OLD ENGLISH SPORTS
Pastimes and Customs
P. H. DITCHFIELD, M.A.
Fellow of the Royal Historical Society; Rector of Barkham, Berks Hon. Sec. of Berks Archaeological Society, etc.
First published by Methuen & Co., 1891
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED WITH THE AUTHOR'S KINDEST REGARDS.
Encouraged by the kind reception which his former book, Our English Villages, met with at the hands of both critics and the public, the author has ventured to reproduce in book-form another series of articles which have appeared during the past year in the pages of The Parish Magazine. He desires to express his thanks to Canon Erskine Clarke for kindly permitting him to reprint the articles, which have been expanded and in part rewritten. The Sports and Pastimes of England have had many chroniclers, both ancient and modern, amongst whom may be mentioned Strutt, Brand, Hone, Stow, and several others, to whose works the writer is indebted for much valuable information.
The object of this book is to describe, in simple language, the holiday festivals as they occurred in each month of the year; and the sports, games, pastimes, and customs associated with these rural feasts. It is hoped that such a description may not be without interest to our English villagers, and perhaps to others who love the study of the past. Possibly it may help forward the revival of the best features of old village life, and the restoration of some of those pleasing customs which Time has deprived us of. The writer is much indebted to Mr. E.R.R. Bindon for his very careful revision of the proof-sheets.
BARKHAM RECTORY, 1891.
Dedication Festivals—New Year's Day—"Wassail"—Twelfth Night—"King of the Bean"—St. Distaffs Day—Plough Monday—Winter Games—Skating—Sword-dancing
Hunting—Candlemas Day—St. Blaize's Day—Shrove-tide— Football—Battledore and Shuttlecock—Cock-throwing
Archery—Lent—"Mothering" Sunday—Palm Sunday— "Shere" Thursday—Watching the Sepulchre
Easter Customs—Pace Eggs—Handball in Churches—Sports confined to special localities—Stoolball and Barley-brake—Water Tournament:—Quintain—Chester Sports—Hock-tide
May-day Festivities—May-pole—Morris-dancers—The Book of Sports—Bowling—Beating the Bounds—George Herbert's description of a Country Parson
Whitsuntide Sports—Church-ales—Church-house—Quarter-staff— Whistling and Jingling Matches—St. John's Eve—Wrestling
Lammas Day—St. Roch's Day—Harvest Home—"Ten-pounding" —Sheep-shearing—"Wakes"—Fairs
Hawking—Michaelmas—Bull and Bear-baiting
All-hallow Eve—"Soul Cakes"—Diving for Apples—The Fifth of November—Martinmas—"Demands Joyous "—Indoor Games
St. Nicholas' Day—The Boy Bishop—Christmas Eve—Christmas Customs—Mummers—"Lord of Misrule"—Conclusion
"Come then, come then, and let us bring Unto our pretty Twelfth-Tide King, Each one his several offering."
HERRICK'S Star Song.
Dedication Festivals—New Year's Day—"Wassail"—Twelfth Night—"King of the Bean"—St. Distaff's Day—Plough Monday—Winter Games—Skating—Sword-dancing.
In the old life of rural England few things are more interesting than the ancient sports and pastimes, the strange superstitions, and curious customs which existed in the times of our forefathers. We remember that our land once rejoiced in the name of "Merry England," and perhaps feel some regret that many of the outward signs of happiness have passed away from us, and that in striving to become a great and prosperous nation, we have ceased to be a genial, contented, and happy one. In these days new manners are ever pushing out the old. The restlessness of modern life has invaded the peaceful retirement of our villages, and railway trains and cheap excursions have killed the old games and simple amusements which delighted our ancestors in days of yore. The old traditions of the country-side are forgotten, and poor imitations of town manners have taken their place. Old social customs which added such diversity to the lives of the rustics two centuries ago have died out. Very few of the old village games and sports have survived. The village green, the source of so much innocent happiness, is no more; and with it has disappeared much of that innocent and light-hearted cheerfulness which brightened the hours of labour, and refreshed the spirit of the toiling rustic, when his daily task was done. Times have changed, and we have changed with them. We could not now revive many of the customs and diversions in which our fathers took delight. Serious and grave men no longer take pleasure in the playthings which pleased them when they were children; and our nation has become grave and serious, and likes not the simple joys which diversified the lives of our forefathers, and made England "merry."
Is it possible that we cannot restore some of these time-honoured customs? The sun shines as brightly now as ever it did on a May-day festival; the Christmas fire glows as in olden days. Let us try to revive the spirit which animated their festivals. Let us endeavour to realize how our village forefathers used to enjoy themselves, how they used to spend their holidays, and to picture to ourselves the scenes of social intercourse which once took place in our own hamlets. Every season of the year had its holiday customs and quaint manner of observance, some of them confined to particular counties, but many of them universally observed.
In the volume, recently published, which treated of the story and the antiquities of "Our English Villages," I pointed out that the Church was the centre of the life of the old village—not only of its religious life, but also of its secular every-day life. This is true also with regard to the amusements of the people. The festival of the saint, to whom the parish church was dedicated, was celebrated with much rejoicing. The annual fair was held on that day, when, after their business was ended, friends and neighbours met together and took part in some of the sports and pastimes which I shall try to describe. The other holidays of the year were generally regulated by the Church's calendar, the great festivals—Christmas, Easter, Ascension Day, Whit Sunday—-being all duly observed. I propose to record in these pages the principal sports, pastimes, and customs which our forefathers delighted in during each month of the year, the accounts of which are not only amusing, but add to our historical knowledge, and help us to realize something of the old village life of rural England.
We will begin with New Year's Day. It was an ancient Saxon custom to begin the year by sending presents to each other. On New Year's Eve the wassail bowl of spiced ale was carried round from house to house by the village maidens, who sang songs and wished every one "A Happy New Year." "Wassail" is an old Saxon word, meaning "Be in health." Rowena, the daughter of the Saxon king Hengist, offered a flowing bowl to the British king Vortigern, welcoming him with the words, "Lloured King Wassheil." In Devonshire and Sussex it was the custom to wassail the orchards; a troop of boys visited the orchards, and, encircling the apple-trees, they sang the words—
"Stand fast, bear well top, Pray God send us a howling crop; Every twig, apples big; Every bough, apples enow; Hats full, caps full, Full quarter-sacks full."
Then the boys shouted in chorus, and rapped the trees with their sticks.
The custom of giving presents on New Year's Day is as old as the time of the Romans, who attached superstitious importance to it, and thought the gifts brought them a lucky year. Our Christian forefathers retained the pleasant custom when its superstitious origin was long forgotten. Fathers and mothers used to delight each other and their little ones by their mutual gifts; the masters gave presents to their servants, and with "march-paynes, tarts, and custards great," they celebrated the advent of the new year. Oranges stuck with cloves, or a fat capon, were some of the usual forms of New Year's gifts.
The "bringing-in" of the new year is a time-honoured custom; which duty is performed by the first person who enters the house after the old year has expired. In the North of England this important person must be a dark man, otherwise superstitious folk believe that ill-luck would befall the household. In other parts of England a light-complexioned man is considered a more favourable harbinger of good fortune.
The Christmas holidays extended over twelve days, which bring us to January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. It is stated that "in the days of King Alfred a law was made with regard to holidays, by virtue of which the twelve days after the Nativity of our Saviour were made festivals." Twelfth Day Eve was a great occasion among the rustics of England, and many curious customs are connected with it. In Herefordshire the farmers and servants used to meet together in the evening and walk to a field of wheat. There they lighted twelve small fires and one large one, and forming a circle round the huge bonfire, they raised a shout, which was answered from all the neighbouring fields and villages. At home the busy housewife was preparing a hearty supper for the men. After supper they adjourned to the ox-stalls, and the master stood in front of the finest of the oxen and pledged him in a curious toast; the company followed his example with all the other oxen, and then they returned to the house and found all the doors locked, and admittance sternly refused until they had sung some joyous songs.
In the south of Devonshire, on the eve of the Epiphany, the best-bearing trees in the orchard were encircled by the farmer and his labourers, who sang the following refrain—
"Here's to thee, old apple-tree, Whence thou may'st bud, and whence thou may'st blow, And whence thou may'st bear apples enow! Hats full! caps full! Bushel-bushel-sacks full, And my pockets full too! Huzza!"
The returning company were not allowed to enter the house until some one guessed what was on the spit, which savoury tit-bit was awarded to the man who first named it.
The youths of the village during the holidays had plenty of sport, outdoor and indoor, which kept out the cold by wholesome exercise and recreative games. Many a hard battle was fought with snowballs, or with bat-and-ball on the ice; the barns were the scenes of many a wrestling match or exciting game at skittles; and in the evenings they played such romping games as blind-man's-buff, hunt the slipper, and others of a similar character. While the company sat round the yule-log blazing on the hearth, eating mince-pies, or plum porridge, and quaffing a bowl of well-spiced elder wine, the mummers would enter, decked out in ribands and strange dresses, execute their strange antics, and perform their curious play. So the wintry days passed until Twelfth Night, with its pleasing associations and mirthful customs.
