The Elizabethan People/Chapter 7

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CHAPTER VII

OUT-OF-DOOR SPORTS

THE Elizabethans were such fun-loving people that it is useless to attempt here to catalogue their amusements, either indoor or out. In the following chapter and the next a brief description is given of those sports that were the most popular and therefore most typical of the time:

Ale was the staple drink of our ancestors of this period and ales one of their staple amusements. An ale was nothing more nor less than a fair at which practically nothing of importance was sold except ale. There were many of them. Some took their names from the dates on which they were given as the Whitsun Ale; some were named from the place at which they were given, and might occur at any time, as the Church Ale. The Leet Ale was rather a dinner than an ale, given upon the occasion of the courtleet of a manor. The Bride Ale is mentioned elsewhere. The Clerk Ale owes its name to its purpose, namely, that of a benefit for the clerk. Of all these, the first two are the most important.

The Church Ale was a festival instituted sometimes in memory of the patron saint of the church at which it was given, but more frequently for the purpose of raising funds for the support of the church, for its decoration or repair. Every one was expected to go and to buy his share of ale. The enthusiasm that followed often led persons to contribute far more heavily to the good cause than they would have done had they stayed away and remained sober.

It was not an uncommon thing to have as many as six or eight of these ales annually. Drake quotes the following from a paper in Dodsworth's MSS. in the Bodleian Library: "The parishioners of Elveston and Okebrook, in Derbyshire, agree jointly, to brew four Ales, and every Ale of one quarter of malt, betwixt this (the time of the contract) and the feast of St. John Baptist next coming. And every inhabitant of the said town of Okebrook shall be at the several Ales. And every husband and his wife shall pay two pence, and every cottager one penny, and all the inhabitants of Elveston shall have and receive all the profits and advantages coming of the said Ales, to the use and behoof of the said church of Elveston. And the inhabitants of Elveston shall brew eight Ales betwixt this and the feast of St. John Baptist, at the which Ales the inhabitants of Okebrook shall come and pay as before rehearsed. And if he be away at one Ale, to pay at the toder Ale for both, &c."[1]

Though this document is dated before the Reformation, times had not changed materially in this respect by 1602 when Carew first published his Survey of Cornwall. In it he says: "For the church-ale, two men of the parish are chosen by their best foregoers, to be wardens; who, dividing the task, make collection among the parishioners, of whatsoever provision it pleaseth them voluntarily to bestow. This they employ in brewing, baking, and other acates, against Whitsuntide; upon which holy-dayes the neighbours meet at the church-house, and there merily feed on their owne victuals, contributing some petty portion to the stock; which, by many smalls, groweth to a meetely greatness: for there is entertayned a kinde of emulation betweene these wardens, who by his graciousness in gathering, and good husbandry in expending, can best advance the churches profit. Besides the neighbour parishes at those times lovingly visit one another, and this way frankely spend their money together. The afternoons are consumed in such exercises as olde and yong folke (having leysure) doe accustomably weare out time withall." Stubbes, in the Anatomy of Abuses, 1595, declares that "in certaine townes, where drunken Bacchus bears swaie against Christmas and Easter, Whitsunday, or some other time, the church-wardens, for so they calle them, in every parish, with the consent of the whole parish, provide half a score or twentie quarters of mault, whereof some they buy of the church stocke, and some is given to them of the parishioners themselves, everyone conferring somewhat, according to his ability; which mault being made into very strong ale, or beer, is set to sale, either in the church or in some other place assigned to that purpose. Then, when this nippitatum, this huffe-cappe, as they call it, this nectar of life, is set abroach, well is he that can get the soonest to it, and spends the most at it, for he is counted the goodliest man of all the rest, and most in God's favour, because it is spent upon his church forsooth."

"The church wardens shall not suffer any pedlar, or others whatsoever, to set out any wares to sale, either in the porches of churches, or in the churchyard, nor anywhere else on holy days or Sundays, while any part of divine service is in doing or while any service is in preaching."[2]

"Church or parish ales, revels, may games, plays and such other unlawful assemblies of the people of sundry parishes into one parish on the Sabbath Day and other times, is a special cause that many disorders, contempts of law, and other enormities are there perpetrated and committed to the great profanation of the Lord's Sabbath, the dishonour of Almighty God, the increase of bastardy and of dissolute life, and of many other mischiefs and inconveniences of the commonwealth."[3]

