World’s oldest football

By Dr Joanne McEwan
World’s oldest football held in the collection of the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum

Like many sports, football was standardised, codified, professionalised and commercialised during the nineteenth century. [2] However, the origins of football as a popular pastime are much older. Games informed by different rules and customs, but in which a group of people kicked a ball in a manner we might recognise as an early form of football, can be traced at least as far back as the medieval period. [3]

cropped to image, recto
Image 1: Robert Dighton, Foot Ball played at Market Place, Barnet, c. 1784. Courtesy of Yale Centre for British Art [NB: Public Domain].

The small, grey, leather ball you can see replicated in the 3D model above is believed to be the world’s oldest football. It was discovered behind oak panelling in the Queen’s Bedchamber at Stirling Castle during renovation work in the mid-1970s. The circumstances by which the ball became lodged behind the wall are unknown, but tests dating it to the period 1540–1570 have fuelled intrigue about its historical origins.

Measuring 160 x 150 x 140 mm, or roughly the size of a honeydew melon, the ball is smaller than we would expect of a football today. This has led to suggestions that it may have been used to play an early form of handball rather than football. It could also suggest that it was intended for use by a child. The ball is comprised of an internal pig’s bladder covered in thick leather panels that have been stitched together. The size of such balls depended on how big the bladder inside it was, and how much it could be inflated.

The leather covering was originally stitched from the inside, presumably to prevent it from hindering trajectory and motion. The stitching that is visible across the seams of the panels here is evidence of subsequent repair. This suggests that the ball was used, for some of its life, as an object of recreation before becoming lodged behind the wood panelling. It is not a new or unused object, nor is it a decorative object intended only for display.

When and by whom it was used as a ball, and whether it had any other subsequent uses, are more difficult questions to answer.

The most likely explanation is that the ball was kicked onto the roof of the Royal Palace while it was being built, and became lodged in the rafters. Whether it was kicked by a worker constructing the roof, a soldier, someone in the royal employ or one of the royals themselves we do not know.

We shouldn’t rule out the possibility that royalty were playing football based solely on their status or gender. James IV (1473–1513) purchased a football in 1497, and we know from later historical records that Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587) was also partial to the game. In a letter detailing Mary’s actions while imprisoned at Carlisle Castle in June 1568, Sir Francis Knollys informed Lord Burghley:

Yesterday her grace went out at a postern to walk on Playing green, towards Scotland […] where about twenty of her retinue played at football before her the space of two hours, very strongly, nimbly, and skilfully, without any foul play offered, the smallness of their ball occasioning their fair play. And before yesterday, since our coming, she went but twice out of the town, once to the like play of football. [4]

This ball, if it became lodged behind the panels of the Queen’s bedchamber as the result of an overzealous kick, provides us with similar evidence of frivolity and recreational play – inspiring joy in both players and onlookers.

But, it is also possible that the ball was secreted behind the walls deliberately. Mary’s childhood years at Stirling Castle were turbulent ones. Her mother moved her from Linlithgow Palace, where she was born in December 1542, to Stirling Castle in July 1743, after renouncing the Treaty of Greenwich – by which Mary was betrothed to Edward VI of England. Mary resided at Stirling until she was moved again, in 1547, to Inchmahome Priory for her safety, and then to France in 1548 as the prospective bride of the dauphin.

During her early years at Stirling Castle, Scotland was subjected to successive attacks by Henry VIII in what has become known as the ‘Rough Wooing’. [5] While Mary most likely did not understand the political causes of this warfare, the anxiety and fear that such conflict evoked in those around her might have impacted on her behaviour. It is not hard to imagine, in the midst of such confusion and instability, a young child hiding her most loved possessions in a nook or cranny she found in her bedroom walls as a form of safekeeping.

Alternatively, it was not uncommon for Scots to place material objects in the walls of a house as a form of protection from supernatural forces. James VI (1566–1625), Mary’s son, is well known to have been particularly superstitious about witches. He authored a treatise, Daemonologie, on the subject in 1597, and a number of scratchings have been discovered at Stirling castle where he also spent his childhood.

In addition to graffiti in the plaster of a window in the Prince’s tower, two protective witch marks have been located: a conjoined ‘AMV’ (for Ave Maria Virginus) on the great outer door of the royal palace, and an incised marigold on the inner face of his closet door. [6] Given James’ penchant for superstition, it is perhaps possible that the location of the ball behind a wall speaks to a reappropriation of the object and emotions of fear.

 However the ball came to be lodged behind the wall, the occupation of the castle by two of Scotland’s most well-known monarchs adds a layer of modern fascination to speculative emotional narratives surrounding the history of the football. When you view the football in full 3D rotation, does it make you feel amused, or joyful? Can you imagine it being used to ward off evil?

About the author

Joanne McEwan is a Research Assistant with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Europe, 1100-1800), based at The University of Western Australia. Her research interests focus on crime, gender, family and emotional attachments in early modern Britain. Joanne’s publications include Accommodating Poverty: The Housing and Living Arrangements of the English Poor, c. 1600-1850 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), which she edited with Pamela Sharpe, and Performing Emotions in Early Europe (Brepols, forthcoming), which she edited with Anne Scott and Philippa Maddern.

References

[1] See, for example, Gavin Kitching, ‘The Origins of Football: History, Ideology and the Making of “The People’s Game”’, History Workshop Journal 79 (2015): 127–153; Edward Royle, Modern Britain: A Social History, 1750–1985 (London, 1987), 258–59.

[2] Edward Royle, Modern Britain: A Social History, 1750–1985 (London: Edward Arnold, 1987), pp. 258–59.

[3] On some of these variations, see R.W. Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society, 1700–1850 (Cambridge, 1873), 34–40.

[4] Letter from Sir Francis Knollys to Lord Burghley, 15 June 1568. Printed in John Daniel Leader, Mary Queen of Scots in Captivity: A Narrative of Events from January, 1569, to December, 1584, Whilst George Earl of Shrewsbury was Guardian to the Scottish Queen (London, 1880), no. 7.

[5] See Julian Goodare, ‘Mary (1542–1587)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004; online edn, May 2007),
http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/18248.

[6] See Historic Scotland, Stirling Castle Palace: Archaeological and Historical Research, 2008: http://sparc.scran.ac.uk/home/thePalace/thePalace.html

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