Twelfth Night was a very popular festival, when honour was done to the memory of the Three Wise Men from the East, who were called the Three Kings. The election of kings and queens by beans was a very ancient custom. The farmer invited his friends and labourers to supper, and a huge plumcake was brought in, containing a bean and a pea. The man who received the piece of cake containing the bean was called the King of the Bean, and received the honour of the company; and the pea conferred a like privilege on the lady who drew the favoured lot. The rest of the visitors assumed the rank of ministers of state or maids of honour. The festival was generally held in a large barn decorated with evergreens, and a large bough of mistletoe was not forgotten, which was often the source of much merriment. When the ceremony began, some one repeated the lines—
"Now, now the mirth comes With the cake full of plums, When Bean is King of the Sport here. Beside, you must know, The Pea also Must revel as Queen of the Court here."
Then the cake was cut and distributed amid much laughter and merry shouts. The holders of the bean and pea were hailed as king and queen for the night, the band struck up some time-honoured melody, and a country dance followed which was ever carried on with much spirit. The king exercised his royal prerogative by choosing partners for the women, and the queen performed a like office for the men; and so they merrily played their parts till the hours grew late.
But the holidays were nearly over, and the time for resuming work had arrived. However, neither the women nor the men seemed to be in any hurry to begin. The day after Twelfth Day was humorously called St. Distaft's Day, which was devoted to "partly work and partly play." Herrick, the recorder of many social customs, tells us that the ploughmen used to set on fire the flax which the maids used for spinning, and received pails of water on their heads for their mischief. The following Monday was called Plough Monday, when the labourers used to draw a plough decked with ribbons round the parish, and receive presents of money, favouring the spectators with sword-dancing and mumming. The rude procession of men, clad in clean smock-frocks, headed by the renowned "Bessy," who sang and rattled the money-box, accompanied by a strangely-dressed character called the Fool, attired in skins of various animals and having a long tail, threw life into the dreary scenery of winter, as the gaily-decked plough was drawn along the quiet country lanes from one village to another. The origin of Plough Monday dates back to pre-Reformation times, when societies of ploughmen called guilds used to keep lights burning upon the shrine of some saint, to invoke a blessing on their labour. The Reformation put out the lights, but it could not extinguish the festival.
In the long winter evenings the country folk amused themselves around their winter's fireside by telling old romantic stories of errant knights and fairies, goblins, witches, and the rest; or by reciting
"Some merry fit Of Mayde Marran, or els of Robin Hood."
In the Tudor times there were plenty of winter games for those who could play them, amongst which we may mention chess, cards, dice, shovel-board, and many others.
And when the ponds and rivers were frozen, as early as the twelfth century the merry skaters used to glide over the smooth ice. Their skates were of a very primitive construction, and consisted of the leg-bones of animals tied under their feet by means of thongs. Neither were the skaters quite equal to cutting "threes" and "eights" upon the ice; they could only push themselves along by means of a pole with an iron spike at the end. But they used to charge each other after the manner of knights in a tournament, and use their poles for spears. An old writer says that "they pushed themselves along with such speed that they seemed to fly like a bird in the air, or as darts shot out from the engines of war." Some of the less adventurous youths were content with sliding, or driving each other forward on great pieces of ice. "Dancing with swords" was a favourite form of amusement among the young men of Northern nations, and in those parts of England where the Norsemen and Danes settled, this graceful gymnastic custom long lingered.
The old country dances which used to delight our fathers seem to be vanishing. I have not seen for many years the village rustics "crossing hands" and going "down the middle," and tripping merrily to the tune of a fiddle; but perhaps they do so still.
In olden days the city maidens of London were often "dancing and tripping till moonlight" in the open air; and later on we read that on holidays, after evening prayer, while the youths exercised their wasters and bucklers, the maidens, "one of them playing on a timbrel, in sight of their masters and dames, used to dance for garlands hanged athwart the streets." Stow, the recorder of this custom, wisely adds, "which open pastimes in my youth, being now suppressed, worser practices within doors are to be feared." In some parts of England they still trip it gaily in the moonlight. A clergyman in Gloucestershire tried to establish a cricket club in his parish, but his efforts were all in vain; the young men preferred to dance together on the village green, and the more manly diversion had no charms for them. Dancing was never absent from our ancestors' festivities, and round the merry May-pole
"Where the jocund swains Dance with the maidens to the bagpipe strains;"
or in the festal hall, adorned with evergreens and mistletoe, with tripping feet they passed the hours "till envious night commands them to be gone."
"Down with rosemary and bayes, Down with the mistleto, Instead of holly, now up-raise The greener box, for show."
"The holly hitherto did sway; Let box now domineere, Untill the dancing Easter-day, Or Easter's eve appeare."
Hunting—Candlemas Day—St. Blaize's Day—Shrove-tide— Football—Battledore and Shuttlecock—Cock-throwing.
The fox-hounds often meet in our village during this cheerless month, and I am reminded by the red coats of the huntsmen, and by the sound of the cheerful horn, of the sportsmen of ancient days, who chased the wolf, hart, wild boar, and buck among these same woods and dales of England. All hearts love to hear the merry sound of the huntsman's horn, except perhaps that of the hunted fox or stag. The love of hunting seems ingrained in every Englishman, and whenever the horsemen appear in sight, or the "music" of the hounds is heard in the distance, the spade is laid aside, the ploughman leaves his team, the coachman his stables, the gardener his greenhouses, books are closed, and every one rushes away to see the sport. The squire, the farmers, and every one who by hook or by crook can procure a mount, join in the merry chase, for as an old poet sings—
"The hunt is up, the hunt is up, Sing merrily we, the hunt is up; The birds they sing, The deer they fling: Hey, nony, nony-no: The hounds they cry, The hunters they fly, Hey trolilo, trolilo, The hunt is up."
We English folks come of a very sporting family. The ancient Britons were expert hunters, and lived chiefly on the prey which they killed. Our Saxon forefathers loved the chase, and in some very old Saxon pictures illustrating the occupations of each month we see the lord, attended by his huntsmen, chasing the wild boars in the woods and forests. The Saxon king, Edgar, imposed a tribute of wolves' heads, and Athelstan ordered the payment of fines in hawks and strong-scented dogs. Edward the Confessor, too, who scorned worldly amusements, used to take "delight in following a pack of swift dogs, and in cheering them with his voice." The illustration is taken from an old illumination which adorned an ancient MS., and represents some Saxons engaged in unearthing a fox.
When the Normans came to England great changes were made, and hunting—the favourite sport of the Conqueror—was promoted with a total disregard of the welfare of the people. Whole villages and churches were pulled down in order to enlarge the royal forests, and any one who was rash enough to kill the king's deer would lose his life or his eyesight. It was not until the reign of Henry III. that this law was altered. William the Conqueror, who forbade the killing of deer and of boars, and who "loved the tall stags as though he were their father," greatly enlarged the New Forest, in Hampshire. Henry I. built a huge stone wall, seven miles in circumference, round his favourite park of Woodstock, near Oxford; and if any one wanted a favour from King John, a grant of privileges, or a new charter, he would have to pay for it in horses, hawks, or hounds. The Norman lords were as tyrannical in preserving their game as their king, and the people suffered greatly through the selfishness of their rulers. There is a curious MS. in the British Museum, called The Craft of Hunting, written by two followers of Edward II., which gives instructions with regard to the game to be hunted, the rules for blowing the horn, the dogs to be used in the chase, and so on. It is too long to quote, but I may mention that the animals to be hunted included the hare, hart, wolf, wild boar, buck, doe, fox ("which oft hath hard grace"), the martin-cat, roebuck, badger, polecat, and otter. Many of these animals have long since disappeared through the clearing of the old forests, or been exterminated on account of the mischief which they did. Our modern hunters do not enjoy quite such a variety of sport.
Otter-hunting, now very rare, was once a favourite sport among villagers who dwelt near a river. Isaac Walton, in his book called The Complete Angler, thus describes the animated scene: "Look! down at the bottom of the hill there, in the meadow, checkered with water-lilies and lady-smocks; there you may see what work they make; look! look! you may see all busy—men and dogs—dogs and men—all busy." At last the otter is found. Then barked the dogs, and shouted the men! Boatmen pursue the poor animal in the water. Horsemen dash into the river. The otter dives, and strives to escape; but all in vain her efforts, and she perishes by the teeth of the dogs or the huntsmen's spears.
Foreigners are always astonished at our love of sport and hunting, and our disregard of all danger in the pursuit of our favourite amusement, and one of our visitors tells the following story: "When the armies of Henry VIII. and Francis, King of France, were drawn up against each other, a fox got up, which was immediately pursued by the English. The 'varmint' ran straight for the French lines, but the Englishmen would not cease from the chase; the Frenchmen opposed them, and killed many of these adventurous gentlemen who for the moment forgot their warfare in the charms of the chase."