"In January, 1599, the justices took a long step further, and having discovered that many inconveniences 'which with modesty cannot be expressed' had happened in consequence of these gatherings, they ordered that parish ales, church ales, and revels should thenceforth be utterly suppressed. . . . An order of Easter, 1607, declares that church ales, parish ales, sextons' ales, and all revels are utterly to be suppressed. Yet we find so late as 1622 that war against them was still being carried on."[4]

Ballad singing in the streets was a common custom, as was the frequent hawking about from place to place of new ballads upon contemporary events. These sheets, which usually sold for a
The Quintain.jpg

The Quintain.
(From an old print.)

penny and often contained a clumsy wood-cut at the top, were not the old English and Scottish ballads of good poetical repute, but, rather, verses of very mediocre quality that related for the most part, as has been said, to contemporary events of public and private interest. In fact, the ballads and short pamphlets of the day which were hawked about the streets in the same manner as the penny ballads, supplied in a measure the place of such publications as The Spectator of a later date and the newspapers of to-day. There was, for instance, a complete catalogue of the Marian Martyrs written in verse and peddled all over the kingdom by the ballad-mongers. The following examples serve to show how the ballads served the people with an account of current events in the capital. A picturesque presentation of the ballad-monger is to be found in the person of Autolycus of The Winter's Tale. On August 5, 1597, immediately after the appearance of Romeo and Juliet, a ballad on the story was entered in the Stationer's Register, and on August 27, T. Millington was fined for printing ballads on The Taming of the Shrew and on Macbeth. (Fleay.)

The following selection from an old ballad on the execution of a noted wizard in 1597 serves to show the character of these productions:

"Of late in Southwarke there was known
Example of the same
When God's owne judgement fell upon
Simon Pembroke by name.
He was a noted conjurer
Lived neare unto the Clinke;
He was so famous in that place
To him did folks resorte—
Within the church the court was held,
St. Saviour's near the bridge," etc.

A naïve use to which the pictures at the top of the ballads were put is thus alluded to by Jonson in Bartholomew Fair. "O, sister, do you remember the ballads over the nursery chimney at home o' my pasting up?"


Ball games were played in great number and variety. Balloon ball, in its more commonly used variety, was played with a large ball, perhaps a bladder or foot-ball, but pushed about from place to place, either with the hands or with a sort of short wooden paddle. It is thus described by Strutt: "The balloon or wind-ball resembled the follis of the Romans; it was a large ball made of double leather, which being filled with wind by means of a ventil, was driven to and fro by the strength of men's arms; for this purpose every one of the players had a round hollow bracer of wood to cover the hand and lower part of the arm, with which he struck the ball. The pastime was usually practiced in the open fields, and is much commended for the healthiness of the exercise it afforded." It is of frequent mention in the Elizabethan plays, and is doubtless sometimes confused with foot-ball. (Cf. Middleton's Game of Chess, ii. 2; Ford's Lover's Melancholie, ii. 1; Eastward Ho, i. 1.)

The quotation above from King James's ultimatum in regard to sports rules foot-ball out because of its cruel nature, an objection that has not yet quite disappeared. The ancient game, however, was altogether different from the modern game played under the same name. It was then played without system, and because of the unequal numbers that frequently engaged upon opposite sides, there was far more opportunity for rough playing and accidents. The old way of playing the game is sufficiently described in the following paragraph from Strutt: "When a match at foot-ball is made, two parties, each containing an equal number of competitors, take the field and stand between two goals, placed at a distance of eighty or a hundred yards the one from the other; the ball, which is commonly made from a blown bladder, and cased with leather, is delivered in the midst of the ground, and the object of each party is to drive it through the goal of their antagonists, which being achieved the game is won. The abilities of the players are best displayed in defending and attacking the goals; when the exercise becomes exceeding violent, the players kick each other's shins without the least ceremony, and some of them are overthrown at the hazard of their limbs." It is in the last sentence that Strutt gives the key to the difference between the Elizabethan game and our own. The game was often played with no attention to system or rule of play. In fact, the open street was often a common foot-ball ground, a mark taking the place of a regular goal. We also hear that it was a popular sport of the Londoners and was played in the courtyard of the Royal Exchange. It was a winter as well as a summer sport, and is mentioned as one of the games played upon the frozen Thames in 1608.

Stow-ball and Bandy-ball are both names for the game of golf which was played in Elizabethan times. Hand-ball was the great ball game to be played at Easter; a variety of which was called hand-tennis, which was also sometimes played under the name of fives. Tennis was a very popular game. It was played either out of doors, or indoors under the name of racquet. Tennis or racquet was a game for noblemen and princes as well as for the common people. The contemporary plays are redundant with technical allusions to the games; perhaps nothing so well illustrates the popular familiarity with its play and rules as the numerous allusions to its technical details to be found in Middleton's play, The World Lost at Tennis. Many references show that the indoor game of racquet was most fashionably played in the forenoon.

