Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football Game by Elizabeth Colantoni

 Ashbourne Royal Football Game 

Research by Elizabeth Colantoni

Elizabeth Colantoni

Dr. Teresa Russo 

MARS 2P95 

18 Feb 2021 


Elizabeth Colantoni is in her sixth year at Brock University. She holds a major in Dramatic Arts with a minor in French Studies, and is currently completing a combined major in Italian Studies & Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Her areas of interest are art, architecture, and literature of this region and eras. Today she will present on one of the surviving medieval mass football games which is played in England, entitled Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football Game.

The Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football Game 

For this research, I used excerpts and chapters from books dealing with English traditions as well as sports history: A Dictionary of English Folklore, Festivals, Tourism, and Social Change, Multilingual Matters, and The Oxford Handbook of Sports History. As well as official Ashbourne materials like the Peak District & Derbyshire Shrovetide Football - a Right Royal Game document. 

Origins & History  - The Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football Game is played annually on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, England. It is believed this mass participation football game has been played since the reign of King Richard II in the 12th century (Peak District & Derbyshire). Games such as this Shrovetide Football were first recorded in circa 1175 AD/CE (Porter, 1992, qtd. in McCabe, 103). Some think these mass football-style games were possibly brought over by the French to England (Porter, 1992, qtd. in McCabe, 103). Others believe they date back to descriptions of handball games found in Homer (Robertson, 1997, qtd. in McCabe 103). Shrovetide football has been played in Ashbourne for centuries, with the first known mention in 1683 by Charles Cotton (Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football). It is also referred to as hugballbecause the ball is often trapped in a hug - which is a huddled group of players trying to get the ball (Peak District & Derbyshire).                                         

The Shrovetide Ball - The balls are handmade in Ashbourne by locals. They are larger than a standard football and weigh four pounds. They are filled with cork clippings so they can float in the river and are stitched leather on the exterior (Peak District & Derbyshire). The balls are painted and designed to reflect and honour the person turning up the ball (McCabe, 105). They are a work of art and can take weeks to paint and complete. If a player scores / makes a goal with the ball, it becomes theirs to keep. If a ball is un-goaled throughout the game, it becomes the possession of the person who turned it up at the beginning of the game (McCabe, 105). There are times when the ball is torn during the game (Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football). 

Rules & Guidelines - With the game being centuries old, there are written and unwritten rules to follow. There are no strict rules regarding who can play or team sizes. Anyone can play and anyone can watch. There are no specific uniforms or colours associated with the game (McCabe, 104). Players are divided into two teams. The Uppards team is generally made up of those born to the north of the Henmore river, which divides Ashbourne in half, and the Downards team which is comprised of those born south of the river (Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football”'). Positions on the team include players who play in the hug to try to attain the ball, runners who run with the ball if it is freed from the hug, and designated scorers (McCabe, 110). A senior member of the team will draw straws for who is allowed to score the ball if they get it (Peak District & Derbyshire). The day begins with lunch at the Green Man - an 18th century inn. The Shrovetide songis sung afterwards (Peak District & Derbyshire). At 2:00 pm, the ball is turned up - thrown into the crowd / hug - from a podium in the town center. It is customary that a dignitary from out of town does this on Shrove Tuesday and a local important figure does so on Ash Wednesday (McCabe, 104). The goals are three miles apart - each approximately one and a half miles from the towns center - on the site of two old mills. These concrete plinths have a circular target on them and are placed in the river (McCabe, 104). The ball can be in play throughout the town so long as it avoids private property, and can be carried, thrown, or kicked. It is forbidden to transport the ball  by a motorized vehicle. Most of the time the ball remains in the hug (Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football). To score, the scorer takes the ball and must hit the target three times (McCabe, 104-105). If a goal is made before 5:00 pm, another ball is turned up. If it is after 5:00 pm, the game is stopped for the day. If there are no goals by 10:00 pm, it is a draw and the ball is taken away (Peak District & Derbyshire). 

Resistance & Results - During the later Middle Ages, mass ball games were a source of frustration for the ruling class (Edelman & Wilson). Since the games are brutal and lacked strict rules, bands were created in response to public disturbances, damage, excessive drinking and violence they caused. Some felt that the time spent playing these games was wasted and took away from labour and battle training (Edelman & Wilson). By the 14th century, there were a minimum of 30 bans on mass ball games created by English kings (Edelman & Wilson). Recent reports propose that in 1526, King Henry VIII commissioned a pair of football boots to participate in a Shrove Tuesday game (McCabe, 103-104). There is evidence of a 1533 ban to stop a Shrove Tuesday football match in Chester, England (Robertson, 1967, qtd in McCabe, 103). By the mid 19th century, attempts to stop the Royal Shrovetide Football Game were more determined. In 1862/3, an agreement was made to move the game play out of the town center and into a more open site to decrease damage (Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football). Both written and unwritten rules are monitored by the Shrovetide Committee, which came into existence in 1892.              

Importance of the Game, Methodology & Conclusions - Shrovetide provides a vital link in the yearly social cycle of the town(McCabe, 112). Many of the spectators, who also play a roll in the match, admit one of the main reasons they attend is to spend time with old friends. Thus, the game also has social aspects (McCabe, 112-113). Those in the audience are not only supporting the players but also the community and its traditions of the Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football Game (McCabe, 112). This medieval game is part of the identity and history of Ashbourne. It has seen changes but has withstood the test of time. It is one of the few mass medieval games which is still played (Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football). This game is rooted in tradition and is part of Ashbournes unique identity, thus it survives and is passed down generationally (McCabe, 107). 


Works Cited 

Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football.A Dictionary of English Folklore, 1st ed., Oxford University Press, 2003. 

Edelman, Robert, and Wayne Wilson. The Oxford Handbook of Sports History. Oxford University Press, 2017. 

 McCabe, Scott. The Making of Community Identity through Historic Festive Practice: The Case of Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football.Festivals, Tourism and Social Change, Multilingual Matters, 2019, pp. 99- 118. 

Peak District & Derbyshire. Shrovetide Football a Right Royal Game, Ashbourne Trail No. 25. 


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