But I must proceed to mention other February customs and sports. Great importance was attached to the Feast of the Purification, commonly called Candlemas Day (February 2nd), when consecrated candles were distributed and carried about in procession. At the Reformation this custom did not entirely disappear, for we find a proclamation of Henry VIII., in 1539 A.D., which orders that "on Candlemas Day it shall be declared that the bearing of candles is done in memory of Christ the spiritual light, whom Simeon did prophesy, as it is read in the Church on that day." Christmas decorations were removed from the houses; the holly, rosemary, bay, and mistletoe disappeared, to make room for sprigs of box, which remained until Easter brought in the yew. Our ancestors were very fond of bonfires, and on the 3rd of this month, St. Blaize's Day, the red flames might be seen darting up from every hilltop. But why they should do this on that day is not evident, except that the good Bishop's name sounded something like blaze, and perhaps that was quite a sufficient reason! And why the day of St. Valentine should have been selected for the drawing lots for sweethearts, and for the sending affectionate greetings, is another mystery. St. Valentine was a priest and martyr in Italy in the third century, and had nothing to do with the popular commemoration of the day.
Now we come to the diversions of Shrove-tide, which immediately precedes the Lenten Fast. The Monday before Ash Wednesday was called Collop Monday in the north, because slices of bacon (or collops) were the recognized dish for dinner. But on Tuesday the chief amusements began; the bells were rung, pancakes tossed with great solemnity, and devoured with great satisfaction, as an old writer, who did not approve of so much feasting, tells us—
"In every house are shouts and cries, and mirth and revel rout, And dainty tables spread, and all beset with guests about."
He further describes this old English carnival, which must have rivalled any that we read of on the Continent—
"Some run about the streets attired like monks, and some like kings, Accompanied with pomp, and guard, and other stately things. Some like wild beasts do run abroad in skins that divers be Arrayed, and eke with loathsome shapes, that dreadful are to see, They counterfeit both bears and wolves, and lions fierce in sight, And raging bulls; some play the cranes, with wings and stilts upright."
But the great game for Shrove Tuesday was our time-honoured football, which has survived so many of the ancient pastimes of our land, and may be considered the oldest of all our English national sports. The play might not be quite so scientific as that played by our modern athletes, but, from the descriptions that have come down to us, it was no less vigorous. "After dinner" (says an old writer) "all the youths go into the fields to play at the ball. The ancient and worthy men of the city come forth on horseback to see the sport of the young men, and to take part of the pleasure in beholding their agility." There are some exciting descriptions of old football matches; and we read of some very fierce contests at Derby, which was renowned for the game. In the seventeenth century it was played in the streets of London, much to the annoyance of the inhabitants, who had to protect their windows with hurdles and bushes. At Bromfield, in Cumberland, the annual contest on Shrove Tuesday was keenly fought. Sides having been chosen, the football was thrown down in the churchyard, and the house of the captain of each side was the goal. Sometimes the distance was two or three miles, and each step was keenly disputed. He was a proud man at Bromfield who succeeded in reaching the goal with the ball, which he received as his guerdon. How the villagers used to talk over the exploits of the day, and recount their triumphs of former years with quite as much satisfaction as their ancestors enjoyed in relating their feats in the border wars!
The Scots were famous formerly, as they now are, for prowess in the game, and the account of the Shrove Tuesday match between the married and single men at Scone, in Perthshire, reads very like a description of a modern Rugby contest. At Inverness the women also played, the married against the unmarried, when the former were always victorious. King James I., who was a great patron of sports, did not approve of his son Henry being a football player. He wrote that a young man ought to have a "moderate practice of running, leaping, wrestling, fencing, dancing, and playing at the caitch, or tennis, bowls, archery, pall-mall, and riding; and in foul or stormy weather, cards and backgammon, dice, chess, and billiards," but football was too rough a game for his Majesty, and "meeter for laming than making able." Stubbs also speaks of it as a "bloody and murthering practice, rather than a fellowly sport or pastime." From the descriptions of the old games, it seems to have been very painful work for the shins, and there were no rules to prevent hacking and tripping in those days.
Football has never been the spoilt child of English pastimes, but has lived on in spite of royal proclamations and the protests of peace-loving citizens who objected to the noise, rough play, and other vagaries of the early votaries of the game. Edward II. and succeeding monarchs regarded it as a "useless and idle sport," which interfered with the practice of archery, and therefore ought to be shunned by all loyal subjects. The violence displayed at the matches is evident from the records which have come down to us, and from the opinions of several writers who condemn it severely. Free fights, broken limbs, and deaths often resulted from old football encounters; and when the games took place in the streets, lines of broken windows marked the progress of the players. "A bloody and murdering practice," "a devilish pastime," involving "beastly fury and extreme violence," the breaking of necks, arms, legs and backs—these were some of the descriptions of the football of olden times. The Puritans set their faces against it, and the sport languished for a long period as a general pastime. In some places it was still practised with unwonted vigour, but it was not until the second half of the present century that any revival took place. But football players have quickly made up for lost time; few villages do not possess their club, and our young men are ready to "Try it out at football by the shins," with quite as much readiness as the players in the good old days, although the play is generally less violent, and more scientific.
Hurling, too, was a fast and furious game, very similar to our game of hockey, and played with sticks and a ball. Two neighbouring parishes used to compete, and the object was to drive the ball from some central spot to one, or other, village. The contest was keen and exciting; a ball was driven backwards and forwards, over hills, dales, hedges, and ditches, through bushes, briars, mires, plashes, and rivers, until at length the wished-for goal was gained. Battledore and shuttlecock were favourite games for the girls, which they played singing quaint rhymes—
"Great A, little A; This is pancake day!"
and the men also indulged in tip-cat, or billet.
There is one other custom, of a most barbarous and cruel description, which was practised on Shrove Tuesday by our forefathers, and which happily has perished, and that was throwing at cocks or hens with sticks. The poor bird was tied by the leg, and its tormentors stood twenty-two yards distant and had three throws each for twopence, winning the bird if they could knock it down. The cock was trained beforehand to avoid the sticks, so as to win more money for its brutal master. Well might a learned foreigner remark, "The English eat a certain cake on Shrove Tuesday, upon which they immediately run mad, and kill their poor cocks." Cock-fighting was a favourite amusement on Shrove Tuesday, as well as at other times. This shameful and barbarous practice was continued until the eighteenth century; some of our kings took delight in it, and in the old grammar schools in the North of England it was sanctioned by the masters, who received from their scholars a small tax called "cock-fight dues." Happily, with bull-baiting, bear-baiting, dog-fighting, and the like, this cruel and brutal pastime has ceased to exist. If we have lost some of the simple joys and cheerful light-heartedness of our forefathers, we have also happily lost some of their cruel disregard for the sufferings of animals, and abandoned such barbarous amusements as I have tried to describe. But the old sports of England were not all like these; the archery, running, leaping, wrestling, football, and other games in which our ancestors delighted, made the young men of England a manly and a sturdy race, and our nation mainly owes its greatness to the courage, manliness, and daring of her sons.
But Ash Wednesday has dawned, and all is still in town and village. The Shrove-tide feast is ended, and the days of fasting and of prayer have hushed the sounds of merriment and song.
"And now a solemn fast we keep, When earth wakes from her winter sleep."
"And he was clad in cote and hode of grene; A shefe of pecocke arrowes bryght and shene Under his belt he bare ful thriftely, Well could he dresse his tackle yomanly; His arrowes drouped not with fethers lowe, And in hande he bare a myghty bowe."
Archery—Lent—"Mothering" Sunday—Palm Sunday— "Shere" Thursday—Watching the Sepulchre.
Of all the sports and pastimes of old England, archery was the most renowned, and many a hard-fought victory has been gained through the skill which our English archers acquired in the use of their famous bows. "Alas, alas for Scotland when English arrows fly!" was the sad lament of many a Highland clan, and Frenchmen often learnt to their cost the force of our bowmen's arms. The accounts of the fights of Crecy and Poitiers tell of the prowess of our archers; and the skill which they acquired by practising at the butts at home has gained many a victory. Archery was so useful in war that several royal proclamations were issued to encourage the sport, and in many parishes there were fields set apart for the men to practise. Although the sport has died out as a popular pastime, the old name, the butts, remains in many a town and village, recording the spot where our forefathers acquired their famous skill. The name is still retained in the neighbouring town of Reading, and in some old records I find that in 1549 a certain "Will'm Watlynton received xxxvis. for making of the butts;" and there are several items of charges in other years for repairing and renewing the same.