Trap-stick, trap-ball, and Northern-spell were names given to a familiar game in which the ball was struck out of a sort of trap by means of a small paddle, and batted before reaching the ground. In some respects, it resembled the modern cat-stick.


Barley-break was a rural sport of great popularity, whose other and better known name was The Last Couple in Hell. It is thus described by Gifford: "It was played by six people (three of each sex) who were coupled by lot. A piece of ground was then chosen, and divided into three compartments, of which the middle one was called hell. It was the object of the couple condemned to this division to catch the others, who advanced from the two extremities; in which case a change of situation took place, and hell was filled by the couple who were excluded by preoccupation from the other places; in this 'catching,' however, there was some difficulty, as, by the regulations of the game, the middle couple were not to separate before they had succeeded, while the others might break hands whenever they found themselves hard pressed. When all had been taken in turn, the last couple were said to be in hell, and the game ended."

This sport affords the key to so many allusions in the old plays that it is worth while to insert a description of the Scottish form of the game, which was called Barla-breikes: "This innocent sport seems to be entirely forgotten in the south of Scotland. It is also falling into disuetude in the north. . . . A game generally played by the young people in a corn yard. Hence called barla-bracks, about the stacks. One stack is fixed on as a dule or goal; and one person is appointed to catch the rest of the company, who run out from the dule. He does not leave it till they are all out of his sight. Then he sets out to catch them. Any one who is taken cannot run out again with his former associates, being accounted a prisoner; but he is obliged to assist his captor in pursuing the rest. When all are taken the game is finished; and he who is first taken is bound to act as catcher in the next game." (Quoted from Dr. Jamieson by Nares.) The resemblance of this game to the modern "I Spy!" is evident.


Base was a rustic game also known by the name of Prison Base and Prison Bars, and gave rise to the common expression meaning to challenge, namely, bidding a base. It was played as follows: "The performance of this pastime requires two parties of equal number, each of them having a base or home to themselves, at a distance of about twenty yards. The players then on either side, taking hold of hands, extend themselves in length, and opposite to each other, as far as they conveniently can, always remembering that one of them must touch the base. When any one of them quits the hand of his fellow and runs into the field, which is called giving the chase, he is immediately followed by one of his opponents. He is again followed by another from the former side, and he by a second opponent, and so on alternately until as many are out as choose to run, everyone pursuing the man he first followed, and no other; and if he overtake him near enough to touch him, his party claims one towards the game, and both return home. Then they run forth again and again in like manner till the number is completed that decides the victory. This number is optional and rarely exceeds twenty." (Strutt.)


The game of bowls was one of the commonest sports for gentlemen. It will be remembered that Drake, Hawkins, and other famous sea-captains were interrupted in a game of bowls upon the Hoe at Plymouth (a game that the sturdy and unruffled Drake wanted to play out), by the news that the Spanish Armada had been sighted in the Channel. In the country, or wherever space was sufficient, the game was played upon a close-cut turf called a green, hence the contemptuous term, green-men. An equally common variation of the game was like the modern nine-pins, and was played in alleys. The bowling alley was a common adjunct to the great house. The erection of such a place of amusement was one of the first tasks undertaken by Henry VIII. when he took possession of Whitehall. Stow is loud in his lamentations over the numerous public bowling alleys that took up men's time and "pestered" certain districts of London to the exclusion of more reputable buildings. There is not room here to describe the numerous terms that crept into the common speech from the game of bowls. One, however, is so frequently met with in Shakespeare as to warrant insertion. The bowl was not always aimed directly at the Jack, or Mistress, but bowled so as to roll in a curve and approach from the side. In order to accomplish this irregular path with facility the bowl was weighted upon one side with a piece of lead called the bias. The name was also applied to the path traversed by the ball; hence the name came to denote any inclination out of the ordinary; and "against the bias" a figurative expression for any opposition to a steady tendency.


The Cotswold games consisted of a great annual celebration attended by people from all parts of the country. Cotswold, says Madden, "was then to coursing what Newmarket is to horse-racing, and St. Andrews to golf; the recognised home and centre of the sport." (For further details of this great celebration which included the practice of almost every kind of seasonable game, the reader is referred to Mr. Madden's volume, and to Vol. I. of Drake, p. 252-4.)


