The little market town of Ashbourne in rural Derbyshire is a picturesque idyl filled with boutique shops and quaint cafés perched on the edge of the beautiful Peak District. However, for two days out of the year the shops are closed, the windows boarded up, cars are moved out of the centre of town and the streets are flooded with people looking to get roughed up. This very gentrified town lets out its feral side for a tradition which dates back centuries, Royal Shrovetide Football.
Taking place every year on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, thousands of people from all over gather to participate in or watch this world famous football match. However, this isn’t like any football (or soccer) match you’ve ever seen. This version of game has its roots in the medieval period and is also known as mob football. It’s a free-for-all with no uniforms, only a handful of rules and where injuries are common. It is not for the faint hearted!
Unlike regular football, players are allowed to kick, hold or even throw the ball. However, due to the close proximity of the players, the ball is rarely kicked but rather ‘hugged’ from one player to the next. Play often happens around a scrum of people, similar to what is seen in rugby.
Teams are made up of players from opposite sides of the town. Those born north of the Henmore Brook are dubbed the Up’ards and those from the south are the Down’ards. Specially made stone obelisks act as the goals and are located three miles from each other, one in nearby Clifton and the other in the village of Sturston, on the opposite side of Ashbourne.
The rules are simple; the town’s picturesque memorial gardens, churchyards and cemeteries are off limits. The ball can’t be carried in (or on) a motorised vehicle and the ball can’t be hidden in a bag, coat, rucksack or anything similar. Play stops at 10pm and to score a goal, the ball must be tapped 3 times on the the goal. Oh, and there’s one other rule; you can’t kill anyone, even accidentally. Otherwise, the aim of the game is to get the ball to your goal, how ever possible.
Play is held for 8 hours per day, starting at 2pm. The match starts in the centre of Ashbourne near the Henmore Brook when the ball is ‘turned up’ or thrown into the crowd. To be chosen to ‘turn up’ the ball is seen as a great honour given to dignitaries or well respected locals.
Larger than a normal football, these balls are filled with Portuguese cork allowing them to float if they fall into the river, which they often do. Local craftsmen hand stitch the leather then hand paint the balls with themes honouring the dignitary chosen to do the ‘turning up’. Anyone who ‘goals’ the ball can keep it. They are then hoisted up on his or her teammates’ shoulders before going off to celebrate at the Green Man pub.
All around Britain, a handful of towns and villages still host traditional mob football matches. However, the largest and most famous of these games is Ashbourne’s Royal Shrovetide Football Match.
Ashbourne’s annual match dates back to at least 1667. A fire at the Royal Shrovetide Committee office in the 1890’s destroyed the records, forever losing the exact origins of the tradition.
The Shrovetide match wasn’t always as revered as it is today. In 1880, efforts were made to stop the games including placing signs in the town park warning players of imprisonment if they trespassed. That year ten players were arrested after throwing bricks and stones at the police, forcing them to use their truncheons on the crowd.
When the First World War broke out the townspeople considered stopping the games since most of the their players were off fighting overseas. However, at the request of those serving away, the match continued with some of the town’s younger men and a few servicemen on leave making up the teams.
Meanwhile over 300 miles away, in the French town of Sus-Saint-Léger a few men from Ashbourne and the rest of their regiment, played their own version of Shrovetide Football. The town sent a decorated ‘typical ball’ to the C Company of the 6th Sherwood Foresters. On Shrove Tuesday 1916 La Grand Rue (the main street) filled up with English servicemen playing a game of mob football as French locals looked on. Private Jack H Robinson scored the first goal and was allowed to keep the ball. He carried that ball with him in his pack for the rest of the war and eventually brought it home with him.
In 1922 Princess Mary, daughter of King George V, was married on Shrove Tuesday. The Shrovetide committee sent her a special Shrovetide ball as a wedding gift. As a mark of gratitude, the game was given the right to be called ‘Royal’ Shrovetide Football. Six years later Mary’s brother the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, was given the honour of turning up the ball. The prince earned a bloody nose for his efforts. In 2003 a different Prince of Wales, HRH Prince Charles, turned up the ball. This time, it was done from the safety of a plinth overlooking the crowd.
The Play Stops
In all the years that the town has played the match, only twice has it been cancelled. It wasn’t threats from the police or even war which put a stop to the games but rather disease. In 1968 and 2001 Foot and Mouth spread through the countryside. Unable to freely roam the area, the games were called off.
It isn’t often that a game which causes bloody noses, black eyes, split lips and even a few broken bones is held in such high esteem by an entire community. Despite the injury count, Ashbourne’s Royal Shrovetide Football is fiercely protected by the locals from the ravages of litigation and Health & Safety. Businesses and schools close over the two days when the match is played, not out of fear of the crowds but rather so they too can participate in this ancient blood sport.