Edward III. ordered "that every one strong in body, at leisure on holidays, should use in their recreation bows and arrows, and learn and exercise the art of shooting, forsaking such vain plays as throwing stones, handball, football, bandyball, or cock-fighting, which have no profit in them." Edward IV. ordered every Englishman, of whatever rank, to have a bow his own height always ready for use, and to instruct his children in the art. In every township the butts were ordered to be set up, and the people were required to shoot "up and down" every Sunday and feast-day, under penalty of one halfpenny.
The sport began to decline in the sixteenth century, in spite of royal proclamations and occasional revivals. Henry VIII. forbade the use of the cross-bow, lest it should interfere with the practice of the more ancient weapon, and many old writers lament over the decay of this famous pastime of old England, which, as Bishop Latimer stated in one of his sermons, "is a goodly art, a wholesome kind of exercise, and much commended as physic."
The Finsbury archers had, in 1594, no less than one hundred and sixty-four targets in Finsbury Fields, set up on pillars with curious devices over them; but four years later Stow laments that "by reason of closing in of common grounds, our archers, for want of room to shoot abroad, creep into ordinary dicing-houses and bowling-alleys near home."
The famous Robin Hood, who lived in the reign of Richard I., was the king of archers. The exploits of this renowned outlaw and his merry men form the subject of many old ballads and romances, and the old oaks in Sherwood Forest could tell the tale of many an exciting chase after the king's deer, and of many a luckless traveller who had to pay dearly for the hospitality of Robin Hood and Little John. The ballads narrate that they could shoot an arrow a measured mile, but this is a flight of imagination which we can hardly follow!
"But he was an archer true and good, And people called him Robin Hood; Such archers as he and his men Will England never see again."
Another ballad relates the prowess of William of Cloudslee, who scorned to shoot at an ordinary target, and cutting a hazel rod from a tree, he shot at it from twenty score paces, cleaving the rod in two.
Like William Tell of great renown, our English archer could split an apple placed on his son's head at the distance of six score paces.
In time of war the archers were armed with a body-armour, the arms being left free. They had a long bow made of yew, a sheaf of arrows winged with gray goose-feathers, a sword, and small shield. Such was the appearance of the men who struck such terror among the knights and chivalry of France, and won many victories for England before the days of muskets and rifles.
We are now in the season of Lent, and our towns and villages were very still and quiet during these weeks. But there was an old custom on Refreshment or Mid-Lent Sunday for people to visit their mother-church and make offerings on the altar. Hence probably arose the practice of "mothering," or going to visit parents on that day, and taking presents to them. Herrick alludes to this pleasant custom in the following lines—
"I'll to thee a simnell bring, 'Gainst thou go'st a mothering; So that when she blesseth thee, Half that blessing thou'lt give me."
Many a mother's heart would rejoice to welcome to the old village home once again some fond youth or maiden who had gone to seek their fortunes in the town, and many happy recollections would long linger of "Mothering" Sunday. The cakes alluded to in the above verse, which children presented to their parents on these occasions, were called Simnells. In some parts of England—in Lancashire, Shropshire, and Herefordshire—these cakes are still eaten on Mid-Lent Sunday. Possibly they had some religious signification, for the Saxons were in habit of eating consecrated cakes at their festivals. The name Simnell is derived from a Latin word signifying fine flour, and not from the mythical persons, Simon and Nell, who are popularly supposed to have invented the cake. Hot cross buns are a relic of an ancient rite of the Saxons, who ate cakes in honour of the goddess of spring, and the early Christian missionaries strove to banish the heathen ideas associated with the cakes (which latter the people would not abandon) by putting a cross upon them.
In memory of our Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the people took branches of palm-trees and scattered them in the way, on Palm Sunday our ancestors went in procession through the town or village, bearing branches of willow, yew, or box (as there were no palms growing in this country), which were subsequently carried to the church and offered at the altar. This custom lingered on after the Reformation, and until recent times the practice of going a-palming, or gathering branches of willow, on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, has continued. Sometimes in mediaeval times a wooden figure representing our Saviour riding upon an ass was drawn along by the crowds in the procession, and the people scattered their willow branches before the figure as it passed.
Thursday before Easter Day was called Shere, or Maundy, Thursday. The first name is derived from the ancient custom of shering the head and clipping the beard on that day; and Maundy is a corruption of the Latin word mandatum, which means "a command," and refers to the command of our Lord to imitate His example in the humility which He showed in washing the feet of His disciples. In memory of His lowly act the kings and queens of England used to wash the feet of a large number of poor men and women, and bestowed upon them gifts and money. This practice was continued until the reign of James II., and in our own day the Queen presents to a certain number of poor people bags of silver pennies, called Maundy money, which is coined for that special purpose.
Many of my readers are familiar with the rhyme concerning "Hot cross buns," but perhaps they are not acquainted with the superstition which our forefathers attached to them. A writer on Cornish customs says: "In some of our farmhouses the Good Friday cake may be seen hanging to the bacon-rack, slowly but surely diminishing, until the return of the season replaces it by a fresh one. It is of sovereign good in all manner of diseases that may afflict the family, or flocks and herds. I have seen a little of this cake grated into a warm mash for a sick cow." Hot cross buns were supposed to have great power in preserving friendship. If two friends broke a bun in half exactly at the cross, while standing within the church-doors on Good Friday morning before service, and saying the words—
"Half for you, and half for me, Between us two good-will shall be. Amen,"
then, so long as they kept their halves, no quarrel would arise between them. In the West of England it was considered very sinful to work on Good Friday, and woe betide the luckless housewife who did her washing on that day, for one of the family, it was believed, would surely die before the end of the year. There are many other superstitions attached to the day, such as the preserving of eggs laid on Good Friday, which were supposed to have power to extinguish fire; the making of cramp-rings out of the handles of coffins, which rings were blessed by the King of England as he crept on his knees to the cross, and were supposed to be preservatives against cramp.
In old churchwardens' account-books we find such entries as the following—
"To the sextin for watching the sepulture two nyghts viiid."
"Paide to Roger Brock for watching of the sepulchre 8d."
And as the nights were cold we find an additional item—
"Paid more to said Roger Brock for syses and colles, 3d."
These entries allude to the ancient custom of erecting on Good Friday a small building to represent the Holy Sepulchre, and setting a person to watch for two nights in remembrance of the soldiers watching the grave in which our Lord's Body was laid. At the dawning of the Easter morn the bells rang joyously, and all was life and animation. The sun itself was popularly supposed to dance with joy on the Feast of the Resurrection. But the manners and customs, sports and pastimes, which were associated with Easter, I will reserve for my next chapter.
"The spring clad all in gladness Doth laugh at winter's sadness; And to the bagpipe's sound The nymphs tread out their ground.
"Fie then, why sit we musing, Youth's sweet delight refusing; Say dainty nymphs, and speak: Shall we play barley-breake?"
Old Ballad (A.D. 1603).
Easter Customs—Pace Eggs—Handball in Churches—Sports confined to Special Localities—Stoolball and Barley-brake —Water Tournament—Quintain—Chester Sports—Hock-tide.
From the earliest days of Christianity Easter has always been celebrated with the greatest joy, and accounted the Queen of Festivals. Many curious customs are associated with this feast, some of which represented in a rude, primitive way the Resurrection of our Lord. There was an old Miracle Play which was performed at Easter; for we find in the churchwardens' books at Kingston-upon-Thames, in the reign of Henry VIII., certain expenses for "a skin of parchment and gunpowder for the play on Easter Day," for a player's coat, stage, and "other things belonging to the play."
Then there was the custom in the North of England of "lifting" or "heaving," which was originally designed to represent our Saviour's Resurrection. On Easter Monday the men used to lift the women, whom they met, thrice above their heads into the air, and the women responded on Easter Tuesday, and lifted the men. This custom prevailed also in North Wales, Warwickshire, and Shropshire.
The Pace Eggs, or Pasche, or Paschal Eggs, were originally intended to show forth the same truth, as the egg retaining the elements of future life was used as an emblem of the Resurrection. These Pace eggs were dyed, decorated with pretty devices, and presented by friends to each other. In the North of England, the home of so many of our old customs, the practice of giving Pace eggs still lingers on; and we find amongst the household expenses of King Edward I. an item of "four hundred and a half of eggs—eighteenpence," which were purchased on Easter Day. The prices current in the thirteenth century for eggs would scarcely be deemed sufficient by our modern poultry-keepers!
The decoration of churches and houses with flowers just risen from their winter sleep, the practice of always wearing some part of the dress new on Easter Day, all seem to have had their origin in the holy lessons which cluster round the festival of the resurrection. An old writer tells us that it was the custom in some churches for the clergy to play at handball at this season; even bishops and archbishops took part in the pastime; but why they should profane God's house in this way we are at a loss to discover. The reward of the victors was a tansy-cake, so called from the bitter herb tansy, which was supposed to be beneficial after eating so much fish during Lent. Of the various kinds of games with balls I propose to treat in another chapter.
