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Sports of The Elizabethan Era

By Robert Hadfield
1st Period, May 2011

The Elizabethan era was during the reign of Henry VII, his son Henry VIII, and his three children Edward I, Mary I, and Elizabeth I circa 1558 to 1603. This period is often considered as the Golden Age of England because it was the climax of the Renaissance phase. The Elizabethan Era was also a time when the Tudors emerged. Many captivating and amusing sports and traditions developed throughout this time. There is a wide spectrum of sports in the Elizabethan Era that are the precursors of todays sports, but contained vast differences. Sports during the Tudor Era were much more inhuman than modern sports. There was an entire genre of animal cruelty sports known as blood sports. Bear baiting and bull baiting were popular sports for people to watch. In these sports a bear or a bull was chained to a post, blindfolded, attacked by dogs, and whipped by a group of men. Bear-baiting was described by Hentzner, in The Gentlemans magazine: Whipping the blind bear is performed by five or six men standing circularly with whips, which they exercise upon him without any mercy; as he cannot escape from them because of his chain, he defends himself with all his force and skill, throwing down all who come within his reach, and tearing the whips out of their hands, and breaking them. Cockfights were also a very popular blood sport. Two roosters, specifically bred for aggressiveness, would be placed in a small ring and encouraged to fight to the death. These roosters would often even have weapons strapped to their legs, consisting of assorted blades and spikes. Donkeys would often be attacked by a pack of dogs in Bear gardens along with cockfights, bear baiting, and bull baiting. Bear gardens consisted of all manner of blood sports strewn throughout a large arena, similar to the gladiatorial games of Roman times.

Tudor Sports were not only perilous for animals, but for people as well. Football during the Elizabethan Era was much more brutal. There were nearly no rules then whereas now there are innumerable rules to remember. Goals could be up to a mile apart, with an unlimited amount of people on either team. King Henry VIII banned football for its ruthlessness in 1540 because young men, valuable to the army, were getting injured, and could therefore be of no help. A writer, Philip Stubbs, states the following about football, Football is more of a fight than a game. Sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their legs. Football encourages envy and hatred; sometimes fighting, murder, and great loss of blood. Jousting was another very brutal sport. Knights would gallop on horses like charging rhinos toward each other with the intent to knock one another off. Each knight wielded a long stick called a lance. Large colorful tournaments would be held with banners, jesters, musicians and all sorts of other entertainment. These tournaments were very popular, and many people came to watch. This was a very dangerous sport involving many deaths and injuries to many formidable knights. King Henry VIII himself was injured in a joust, and had to retire from this sport. There is some speculation that his tyrannical viciousness, including beheading two of his wives, and divorcing another two, may have been partly caused by this extreme injury. With each man wielding a six-foot staff, fighting with all their skill and strength, quarterstaff contests also had potential to become lethal. This sport was popular among the poorer division of people because it was legal for everyone, and it was cheap.

Sports were significantly more controlled by the government than they are today. Most of the time, poorer people did not participate in sports. They were too busy doing what the government wanted them to do -- work. In 1512, real tennis, cards, dice, bowls, and skittles were all banned from ordinary people by Henry VIII so that they would work more and play less, and because dice and cards encouraged gambling. Only rich nobles could hunt deer because all big game was considered property of the King or Queen and their kinsmen. Commoners could only hunt hares and rabbits. Kings and Queens, for example King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth, would go on hunts with a large group of huntsmen, dogs, and horses. The huntsmen would hunt down a hart (a stag) and kill it. A huntsman would bring the hart to the king or queen, kneel down, and cut off the harts back left foot. The chief huntsman would then kneel down and give the king or queen his hunting knife. Next, the king or queen would stab the dead carcass as if he or he or she was killing it. Henry VIII spent up to five hours per day hunting and was considered a skilled hunter. There were many sports in Tudor England that were influential to sports today, and similar in many ways. Skittles is an example of modern ten-pin bowling. Hockey today would have been called hurling or shinty, with a few variations. The Elizabethan sport, stoolball, is very similar to cricket, and Pall Mall was an ancestor of croquet. Billiards was a game similar to pool. Colf was golf for Tudors of the 1500s. Hammer throwing contests were popular during the Elizabethan Era. They showed a mans great strength, amazing technique, and striking skill. Archery contests were very popular and colorfully entertaining competitions with many skilled competitors. Many sports that we

joyfully experience today would probably not be here if sports such as these had not developed in the Elizabethan Era over 400 years ago. In conclusion, there are many differences and similarities of modern sports and Elizabethan sports. Sports during the Elizabethan Era were much more inhuman, both for people and animals; they were greatly controlled by the government; and many sports we have now would not be here if not for developments during the Elizabethan Era.