On this day in 1349, King Edward III of England banned the game of football by royal decree, alongside other recreational activities, because of the specific worry that it distracted his people from practicing archery. Although this sounds a little strange, archery was actually essential to 14th century warfare, and so to the strength of Edward’s army, which was badly affected by the Black Death, a ravaging pandemic that peaked around this time.
It should also be explained that the sort of football that the King tried to ban was very different to football today. In the 14th century forms of folk—or mob, or Shrovetide—football were very popular among the common man. Rules were few and far between, and really it was very loosely organised chaos with lots of players.
Often neighbouring towns and villages would play matches against one another, with the aim of kicking an inflated pig’s bladder into their opponent’s church by any means necessary. Teams would number in the thousands, goals could be miles apart and violence, even death, was part and parcel of the whole experience. In many ways, it was like a miniature rural war, so it is unsurprising that the country’s rulers were none-too-keen on it all.
Although the text of Edward’s 1349 ban is lost, a later decree issued in 1363 carries a similar message: “We ordain that you prohibit under penalty of imprisonment all and sundry from such stone, wood and iron throwing; handball, football, or hockey; coursing and cockfighting, or other such idle games.”
King Edward III was far from the first to attempt to ban the bloody sport. His predecessor, Edward II, had already issued a proclamation banning football from the streets of London on 13 April 1314; and his successor Richard II tried in 1389, as did Henry IV in 1401.
As for the focus on archers, Edward was renowned for his military successes as King, and transformed England into one of the most formidable military powers in all of Europe. He declared himself the rightful heir to the French throne in 1337 (as it happens, the French Kings of the time were also trying to stamp out the popularity of medieval mob football in their lands), and in doing so started the 100 Years War, which lasted until 1453.
Edward, and his son who was known as the Black Prince, won the first phase of the hostilities—called the Edwardian War—with astounding victories at the battles of Crecy and Poitiers, and the capture of John II. Still, for all Edward’s successes, it was always important for him to have as many skilled archers as possible, and so he didn’t want to lose any to football or to the plague.