At Easter there were numerous sports in vogue in different parts of the country. In olden times almost every county had its peculiar sport, which was regarded as a monopoly of that district. People did not work so hard in those days, and seem to have had more time and energy for ancient pastimes. Many of these old games have entirely vanished; others have left their old neighbourhoods, and received a hearty welcome all over the country. Berkshire and Somersetshire were the ancestral homes of cudgel-play, quarter-staff, and single-stick. Skating and pole-leaping were the characteristic sports of the fen country. Kent and Sussex were famous for their cricket; the northern counties for their football. Scotland rejoiced in golf, curling, and tossing the caber; while Cumberland and Westmoreland, Cornwall and Devon, were noted for their vigorous and active wrestlers. Curling, tossing the caber, and wrestling have clung to their old homes; but the other sports have wandered far and wide, and are no longer confined to their native counties.
At Easter the local favourite sport was renewed with zest and eagerness, and almost everywhere foot-races were run, the prize of the conqueror being a tansy-cake. Stoolball and barley-brake were also favourite games in this month, as Poor Robin says in his Almanack for 1677. Barley-brake seems to have been a very merry game, in which the ladies took part, and of which we find some very bright descriptions in the writings of some old English poets. The only science of the pastime consisted in one couple trying with "waiting foot and watchful eye" to catch the others and bear them off as captives.
An old writer thus describes a water tournament, which seems to have been a popular pastime among the youths of London at Easter—"They fight battels on the water. A shield is hanged upon a pole (this is a kind of quintain) fixed in the midst of the stream. A boat is prepared without oars, to be carried by the violence of the water, and in the fore-part thereof standeth a young man ready to give charge upon the shield with his lance. If so be he break his lance against the shield, and do not fall, he is thought to have performed a worthy deed. If so be that, without breaking his lance, he runneth strongly against the shield, down he falleth into the water, for the boat is violently tossed with the tide; but on each side of the shield ride two boats furnished with young men, which recover him that falleth as soon as they may. Upon the bridge, wharves, and houses by the river-side, stand great numbers to see and laugh thereat." Stow thus describes the water tournament—"I have seen also in the summer season, upon the river Thames, some rowed in wherries, with staves in their hands, flat at the fore-end, running one against the other; and for the most part, one or both of them were overthrown and well ducked." This sport on the water was a variety of the famous quintain, which was itself derived from the jousts or tournaments, only, instead of a human adversary, the knight or squire, riding on a horse, charged a shield or wooden figure attached to a piece of wood, which easily turned round upon the top of a post. At the other end of the wood was a heavy bag of sand, which, when the rider struck the shield with his lance, swung round and struck him with great force on the back if he did not ride fast and so escape his ponderous foe. There were other forms of this sport, which is so ancient that its origin has been lost in antiquity. Queen Elizabeth was very much amused at Kenilworth Castle by the hard knocks which the inexpert riders received from the rotating sand-bag when they charged "a comely quintane" in her royal presence in the year 1575.
A handsome quintain still stands on Offham village green, in Kent, although it is no longer used for the skilful practice of former days. It is the custom to hoist married men, who are not blest with children, on the quintain, which is made to revolve rapidly. Sometimes discontented and disobedient wives share the same fate.
Chester was famous for its Easter sports, when the mayor with his mace, the corporation with twenty guilds, marched to the Rood-eye, to play at football. But "inasmuch as great strife did arise among the young persons of the same city" on account of the game, a change was made in the reign of Henry VIII., and foot-races and horse-races were substituted for the time-honoured football, and an arrow of silver was given to the best archer.
But Easter sports are almost finished: however, we have not long to wait for another popular anniversary; for the famous Hock-tide sports always took place a fortnight after Easter, and much amusement, and profit also, were derived from the quaint observances of Hock Monday and Tuesday. The meaning of the word and the origin of the custom have been the subjects of much conjecture; but the festival is supposed to be held in remembrance of the victory of our Saxon forefathers over the Danes in the time of Ethelred. The custom was that on Hock Monday the men should go out into the streets and roads with cords, and stop and bind all the women they met, releasing them on payment of a small ransom. On the following day the women bound the men, and the proceeds were devoted to charitable purposes. It is to be noted that the women always extracted the most money, and in the old churchwardens' accounts we find frequent records of this strange method of collecting subscriptions—e.g., St. Lawrence's, Reading, A.D. 1499:—"Item, received of Hoc money gaderyd" (gathered) "of women xxs. Item, received of Hoc money gaderyd of men iiijs." We also find that the women had a supper given to them as a reward for their exertions, for there is the "item for wives' supper at Hock-tide xxiijd."
The observance of Hock-tide seems to have been particularly popular in the ancient town of Reading. At Coventry there was an "old Coventry Play of Hock Tuesday," which was performed with great delight before Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth: the players divided themselves into two companies to represent the Saxons and the Danes: a great battle ensued, and by the help of the Saxon women the former were victorious, and led the Danes captive. The queen laughed much at the pageant, and gave the performers two bucks and five marks in money.
So ends the month of sunshine and of shower; but the rustic youths are making ready for the morris-dance, and the merry milk-maids are preparing their ribbons to adorn themselves for the revels of May Day. The May-pole is being erected on the village green, and all is in readiness for the rejoicings of to-morrow.
"Colin met Sylvia on the green Once on the charming first of May, And shepherds ne'er tell false, I ween, Yet 'twas by chance, the shepherds say.
"Colin he bow'd and blush'd, then said, 'Will you, sweet maid, this first of May, Begin the dance by Colin led, To make this quite his holiday?'
"Sylvia replied, 'I ne'er from home Yet ventur'd, till this first of May; It is not fit for maids to roam, And make a shepherd's holiday.'
"'It is most fit,' replied the youth, 'That Sylvia should this first of May By me be taught that love and truth Can make of life a holiday.'"—LADY CRAVEN.
May Day Festivities—May-pole—Morris-dancers—The Book of Sports—Bowling—Beating the Bounds—George Herbert's description of a Country Parson.
The spring has dawned with all its brightness and beauty; the nightingale's song is heard, and all nature seems to rejoice in the sweet spring-time. Our forefathers delighted, too, in the advent of the bright month of May, which the old poets used to compare to a maiden clothed in sunshine dancing to the music of birds and brooks; and May Day was the great rural festival of the year.
Long before the break of day, men and women, old and young, of all classes, used to assemble and hurry away to the woods and groves to gather the blooming hawthorn and spring flowers, and laden with their spoils returned when the sun rose, with merry shouts and horn-blowings, and adorned every door and window in the village. The poet Herrick sings of this pleasant beginning to the day's festivities. Addressing a maiden named Corinna, he says—
"Come, my Corinna, come, and coming mark How each field turns a street, and each street a park, Made green and trimmed with trees; see how Devotion gives each house a bough Or branch; each porch, each door, ere this An ark, a tabernacle is Made up of white-thorn neatly interwove."
The men blew cow-horns to usher in the spring, and the maids carried garlands to hang them in the churches; while at Oxford the choristers of Magdalen College assemble at the top of the tower at early dawn, and sing hymns of thankfulness because spring has come again. This pleasing custom is still observed every year on the first of May.
But let us away to the village green, where the May-pole is being adorned with a few finishing touches, and is covered with flowers and ribbons. It has been carried here by twenty or thirty yoke of oxen, their horns decorated with sweet flowers, and then, with shouts and laughter, and with song, the young men raise the massive pole with handkerchiefs and flags streaming on the top, and the rustic feast and dance begin.
"The May-pole is up, Now give me the cup, I'll drink to the garlands around it; But first unto those Whose hands did compose The glory of flowers that crown'd it."
A company of morris-dancers approach, and a circle is made round the May-pole in which they can perform. First comes a man dressed in a green tunic, with a bow, arrows, and bugle-horn, who represents Robin Hood, and by his side, attended by some maidens, walks Maid Marian, the May Queen. Will Stukeley, Little John, and other companions of the famous outlaw, are represented; and last, but not least, comes the hobby-horse—a man with a light wooden framework representing a horse about him, covered with trappings reaching to the ground, so as to prevent the man's feet from being seen. The hobby-horse careered about, pranced and curveted, to the great amusement of the company. The morris-dancers are adorned with bells, which jingle merrily as they dance. But a formidable-looking dragon approaches, which hisses and flaps his wings, and looks very fierce, making the hobby-horse kick and rear frantically. When the animals have wearied themselves, the maidens dance again, and the archers set up their targets on the lower end of the green, where a close contest ensues, and after many shots the victor is crowned with a laurel wreath.
