attendants of King Edward IV., he having a hunting-lodge in this neighbourhood.

"I do not know whether the bids of the inn-keepers for the hood to be taken to their houses had so much weight with the players, as the feeling amongst the men of taking it to their own town."

Miss Atkinson further adds that in the account of Haxey-hood and the subsequent smoking of the fool given in Mr. W. Andrews' Bygone Lincolnshire, 1891, p. 197, and also in a newspaper cutting in her possession, twelve boggans in red and the fool are mentioned, but that according to her notes and her memory of the scene there were only eleven boggans and the fool, twelve men altogether, A writer in the Hull Times, January 11th, 1890, says that several officers are appointed to rule the revels, including "Bunkus," "The Fool," "Michael," and "Webby," and that the fool to begin the proceedings mounts a stone neai Haxey Church and repeats the following lines:

"'Oose agean 'oose, toon agean toon,
Fust man ya meet knock him doon."

These words are, however, sometimes attributed to "my Lord" when he is on the point of throwing the hood for the first time.

According to Mr. North's[5] description of the custom, "Haxey-Hood" is supposed to have been instituted when the Mowbray family were owners of a castle in the neighbouring parish of Owston and of a residence at Haxey. And it was Lady Mowbray whose hood was blown off by the wind when she was going from the latter house, in a part of Haxey still spoken of as "the Park," to church on one Epiphany. Being amused with the scene which followed, she established its annual repetition, upon the hill where it had taken place; and it is said that she left six and a half acres of land as a reward to the thirteen men who were to conduct the affair, although "no record .... can now be found of the bequest, nor can the land be traced." Mr. North further describes the festival as observed in the following manner in recent years. About 2 p.m. twelve men called boggans march up the village to the base of an ancient cross near the church. The king of the boggans bears the hood, which is a roll of leather about two feet long, and as thick as a man's arm. He is helped up to the top of the stone, and there delivers a rigmarole speech inviting the crowd to attend him to the top of the hill, and enjoy the sport which is about to begin. He then moves to the appointed spot; the twelve boggans are posted at intervals, five or six hundred yards away, and the game is begun by the king throwing up the hood. One of the expectant multitude seizes it, rushes off with it, and throws it in advance of him to be caught by another of the players; and the game continues thus. The boggans, meanwhile, get possession of the hood, if possible; and when a boggan has captured it he carries it back to the king unopposed. The king throws it again, and the performance is repeated till the gathering dusk puts an end to the struggle. The next day the boggans and their king go round asking for money, which they spend in drink. "Hood-Day" is a general holiday in Haxey. Friends and relations of the parishioners come to visit them; and the ringers ring the church-bells at intervals without special payment.

Mr. C. C. Bell, who has long been resident in the Isle of Axholme, informs me that in these days there are often only three or four boggans, as men cannot be found to take the office. He also says that he has never seen the fool smoked, and believes that the practice has not been observed for some years. "At Epworth," he continues, "the hood is played on the day after the Haxey-hood, but the Haxey people look on it as a mere imitation, and I believe rightly so. A friend tells me that in his boyhood Haxey and Epworth-hoods were both played on the same day." The hood-game was also formerly a favourite diversion at Belton, in the Isle of Axholme; and a paragraph in the Retford News, January 18th, 1895, furnishes an account of the revival of the sport after a lapse of twenty years. The contest, which, like Epworth-hood, is considered to have been originally derived from Haxey, was vigorously carried on, the goals being Churchtown and Westgate, and eventually the hood was carried amid loud cheers to the Wheat-Sheaf Inn in Westgate.

This year (1896) Mr. Bell visited Haxey on the Hood-day with the purpose of seeing the game as it is now played; and the following is his account of the proceedings.

"The hood is now kept up by subscription, or rather by begging. The boggans go round the parish and neighbourhood for a week or a fortnight before the date and collect what they can. This year, I believe, they got thirty or forty shillings. The boggans were originally twelve in number, but have now dwindled down to four or five. I saw only four on Monday. There is also 'My Lord' and a Fool. The company are called together at half-past two p.m. by the ringing of the church-bells, the place of assembly being the green, close by the churchyard. Here there is a stone, round which the people group themselves. On Monday My Lord with his fool and the boggans arrived on the scene at 2.50. The fool was dressed in a suit of old sacking, stitched all over with shreds of gaily-coloured cloth. He carried the hoods under his arm and a stout staff with a rabbit-skin slung to the end of it. Sometimes a bladder is used instead of the skin, and there is a good deal of horse-play with it, the fool being, of course, the butt of the village wit, and allowed to retaliate by hitting right and left with the bladder or whatever he carries. There was very little of this on Monday, however, as the hour was late. The fool was hoisted on the stone by My Lord, and the boggans grouped themselves close round. They were dressed in short red smocks with their caps grotesquely decorated. The fool then opened the proceedings by a speech. Formerly this was a great feature, being made the occasion of a good deal of topical wit and satire, but it is now a very tame affair, lasting only a couple of minutes, and consisting of a few traditionary phrases. It ran something like this:

"'Now, good folks, this is Haxa' Hood. We've killed two bullocks and a half, but the other half we had to leave running about field: we can fetch it if it's wanted. Remember it's

Hoose agin hoose, toon agin toon,
And if you meet a man knock him doon.'

