Tudor Sports

 

Tudor sports were not a regular feature of life for the ordinary people. They worked long hours, often from sun up to sun down, and went to bed when it got dark. 

In 1512 Henry VIII had a law passed that banned the common people from playing tennis, dice, cards, bowls and skittles. The law was relaxed at Christmas and on Saints’ days.

Tudor sports were played by men and boys. Women and girls were spectators.

Jousting

This was a favourite of the royal court and took place in a tiltyard. The sport involved two knights on horseback charging towards each other holding a lance. The winner was the knight who managed to knock his opponent off his horse.  King Henry VIII was a skilled jouster, but in January 1536 he was unbalanced. His horse lost its footing and he fell to the ground with his horse on top of him.  He was unconscious for some time and unable to speak for two hours. It is believed that the injury led to a personality disorder and contributed to his obesity in later life.

Jousting
Illustration of Medieval jousting

Tennis

Tennis was an indoor sport in Tudor Times. It was played in a large room divided into two halves by a net. Spectators sat in a gallery to the side of the room. Like tennis today, players had to hit a ball over the net and scored points when it was missed or went out of play. Unlike tennis today, players were able to rebound the ball off the walls of the court. Henry VIII was noted as being very good at the game and had a court built at Hampton Court. Rackets were made of wood and strung with sheep gut while the ball was made of leather and filled with hair.

Tudor Tennis
Real tennis in the sixteenth century

Hunting

Hunting was seen as a sport by the rich and a regular feature of the Tudor court. The nobility generally hunted deer and sometimes wild boar. King Henry VIII  enjoyed hunting and would often ride out after breakfast and not return until mid afternoon or later. For poor people hunting was a means of providing fresh meat for their table. However, the common folk were only allowed to hunt hares and rabbits. They would face punishment if caught hunting other animals.

Elizabethan hunting
Woodcut of Elizabeth I hunting

Falconry

Falconry and hawking were popular with the upper classes. The birds were prized possessions and were often taken on hunting expeditions. Anne Boleyn chose the falcon as her badge when she married Henry VIII. 

Bowls

Legend states that Francis Drake was playing a game of bowls when the Spanish Armada was sighted off the coast of Plymouth. While there is little truth in the legend, it is known that the game of bowls was played in the sixteenth century. In the game players have to try to get as close as possible to a smaller ball or marker of some kind. Upper class players may well have rolled or thrown balls, however there are records to indicate that ordinary people played the game with stones.

Francis Drake
Francis Drake playing bowls

Bear-Baiting

This Tudor sport was enjoyed by all classes. King Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are known to have enjoyed the sport and a bear pit was built at the palace of Whitehall.  A bear was chained to a post in the pit and dogs were then sent into the pit. By the late sixteenth century some people felt that the sport was cruel and tried to pass a law to ban it. Although the House of Commons voted for the ban, Queen Elizabeth I intervened and overruled them.

Cock Fights

This was another sport enjoyed by rich and poor alike. Two cocks were put into a ring where they fought to the death. The winner was the owner of the surviving bird.

Football

 Football was a popular form of Tudor entertainment. Instead of being played on a pitch, it was played between two villages, sometimes more than a mile apart. An inflated pigs bladder was often used as a ball. Teams could be of any size and the object of the game was to get the ball back to your village. The ball could be kicked, thrown or carried.  There were no rules and players were often badly injured in their bid to keep or take the ball.

In 1540 football was banned. Henry VIII was concerned that huge numbers of young men were being injured playing the game. These were young men that could be needed to serve in the army should England be at war. Anyone caught playing the game could be fined two shillings (two days wages for a labourer).

Tudor football
Illustration of a Tudor football game

Wrestling

Wrestling was a popular sport enjoyed by all classes. Like today, a variety of holds were used to try to throw one’s opponent to the ground. In 1520 at the Field of the Cloth of Gold summit meeting between King Henry VIII and King Francis I of France, Henry challenged Francis to a wrestling match. The match was won by Francis and thankfully for those attending Henry took the defeat in good spirits.

Archery 

In 1363, during the time of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), a law had been passed that required all men to practice with the bow. By the sixteenth century, archery practice had become a way of life and it was considered one of the most popular Tudor sports. Competitions were held regularly. King Henry VIII won many archery competitions. His son, Edward, was not so skilled as his father and is recorded as lamenting his failure at the sport.

 

Published Apr 27, 2020 @ 7:35 pm – Updated – Aug 7, 2020 @ 9:37 pm

Harvard Reference for this page:

Heather Y Wheeler. (2020). Tudor Sports Available: https://www.tudornation.com/tudor-sports Last accessed [date]

 

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