Such were some of the sights and sounds of May Day in olden times. But the Puritans, who slew their king, Charles I., were very much opposed to all joyousness and mirth, and one of their first acts when they came into power was to put down the May-pole. They ordered that all May-poles (which they called "a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness") shall be taken down by the constables and churchwardens, and that the said officers be fined five shillings till the said May-poles be taken down. So the merry May songs were hushed for many a long year, until Charles II. was restored to his throne, and then the stately pole was reared once more, and Robin Hood and his merry crew began their sports again. But times change, and we change with them: customs pass away, and with them have long vanished the May-pole and its bright group of light-hearted rustics. An American writer who visited this country thus describes his feeling when he saw an old May-pole still standing at Chester—"I shall never forget my delight. My fancy adorned it with wreaths of flowers, and peopled the green bank with all the dancing revelry of May Day. I value every custom that tends to infuse poetical feeling into the common people, and to sweeten and soften the rudeness of rustic manners without destroying their simplicity. Indeed, it is to the decline of this happy simplicity that the decline of this custom may be traced, and the rural dance on the green, and the homely May-day pageant, have gradually disappeared in proportion as the peasantry have become expensive and artificial in their pleasures, and too knowing for simple enjoyment. Some attempts, indeed, have been made by men of both taste and learning to rally back the popular feeling to their standards of primitive simplicity; but the time has gone by, the feeling has become chilled by habits of gain and traffic, the country apes the manners and amusements of the town, and little is heard of May Day at present, except from the lamentations of authors, who sigh after it from among the brick walls of the city."
The name of the parish of St. Andrew Undershaft records the place where the city May-pole, or shaft, was erected, and Shaft Alley the place where it lay when it was not required for use.
The proclamation of James I., called the "Book of Sports," which was renewed by King Charles I., throws some light upon the sports in vogue during his reign. It was enacted "for his good people's lawful recreation, after the end of Divine service, that his good people be not disturbed, or discouraged, from any lawful recreation, such as dancing for men and women, archery for men, leaping, vaulting, or any such harmless recreations; nor from having May games, Whitsun ales, and morris dances, and the setting up of May-poles, and other sports therewith used, so as the same be had in due and convenient time, without impediment or neglect of Divine service. And that women shall have leave to carry rushes to the church for the decorating of it, according to their old custom. But withal his Majesty doth hereby account still as prohibited all unlawful games to be used on Sundays only, as bear and bull-baiting, interludes, and at all times in the meaner sort of people by law prohibited, bowling."
Why his Majesty should have been so very severe on the game of bowls, which is a very ancient pastime, and innocent enough, is not at first quite clear; but it appears that the numerous bowling-alleys in London were, in the sixteenth century, the resorts of very bad company, and the nests of gambling and vice. Hence the severity of King James' strictures on bowling.
The people of Lancashire in the time of James I. were as devoted to sports and amusement as they are now; and when the king was making a progress through Lancashire, "he received a petition from some servants, labourers, mechanics, and other vulgar persons, complaining that they were debarred from dancing, playing, church-ales—in a word, from all recreations on Sundays after Divine service." King James hated Puritanism and loved recreation; so he readily granted the petition of the Lancashire folk, and issued a proclamation encouraging Sunday pastimes, which is known as the famous "Book of Sports."
In Ireland on May Day Bale-fires are lighted, and to this day young men jump through the flames, and children are passed across the embers, in order to secure them good luck during the coming year. On this day, too, the Irish kings are supposed to rise from their graves and gather together a ghostly army of rude warriors to fight for their country. The wild cries of the shadowy host, the clashing of shields, and the sound of drums are said to have been heard during the period of the last rebellion in Ireland.
On one of the Rogation Days, or on Ascension Day, it was the custom to go in procession round the boundaries of the parish to ask God's blessing on the fruits of the earth, and as there were few maps and divisions of land, to call to mind and pass on to the next generation the boundaries of the township or village. The choir sang hymns, and under certain trees, which were called Gospel Trees, the clergyman read the Gospel for the day, with a litany and prayers. Sometimes boys were whipped, or bumped against trees, or thrown into a river, in order to impress upon them where the boundaries were. But they received a substantial recompense afterwards, and the whole company, when the procession was over, sat down to the perambulation dinner, and talked about their recollections of former days.
The advantages of this practice are set forth in George Herbert's description of a country parson. He says, "The country parson is a lover of old customs, if they be good and harmless. Particularly he loves procession, and maintains it, because there are contained in it four manifest advantages, 1. A blessing of God for the fruits of the earth. 2. Justice in the preservation of bounds. 3. Charity, in loving, walking, and neighbourly accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time, if there be any. 4. Mercy, in relieving the poor by a liberal distribution and largess, which at that time is, or ought to be, used. Wherefore he exacts of all to be present at the perambulation, and those that withdraw and sever themselves from it he mislikes, and rebukes as uncharitable and unneighbourly; and if they will not reform, presents them" (i.e. to the bishop for censure).
This custom is still preserved, or has been revived, in many parishes, and at Oxford the boys may be seen on Ascension Day bearing white willow-wands, and beating the bounds of some of the old city parishes.
"The woods, or some near town That is a neighbour to the bordering down, Hath drawn them thither, 'bout some lusty sport, Or spiced wassel-bowl, to which resort All the young men and maids of many a cote, Whilst the trim minstrell strikes his merry note."
FLETCHER, The Faithful Shepherdess.
Whitsuntide Sports—Church-ales—Church-house—Quarter-staff —Whistling and Jingling Matches—St. John's Eve—Wrestling.
After May Day our villagers had not long to wait until the Whitsuntide holiday came round. This holiday was notorious for the "Church-ales," which were held at this season. These feasts were a means of raising money for charitable purposes. If the church needed a new roof, or some poor people were in sad straits, the villagers would decide to have a "Church-ale"; generally four times a year the feast was given, and always at Whitsuntide. The churchwardens bought, and received presents of, a large quantity of malt, which they brewed into beer, and sold to the company, and any inhabitant of the parish who did not attend had to pay a fine. Every one who was able contributed something to the entertainment. The feast was held in the church-house, a building which stood near the church. This was the scene of many social gatherings, and is thus described by an old writer—
"In every parish was a church-house, to which belonged spits, crocks, and other utensils for dressing provisions. Here the housekeepers met. The young people were there, too, and had dancing, bowling, shooting at butts, &c., the ancients (i.e. the old folk) sitting gravely by and looking on. All things were civil, and without scandal. The church-ale is, doubtless, derived from the Agapai or Love Feasts, mentioned in the New Testament."
Whether the learned writer was right in his conjecture we cannot be quite certain, but church-ales subsequently degenerated into something quite different from New Testament injunctions, and were altogether prohibited on account of the excess to which they gave rise. Let us hope that all these feasts were not so bad as they were represented, and indeed in early times great reverence was attached to them, which prevented excess. The neighbours, too, would come in from the adjoining parishes and share the feast. An arbour of boughs was erected in the churchyard, called Robin Hood's Bower, where the maidens collected money for the "ales" in the same way which they employed at Hock-tide, and which was called "Hocking." The old books of St. Lawrence's Church, Reading (to which I have before referred), contain a record of this custom—"1505 A.D. Item. Received of the maidens' gathering at Whitsuntide by the tree at the church door, ij^s. vi^d." The morris-dancers and minstrels, the ballad-singers and players, were in great force on these occasions, and were entertained at the cost of the parish. In the churchwardens' account of St. Mary's, Reading, we find in the year 1557—
"Item—paid to Morris-dancers and the Minstrels, meat and drink at Whitsuntide—iii^s. iiii^d."
When the feasting had ended, archery, running races in sacks, grinning through a horse-collar (each competitor trying to make the most ludicrous grimaces), afforded amusement to the light-hearted spectators.
The game of quarter-staff is an old pastime which was a great favourite among the rustics of Berkshire. The quarter-staff is a tough piece of wood about eight feet long, which the player grasped in the middle with one hand, while with the other he kept a loose hold midway between the middle and one end. The object of the game was, to use the forcible language of the time, to "break the head" of the opponent. On the White Horse Hill, where Alfred fought against the Danes, and carved out on the hill-side the White Horse as a memorial of his victory, many a rural sport has been played, and at the periodical "scourings of the Horse" many a Berkshire head broken to see who was the noted champion of the game. An old parishioner of mine, James of Sandhurst, was once the hero of quarter-staff in the early part of the century. The whistling match was not so dangerous a contest; the prize was conferred upon the whistler who could whistle clearest, and go through his tune while a clown, or merry-andrew, made laughable grimaces before him.
Another diversion common at these country gatherings was the jingling match. A large circle was inclosed with ropes, in which the players took their place. All were blindfolded with the exception of one, who was the jingler, and who carried a bell in each hand, which he was obliged to keep ringing. His object was to elude the pursuit of his blinded companions, and he won the prize if he was still free when the play ceased. It was an amusing sight to see the men trying to catch the active jingler, running into each other's arms, and catching every one but the right one. When the jingling match was over, a pig with a short, well-soaped tail was turned out for the people to run after, and he who could hold it by the tail without touching any other part obtained it for his pains. There was also a game called Pigeon-holes, which appears to have been somewhat similar to our present game of bagatelle.