This was all; the verses being clearly a most essential feature. They were much applauded, and at their conclusion the fool jumped down, and My Lord led the way to the open field behind the church. It is his part to throw up the hood, or rather hoods, for there are six of them, one, I suppose, for each of the principal hamlets round. The first five were of sacking, and these are, I understand, made every year as wanted, but the last, the hood par excellence, is of leather, and is kept from year to year. The hoods were thrown up about midway between Haxey village and Upper Thorpe, close to the ordnance mark showing the highest ground in the Isle. They are stout rolls of sacking (leather for the last) about two feet in length, and the object is to carry them off the field away from the boggans. If any of these can get hold of them, or even touch them, they have to be given up, and carried back to My Lord. For every one carried off the field the boggans forfeit half-a-crown, which is spent in beer, doubtless by the men of the particular hamlet who have carried off the hood.

"There are certain wards—it may be a tree or a building—showing the limits of the field, and when one of these is reached the hood is struck against it, and is then out of the boggans' domain. This is termed 'wyking' the hood. This goes on with the different hoods in turn until four o'clock, when the leather hood (the hood) is thrown up, and for this there is a great struggle, chiefly between the men of Haxey and those of Westwoodside—that is to say really between the customers of the public-houses there—each party trying to get it to his favourite 'house.' The publican at the successful house stands beer—I do not know whether there is any stated amount—and the game ends usually in a drunken spree.

"The struggle for the hood in the village street—called 'the sway'—is a very rough affair. Some years ago the crowd knocked down twenty yards or so of a wall, and a similar occurrence took place some years before that.

"I believe Monday's game was rather unusually well attended for these days. There were, I should say, between three and four hundred people in the field, and the game was well contested. The greatest fun, however, is when there is snow on the ground. I got four photographs taken, but the light was very bad, and the crowd unmanageable.

"My son, who went with me to Haxey, says there were six or seven boggans in the field, but some of them were distinguished only by a strip of red cloth tied round one arm. I did not notice these, being unable to follow the game far on account of the photography."

In conclusion Mr. Bell adds it was the custom "until recently to 'smoke' the fool over a straw fire on the morning after the hood. He was suspended above the fire and swung backwards and forwards over it until almost suffocated; then allowed to drop into the smouldering straw, which was well wetted, and to scramble out as he could."

A rhyming version of the hood-legend exists which bears indications of being the work of a modern versifier. Its author was either unacquainted with the appearance of the country in the neighbourhood of Haxey, or quite indifferent to accuracy of description, for the "local colour" is decidedly faulty. This variant of the story speaks of the original chasers of the hood as knights, and makes "Dame Adela de Mowbray" the heroine of a love-tale for which there is no authority. Even the older forms of the tradition accounting for the supposed institution of "throwing the hood" can scarcely be accepted as having any historical foundation; unless, indeed, some mishap occurring to the headgear of one of the Mowbray family resulted in a bequest for the purpose of keeping up an old and popular diversion, or unless it was the Mowbray family which introduced this survival of hoary nature-worship into the Isle of Axholme. The latter supposition is, it may be said, very unlikely, for the determined strife of the different townships or hamlets for the possession of the hood is connected with ideas of which the true meaning had become obscure long before any Norman invader had become over-lord by the Trent.

Whether the word hood is really, in this instance, a synonym for couvre-chef has yet to be settled by philologists;[6] but the original import of the game itself is not difficult to explain. Very similar amusements are, as can easily be proved, familiar to French folklorists, who recognise in them a continuance of archaic sun-worship, long after the early significance of the ceremonial practice has passed out of memory. The course of the hood through the air once represented the course of the sun through the upper heavens; and the struggle to gain possession of it sprang, no doubt, from the idea that it would secure favourable weather to its owners.

