If early football generated tremendous enthusiasm among common folk in Britain, it also withstood repeated – and unsuccessful – interventions from the authorities who frowned on this often violent recreation.
As long ago as 1314 the Lord Mayor of London saw fit to issue a proclamation forbidding football within the city due to the chaos it usually caused. Infringement of this law meant imprisonment .
During the 100 Years’ War between England and France from 1337 to 1453 the royal court was unfavourably disposed towards football. Kings Edward III, Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V all made the game punishable by law because it prevented their subjects from practising more useful military disciplines, particularly archery.
All the Scottish kings of the 15th century deemed it necessary to censure and even prohibit football. Particularly famous was the decree proclaimed by the parliament convened by James I in 1424, which read: “That na man play at the Fute-ball”. None of these efforts had much effect. The popularity of the game among the people and their obvious delight in the rough and tumble for the ball went far too deep to be uprooted.
The passion for football was particularly exuberant in Elizabethan times. An influence that may have played a part in intensifying the native popularity for the game came from Renaissance Italy, notably from Florence although Venice and other cities also produced their own brand of the sport known as Calcio. This was more organised than the English equivalent and was played by teams dressed in coloured livery at important gala events held on certain holidays in Florence.
In England the game was still as rough and lacking in refinement as ever, but it did at this time find a prominent supporter who commended if for other reasons. This supporter was Richard Mulcaster, the great pedagogue and head of the famous London schools of Merchant Taylors and St. Paul’s. He pointed out that the game, if requiring a little refinement, had a positive educational value as it promoted health and strength. His belief was that it would benefit from introducing a limited number of participants per team and, more importantly, a stricter referee.
Resentment of football up to this time had been focused on its capacity for public disturbance. For example, in Manchester in 1608, the game was banned because so many windows had been smashed. In the course of the 16th century a new type of attack was launched. With the spread of Puritanism, the cry went up against ‘frivolous’ amusements, and sport happened to be classified as such, football in particular.
The main objection was that it supposedly constituted a violation of peace on the Sabbath. Similar attacks were made against the theatre, which strait-laced Puritans regarded as a source of idleness and iniquity. This laid the foundations for the entertainment ban on Sundays – and from then on football on that day was taboo.
This remained the case for some 300 years, until the ban was lifted once again, at first unofficially and ultimately with the formal consent of The Football Association, albeit on a rather small scale.
All told there was scarcely any progress at all in the development of football for hundreds of years. But, although the game was persistently forbidden for 500 years, it was never completely suppressed.