And so with laughter and with song the feast ended, the evening shadows fell around, and the happy rustics retired to their humble thatched-roofed homes. The proceeds of these church-ales were often considerable. "There were no rates for the poor in my grandfather's time," says one writer, "the church-ale of Whitsuntide did the business"; and whether the parishioners had to pay a tax for the support of the King's army, or to repair the church, or to maintain some orphan children, it was generally found "that something still remained to cover the bottom of the purse."
Of the "mysteries," or miracle plays, as they were called, which were performed in towns on Corpus Christi Day and at other times, I propose to write in another chapter; and we will now proceed to the hillsides near our villages on the eve of St. John's Day, when we should witness the lighting of large bonfires, and some curious customs connected with that ceremony. Both the old and the young people used to sally forth from the village to some neighbouring height, and there, amidst much laughter and with many a shout, they lighted the large bonfire. Then they danced round the blazing logs, and afterwards leaped through the flames, and at the close of the ceremony each person brought away with him a burning branch. This rite appears to have been a relic of Paganism. Probably the fire was originally lighted in honour of the sun, which our forefathers worshipped before they became Christians. The leaping through the flames had also a superstitious meaning, and the simple people thought that in this way they could ward off evil spirits and prevent sickness. The Roman shepherds used to leap through the Midsummer blaze in honour of Pales. The Scandinavians lit their bonfires in honour of their gods Odin and Thor, and the leaping through the flames reminds us of the worshippers of Baal and Moloch, who, as we read in the Bible, used to "pass their children through the fire" in awe of their cruel god. St. John's Day, or Midsummer Day (June 24th), was chosen because on that day the sun reaches its highest point in the zodiac. There is, however, another interpretation of the meaning of the fires on St. John's Day, as illustrating the verse which speaks of him "as a burning and a shining light" (St. John v. 35); but this interpretation was probably invented by some pious divine who endeavoured to attach a Christian meaning to an ancient heathen custom. The connection of the ceremony with the old worship of the sun is indisputable. Its practice was very general in nearly all European nations, and in not very remote times from Norway to the shores of the Mediterranean the glow of St. John's fires might have been seen. The Emperor Charlemagne in the ninth century forbade the custom as a heathen rite, but the Church endeavoured to win over the custom from its Pagan associations and to attach to it a Christian signification. In the island of Jersey the older inhabitants used to light fires under large iron pots full of water, in which they placed silver articles—as spoons, mugs, &c., and then knocked the silver against the iron with the idea of scaring away all evil spirits. Sometimes bones were burnt in the fire, for we are told in a quaint homily on the Feast of St. John Baptist, that bones scared away the evil spirits in the air, since "wise clerks know well that dragons hate nothing more than the stink of burning bones, and therefore the country folk gather as many as they might find, and burned them; and so with the stench thereof they drove away the dragons, and so they were brought out of great disease."
In some most remote northern parts of England the farmer lights a wisp of straw, which he carries round his fields to protect them from the tare and darnel, the devil and witches. In some places they used to cover a wheel with straw, set it on fire, and roll it down a hill. A learned writer on antiquities tells us that the people imagined that all their ill-luck rolled away from them together with this burning wheel. All these customs are relics of the old fire and sun worship, to which our forefathers were addicted. Wrestling, running races, and dancing were afterwards practised by the villagers. Wrestling is a very ancient sport, and the men of Cornwall and Devon, of Westmoreland and Cumberland, were famous for their skill. A "Cornish hug" is by no means a tender embrace. Sometimes the people bore back to their homes boughs of trees, with which they adorned their doors and windows. At Oxford the quadrangle of Magdalen College was decorated with boughs on St. John's Day, and a sermon preached from the stone pulpit in the corner of the quadrangle; this was meant to represent the preaching of St. John the Baptist in the wilderness.
At length the villagers, wearied with their exertions, retire to their cottage homes, marching in procession from the scene of their observances; and silence reigns o'er the village for a few short hours, till the sunlight summons them to their daily toil.
"Swift o'er the mead with lightning speed The bounding ball flies on; And hark! the cries of victory rise For the gallant team that's won."
At this time of the year all the cricket-clubs in town and village are very busy, and matches are being played everywhere. It may not therefore be inappropriate if I tell you in this chapter of the history of that game which has become so universally popular wherever our countrymen live. On the plains of India, in Australia (as some of our English cricketers have learnt to their cost), in Egypt, wherever Englishmen go, there cricket finds a home and a hearty welcome. But it is not nearly so ancient a game as others which I have already mentioned, although it had some fairly old parents, simple and humble-minded folk, who would have been greatly astonished to see the extraordinary development of their precocious offspring.
Kent and Sussex were the ancestral homes of cricket, which is thus described by an old writer—"A game most usual in Kent, with a cricket-ball bowled and struck with two cricket-bats between two wickets. The name is derived from the Saxon word cryc, baculus, a bat or staff; which also signifies fulcimentum, a support or prop, whence a cricket or little stool to sit upon. Cricket play among the Saxons was also called stef-plege (staff-play)."
I fear that our old writer must have made a great mistake if he imagined that the Saxons ever played cricket, and I believe that the word was not known before the sixteenth century. In the records of Guildford we find that a dispute arose about the enclosure of a piece of land in the time of Elizabeth; and in the suit that arose one John Derrick stated in his evidence that he knew the place well "for fifty years or more, and that when he was a scholar in the free school at Guildford he and several of his companions did run and play there at cricket and other plays." Also in Cotgrave's French Dictionary, published in 1611, the word crosse is translated "a cricket-staff, or the crooked-staff wherewith boys play at cricket."
In the eighteenth century allusions to the game become more frequent, although it was still a boy's game. It had its poet, who sang—
"Hail, cricket, glorious, manly, British game, First of all sports, be first alike in fame."
It had its calumniators, who said that it "propagated a spirit of idleness" in bad times, when people ought to work and not play, and that it encouraged gambling. But the game began to prosper, and several noted men, poets and illustrious statesmen, recall the pleasurable memories of their prowess with the bat and ball. In a book of songs called Pills to purge Melancholy, published in 1719, we find the verse—
"He was the prettiest fellow At football or at cricket: At hunting chase or nimble race How featly he could prick it."
In the early part of the eighteenth century the game was in a very rudimentary condition, very different from the scientific pastime it has since become. There were only two wickets, a foot high and two feet apart, with one long bail at the top. Between the wickets there was a hole large enough to contain the ball, and when the batsman made a run, he had to place the end of his bat in this hole before the wicket-keeper could place the ball there, otherwise he would be "run out."
The bat, too, was a curved, crooked arrangement very different from our present weapon. The Hambledon Club, in Hampshire, which has produced some famous players, seems to have been mainly instrumental in reforming and improving the game. Its members introduced a limit to the width of the bat, viz., four and a quarter inches—the standard still in force—in order to prevent players, such as a hero from Reigate, bringing bats as wide as the wicket. In 1775 they wisely introduced a middle stump, as they found the best balls harmlessly flying between the wide wickets. It was feared lest this alteration would shorten the game too much, but it does not seem to have had that effect, as in an All England match against the Hambledon Club, two years later, one Aylward scored 167 runs, and stayed in two whole days. England owes much to the old Club at Hambledon for the improvements which it wrought in the game, which has become our great national pastime.
Miss Mitford, in her charming book, Our Village, describes the rivalry which existed between the village elevens at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and gives a sketch of a match between two Berkshire village teams, which brought about some very happy results of a romantic nature. She tells us, too, of the comments of the rustics on the "new-fashioned" style of bowling which one of the team had introduced from London, which did not at all commend itself to them, but effectually took their wickets. When that celebrated company of cricketers, dressed in frock-coats and tall hats, whose portraits adorn many a pavilion, competed for the honour of All England, they were quite ignorant of "round-arm" bowling, which is, of course, an invention of modern times. Only "lobs," or "under-hands," were the order of the day. It has been stated that we are indebted to the ladies for the important discovery of the modern style of delivering the ball. The story may be legendary, but I have read somewhere that the elder Lillywhite used to practise cricket all through the winter, and that his daughters used to bowl to him. During the bitter cold of a winter's day they wore their shawls, and found it more convenient to bowl with extended arms than in the old method. Their balls so delivered used to puzzle their father, and often take his wicket; so he began to imitate them, and introduced his new method into matches, and thus the age of round-arm bowling was inaugurated. I cannot vouch for the truth of the story, and only tell it as it was told to me. At any rate Lillywhite was the father of modern bowling, which would have startled and considerably puzzled the veteran cricketers in the early part of the present century.
The proper parent of cricket seems to have been club-ball, which is a very old game, and of which there is a picture in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, dated 1344 A.D. It represents a female throwing a ball to a man who is in the act of raising his bat to strike it. Behind the woman, at a little distance, appear several other figures of men and women waiting attentively to catch or stop the ball when hit by the batsman. There is a still more ancient picture of two club-ball players, representing the batsman holding the ball also and preparing to hit it, while the other player holds his hands in readiness to catch the ball. He has the appearance of a very careful fielder. Here we have the rudimentary idea of cricket; but how they scored their game, what rules they had, we cannot determine. Stool-ball claims also to be an ancestor of cricket, and consists in one player defending a stool with his hand from being hit by a ball bowled by another player. Here is a simple form of the modern game, the stool being used as a wicket, and the hand for a bat.