The remarkable and distinguishing feature of the Isle of Axholme sport—the characteristic conclusion which differentiates it from its French analogues—is the "smoking of the fool." This termination shows that it is closely allied with the varied customs and observances examined and analysed by Mr. Frazer in his Golden Bough. It is almost certain that the dead man who is revived by the doctor in the ordinary Plough-Monday play of English rural life symbolises the power of vegetation reviving after death (winter),[7] or rather, fills a rôle which in far-past days symbolised that power. In the Haxey-hood the character who ends his career by being smoked plays the part formerly allotted to a series of actors for whom the fiery ordeal must have concluded in grim earnest. As appears from the teaching of comparative mythology, his prototypes during the darkest days of nature-worship represented the incarnation of vegetative energy. They were the earthly substitutes of the deity to whom men owed the corn which they ate, the grass devoured by their cattle, and the trees which yielded them fuel, building-timber, and countless other necessaries of life, the confederate—or perhaps the secondary aspect—of that great sun-god, whose power after waning from the joyous days of midsummer, began to wax again when midwinter was passed. As, however, these representatives of cosmic action were but mundane types of their great archetype, through the development of a natural theory abundantly illustrated by Mr. Frazer, they were sacrificed to the power which they represented while yet full of strength and vitality: it being both unseemly and dangerous that the earthly symbol of divine energy should be permitted to decline in strength and vigour. If the tatterdemalion who is finally smoked represents the spirit of fertility and growth of the past year, the hood itself stands no less certainly for the sun, and the boggans and their chief seemingly occupy the places once held by the high-priest of the sun-god and his assistants; in which case it may be maintained without much exaggeration that ministers of the old pagan worship, having succession from dusky antiquity, continue to survive in England in the closing years of the nineteenth century.

One fact worthy of attention is that the game is connected with the neighbourhood of a church and the remains of an old cross. Very possibly the site of the building may have been sacred ground before the erection of any Christian temple, since it is beyond dispute that the places hallowed by heathen piety, and the ceremonies connected with them, were at times taken over by the early missionaries and adapted to the exigencies of their own creed, with the aim of reconciling converts to its unfamiliar tenets. That some relationship existed till comparatively lately between ball-play and ecclesiastical festivals is sufficiently clear from several practices familiar to the student of folklore, which practices appear reasonless unless they can be looked on as survivals from prechristian ritual.

Some few years ago Cabsow or Shinup, a ball-game, was still popular at Cleethorpes, near Great Grimsby, at Yule. "On Christmas day every man was supposed to play it. The game somewhat resembled hocky, more so than golf. All that was needed was a good ground-ash stick, well turned up at the end, and a wooden ball. With more or less well-defined rules the ball was sent by the sticks from one side to another, like a football from player to player.[8] Every one is aware that football is an amusement proper to Shrove Tuesday, and evidence exists that it formerly gave rise to eager contests on that day in Lincolnshire. The Lincoln Gazette for February 12th, 1839, has a paragraph on football-playing among its Caistor news, which states that "This illegal practice has prevailed time immemorial at Caistor, of playing at football in the market-place and other public streets in the town, on Shrove Tuesday, annually, to the great annoyance of the inhabitants passing along the streets, besides compelling traders and others to shut up their shops, block up their windows, and otherwise causing a suspension of business, broken shins, broken windows, &c. The spirited overseers of the highways, at the request of the principal persons of the town, have issued printed notices that 'every person offending against the provisions of the 5th and 6th William IV. shall be proceeded against as the law directs.' This intended interference of the officers has given general satisfaction."

A description of Shrove-Tide football, as played at Sedgefield on February 18th, between the tradesmen and countrymen of the district, is quoted in the Antiquary, vol. xxxii., p. 100, from the Yorkshire Post, February 19th, 1896. "Spectators and players assembled on the village green, and at one o'clock the parish clerk made his appearance, and amidst loud cheering proceeded to the bull-ring. Passing the ball three times through the ring, it was thrown high in the air, and on it descent it became public property." When the game was over the ball was again passed through the ring, and then handed back to the man who had secured it. "A similar game was played at Chester-le-Street."

The connection of the game with the ring to which bulls were formerly attached for baiting is very curious. Although, so far as I am aware, the fact has never been pointed out by anyone discussing the origin of the sport, bull-baiting seems to have sprung from a form of nature-worship. That is to say, indications which suggest its association with the cult of water are still to be found. In the Stamford bull-running, for instance, the great object was to "bridge the bull," which meant to tumble him by main force over the bridge which spans the Welland into the river beneath. At Tutbury, if the minstrels could succeed in cutting off a piece of the bull's skin before he crossed the river Dove into Derbyshire, he became the property of the King of Music; but if not, he was returned to the prior of Tutbury, who had provided him for the festival. And according to Notes and Queries, 5th s., vol. xii. p. 456, "the last bull-baiting in Rochdale (Lancashire) took place in 18 19, when seven people were killed in consequence of the falling in of the river wall. The baiting was performed in the bed of the shallow river (the Roche) in the centre of the town."