It is necessary to hurry over with a bare allusion a number of sports of great popular devotion. All public demonstrations were accompanied by displays of fireworks. Crackers, much like the modern plaything sold under the same name, are often mentioned in the old plays. "There's first crackers, which run into the air, and when they are at the top ... keep a crackling and a crackling and then break and down they come." (Marston's Fawn, i. 2.) Squibs was another name applied to one of the varieties of crackers, often called squib-crackers. "So squibs and crackers fly into the air, Then, only breaking with a noise, they vanish In stench and smoke." (Ford's The Broken Heart, ii. 2.) "Squibs that run upon lynes," are mentioned in Northward Ho. Coloured fires were of frequent use, and the discharge of all sorts of noise-producing weapons in the midst of such displays was common. (Cf. the numerous descriptions of public demonstrations in Nichols' Progresses of Queen Elizabeth.)


The tales with which Othello beguiled Desdemona are a good illustration of a fondness of the Elizabethans that is to a large degree still a characteristic of the English nation, perhaps, however, not to so great extent as formerly: namely, the love of monstrosities. These tales of Othello are a fair example of a kind of tale often told by returning travelers apparently in perfect faith. The opening chapter of Kingsley's Westward Ho! contains similar tales, and this, as has been elsewhere pointed out, is an almost literal transcript of a contemporary pamphlet. Ben Jonson in Bartholomew Fair (iii. 1.) ridicules this love of his countrymen for monstrous objects. "You said, let's go to Ursula's, indeed; but then you met the man with the monsters, and I could not get you from him. An old fool, not leave seeing yet!" And every one recalls the line from the Tempest. "Were I in England now, as once I was, and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver: there would this monster make a man: when they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian. Legged like a man! and his fins like arms!"

Many amusing anecdotes about monsters are contained in Madden, and innumerable allusions are contained in the old plays. One especially popular kind of monster was the trained animal, which was then looked upon much more in the light of a monster than at present. Both Strutt and Drake have several illustrations of trained animals. Doubtless the most illustrious of all the Elizabethan trained animals, one which has become a veritable personage of history, was Morocco, the horse belonging to one Banks, who exhibited him for years in London. This horse could dance, keep time, do a world of tricks that were then considered of so marvellous a nature that in the end both he and his master were considered to be in league with the evil one; and during an European tour were both burned to death on the charge of sorcery.


Nine Men's Morris: "In that part of Warwickshire where Shakespeare was educated, and in the neighbouring parts of Northamptonshire, the shepherds and other boys dig up the turf with their knives to represent a sort of imperfect chess-board. It consists of a square, sometimes only a foot in diameter, sometimes three or four yards. Within this is another square, every side of which is parallel to the external square, and these squares are joined by lines from each corner of both squares and from the middle of each line. One party or player has wooden pegs, the other stones, which they move in such a manner as to take up each other's men, as they are called, and the area of the inner square is called the pond, in which the men taken up are impounded. These figures are always cut upon the green turf, or leys, as they are called, or upon the grass at the end of ploughed lands, and in rainy seasons never fail to be choked up with mud." (James, Var. Shak., 1821.)


The quintain was originally a military sport whose purpose was to accustom pages and squires
The Water Quintain (From an old print.).jpg

The Water Quintain
(From an old print.)

to the use of arms. The quintain was usually the wooden figure of a man with outstretched arm, pivoted so as to rotate freely. The young lancer endeavoured, as he rode by, to strike the quintain squarely in the breast. If he missed by ever so little, it dashed round, giving the unsuccessful adversary a sounding blow with its outstretched arm. There were many variations of the game. One of the most popular was the water quintain. Here one stood in the prow of a small boat. If he missed his aim he was likely, or almost certain, in fact, to fall headlong into the water.

So much space has been occupied with even these slight allusions and descriptions of the most typical Elizabethan sports for out of doors, that others must be passed over even more briefly. There were frequent wakes held in connection with the end of harvest time and the sheep-shearing. Shovel-board and wrestling were common. Marbles were frequently played. Tops were the delight of the boys. The tops were of the whipping variety, and a huge one was kept under the name of the parish top to exercise the muscles of the lazy and unemployed. "He turned me about with his finger and thumb, as one would set up a top." (Coriolanus, IV. v. 160. ) "Enters a little boy with his top and scourge" is a stage direction in the Yorkshire Tragedy. Several illustrative quotations concerning the parish top are to be found in Nares, including one from Evelyn that shows that these tops were made of willow wood.

  1. Vol. I., p. 177.
  2. Bishop Grindel's Injunction to the laity at York. 1571-2.
  3. Order of Justice, July, 1595.
  4. Quarter Sessions, Elizabeth to Anne.