To return from this digression, however, J. R. P. states in Hone's Every-Day Book, vol. ii., p. 187, in a letter on Irishmen indulging in the game on Sunday, that when he was a boy football was commonly played on Sunday morning before church-time in a village in the West of England, and that the church-piece was the chosen ground for it.

J. G., the author of a paper in Jackson's Brigg Annual, 1895, entitled Lincolnshire Agricultural Sketches, also says that at the old-fashioned village-feast—usually held, it is to be remembered, on the day sacred to the saint to whom the parish-church was dedicated—it used to be customary for boys to play cricket "with bats of various sizes, with a ball of rags tightly tied with string, and with extemporized wickets, and a football, almost solid, was kicked by youths."

According to Hone,[9] who quotes from Fosbroke's Dictionary of Antiquities, ball-play was formerly practised in churches at Easter, a statement parallel with what is said by Laisnel de la Salle[10] and Emile Souvestre[11] in writing of games connected with sun-worship in France.

A Florentine sport which appears to have been similar to the "hood-game" and its French analogues is described in the Gentleman's Magazine Library: English Traditions and Foreign Customs, p. 244; and contests of the same nature would seem to have been known to the Vikings.[12]

Whence the Isle of Axholme game was derived is likely to remain a debateable question. The district affords many instances of purely Scandinavian names; but Axholme itself, when written as it used to be—Axelholme—is formed of Celtic, English, and Danish elements, the two former of which also appear in Haxey. It is possible, therefore, that the earliest Teutonic population took over this observance from a pre-existing race of Celtic stock, or that they introduced it themselves. It is also possible, although hardly so likely, perhaps, that the intruding sea-rovers of a later age may have instituted it among the townships lying near Haxey, in imitation of some Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian ceremony, or even that the Normans brought it with them over the English Channel. The fact that the secondary festival at Haxey falls at old Midsummer ought to be noted; more especially as it, like the similar "Midsummer" held at Winterton and in several other Lincolnshire parishes, has no connection with the dedication of the church. Another trace of ancient nature-worship is also to be found in a custom which was still observed at Burnham, a hamlet of Haxey, in the last century. There, according to Stone-house, the holy-well, which was dedicated to the Redeemer, was supposed to possess the power of healing all sorts of deformities, weaknesses, and cutaneous diseases in children who were dipped in it on Ascension Day, and numbers of sufferers accordingly bathed at that feast. Holy Thursday is a day frequently connected with water-worship, a fact which has given rise to the supposition that it now fills the place of some holy-tide once sacred to a sky-god, whose cult was more or less connected with rain, and the replenishment of springs and streams. This god may have had near kinship with the solar deity, or he may even have been the great ruler himself; for it is beyond doubt that the cult of the sun is closely connected with that of lightning and rain, and therefore with the reverence shown to terrestrial water. In Lincolnshire, if it lightens and thunders about the festival of Yule the following harvest will be wet; and the natural relationship between the adoration of the sun and that of water is also marked by the remembrance of an old custom connected with Craikell-Spring, a medicinal rag-well till lately existing at Bottesford in Lincolnshire. This spring used to be visited by the feeble and sick just as the night was becoming day on Midsummer morning, Midsummer being according to a widespread belief the period when water has the most beneficent power.

  1. The History and Topography of the Isle of Axholme: being that Part of Lincolnshire which is west of Trent, 1839, p. 291.
  2. The spelling of this word varies in the descriptions of the game by different persons.
  3. W. Peck, Isle of Axholme, 1815, pp. 277, 278.
  4. The reference is to the Netherlanders, who, in the 17th century, undertook the drainage of the low-lying country between Doncaster and the Trent.
  5. Church Bells of the County and City of Lincoln, p. 246.
  6. One suggestion regarding the word is, that it has affinity with the Hood ot Robin flood, and the Höðr of Norse God-lore: Robin Hood being a type of spring-tide sunlight, or the reviving energy of nature; while Hoðr, the blind deity who slew Baldr, the god of summer sunlight, is supposed to represent winter, or the sun in its wintry aspect.
  7. The Golden Bough, vol. i., pp. 243, 248.
  8. Notes and Queries, 8th s., vol. viii., p. 446.
  9. Every-Day Book, vol. i., p. 436.
  10. "Croyances et Légendes du Centre de la France, 1875, vol. i., pp. 86, 87, 88.
  11. Derniers Bretons, 1854, p. 125.
  12. P. du Chaillu, The Viking Age, vol. ii., p. 375. R. Keyser, The Private Life of the Old Northmen, translated by the Rev. M. R. Barnard, 1868, p. 150.