Trap-ball is a much older game than cricket, and can be traced to the beginning of the fourteenth century. The modern game differs little from that which the old pictures describe, except in the shape of the trap which holds the ball. But the most ancient of all games of this nature is golf, or goff (as it used to be spelt), which was played with a crooked club or staff, sometimes called a bandy. Scotsmen are very fond of this game, which has lately migrated into England and found many admirers. It was probably introduced into Scotland from Holland, and was a popular pastime as early as 1457. In spite of proclamations encouraging archery, and forbidding golf, it continued to flourish; it has a long list of royal patrons; and the Stuart monarchs seem to have been as enthusiastic over the game as all true golfers ought to be. Poets have sung the praises of golf, and the glory of the heroes who drove their balls along St. Andrew's Links, or those of East Neuk. The object of the game is to drive the ball into certain holes in the fewest number of strokes. James II. was an expert golfer, and had only one rival, an Edinburgh shoemaker, named Paterson.
If you have visited London you will probably have walked along the street called Pall Mall, which name is derived from an old game fashionable in the reign of Charles II. The merry monarch and his courtiers frequently amused themselves with this game, which somewhat resembled golf, and consisted in driving a ball by means of a mallet through an iron hoop suspended from the ground in the fewest blows. The game was played in St. James's Park, where the street which bears its name now runs.
Tennis also has a history. It commenced its career as hand-ball, the ball being driven backwards and forwards with the palm of the hand. Then the players used gloves, and afterwards bound cords round their hands to make the ball rebound more forcibly. Here we have the primitive idea of a racket. France seems to have been the original home of tennis, which in the thirteenth century was played in unenclosed spaces; but in the fourteenth it migrated to the towns, and walls enclosed the motions of the ball. In Paris alone there were said to be eighteen hundred tennis-courts. In the sixteenth century there were several covered tennis-courts in England, and some of our English monarchs were very devoted to the game. Henry VII. used to play tennis, and there is a record of his having lost twelvepence at tennis, and threepence for the loss of balls. Henry VIII. was also very fond of the game, and lost much money at wagers with certain Frenchmen; but, like a sensible man, "when he perceived their craft he eschewed their company, and let them go." He built the famous court at Hampton, which still remains. Charles II. also played tennis. The old game is very different from the modern lawn-tennis which is now so popular: it was always the game of the select few, and not of the many, like its precocious offspring; and there are only thirty-one tennis-courts in England at the present day. The court attached to the palace of the French King Louis XVI. at Versailles was the scene of some very exciting meetings in the early days of the French Revolution in 1789.
There were some other forms of ball-play, such as balloon-ball, stow-ball, &c.; but of these it is hardly needful for me to speak, as they are only varieties of those games which I have already described. The history of football has been narrated in a preceding chapter. You will be able to trace from the descriptions of these old sports the ancestors of our noble game of cricket, and wonder at the extraordinary development of so scientific a game from such rude and simple beginnings.
The floors of the houses and churches of old England consisted simply of the hard, dry earth, which the people covered with rushes; and once a year there was a great ceremony called "Rush-bearing," when the inhabitants of each village or town went in procession to the church to strew the floor with newly-cut rushes. The company went to a neighbouring marsh and cut the rushes, binding them in long bundles, and decorating them with ribands and flowers. Then a procession was formed, every one bearing a bundle of rushes; and with music, drums, and ringing of bells they marched to the church, and strewed the floor with their honoured burdens. Long after the rushes ceased to be used in churches the ceremony was continued, and I have witnessed a rush-bearing procession such as I have described. There was a rush-cart with a large pile of decorated rush-sheaves, and some characters from the May-day games were introduced. A queen sat under a canopy of rushes, a few morris-dancers performed their antics, and a jester amused the spectators with his quaint sayings. A village feast, followed by dancing round a May-pole, generally formed the conclusion of the day's festivities. In 1884 this pleasant custom was revived at Grasmere in the Lake district, when the children of the village carried out a "rush-bearing" after the manner of their forefathers, and the village green again resounded with songs of joy.
I fear that our ancestors were not always very cleanly people; they seldom washed their floors, and therefore they were obliged to adopt some device to hide their uncleanliness. The old rushes were not taken away before the new ones were brought in; hence the lowest layer became filthy, and one writer attributes the frequent pestilences which often broke out to the dirtiness of their floors and the masses of filthy rushes lying upon them. Perhaps some of the wise folks in Lancashire discovered this, for we find the following entry in the account books of Kirkham Church, 1631—"Paid for carrying the rushes out of the Church in the sickness time, 5.s. 0d." Straw was used in winter: it would seem very strange to us to have our floors covered with straw, like a stable!
In this matter of cleanliness we have certainly improved upon the habits of our forefathers: dirty cottages are the exception, and not the rule, as they were in the days of "good Queen Bess"; and the absence of those terrible plagues which used to devastate our land in former times is due in a great measure to the improved cleanliness and more careful regard for sanitation by the people of England.
"Crowned with the ears of corn, now come, And to the pipe sing harvest home. Come forth, my lord, and see the cart Dressed up with all the country art: The horses, mares, and frisking fillies Clad all in linen white as lilies. The harvest swains and wenches bound For joy, to see the hock-cart crowned."
Lammas Day—St. Roch's Day—Harvest-home—"Ten-pounding"— Sheep-shearing—"Wakes"—Fairs.
The harvest fields have begun to ripen, and the corn will soon be ready for the sickle; of this fact our forefathers were reminded by the Lammas Festival, which was celebrated on the first of this month. Lammas is a shortened form of the word Loaf-mass, or feast of the loaf. A loaf of bread was made of the first-ripe corn, and used in Holy Communion on this day; so this feast was a preliminary harvest thanksgiving festival—a feast of "first-fruits," such as the Jews were commanded in the old Mosaic law to observe.
When the harvest was gathered in there were great festivities, and it has been thought that August 16th, St. Roch's Day, was generally observed as the harvest-home. St. Roch, or Roque, was a Frenchman, who lived in the early part of the fourteenth century, and was supposed to have performed miraculous cures, but August 16th seems to have been rather early in the year for a harvest-home. However, when the feast of ingathering did take place, there were great rejoicings in our English villages, and the mode of its celebration helped to knit together the masters and labourers, and to promote good feeling between them.
When the fields were almost cleared of the golden grain, the last few sheaves were decorated with flowers and ribbons, and brought home in a waggon, called the "Hock-cart," while the labourers, their wives and children, carrying green boughs, sheaves of wheat and rude flags, formed a glad procession. All the pipes and tabors in the village sounded, and shouts of laughter and of song were raised as the glad procession marched along. They sang—
"Harvest-home, harvest-home, We have ploughed, we have sowed, We have reaped, we have mowed, We have brought home every load. Hip, hip, hip, harvest-home!"
or, as they say in Berkshire—
"Whoop, whoop, whoop, harvest whoam!"
Sometimes the most comely maiden in the village was chosen as Harvest Queen, and placed upon her throne at the top of the sheaves in the hock-cart as it was drawn homewards to the farm.
The rustics receive a hearty welcome at their master's house, where they find the fuelled chimney blazing wide, and the strong table groaning beneath the smoking sirloin—
"Mutton, veal, And bacon, which makes full the meal, With several dishes standing by, As here a custard, there a pie, And here all-tempting frumenty."
Frumenty, which is made of wheat boiled in milk was a standing dish at every harvest supper. And then around the festive board old tales are told, well-known jests abound, and thanks given to the good farmer and his wife for their hospitality in some such homely rhymes as these—
"Here's a health to our master, The lord of the feast; God bless his endeavours, And send him increase.
"May everything prosper That he takes in hand, For we be his servants, And do his command."
The youths and maidens dance their country dances, as an old writer, who lived in the reign of Charles II., tells us:—"The lad and the lass will have no lead on their heels. O, 'tis the merry time wherein honest neighbours make good cheer, and God is glorified in His blessings on the earth." When the feast is over, the company retire to some near hillock, and make the welkin ring with their shouts, "Holla, holla, holla, largess!"—largess being the presents of money and good things which the farmer had bestowed.
Such was the harvest-home in the good old days—joy and delight to both old and young. The toils of the labourers did not seem so hard and wearisome when they knew that the farmers had such a grateful sense of their good services; and if any one felt aggrieved or discontented, the mutual intercourse at the harvest-home, when all were equal, when all sat at the same table and conversed freely together, soon banished all ill-feeling, and promoted a sense of mutual trust, which is essential to the happiness and well-being of any community. Shorn of much of its merriment and quaint customs, the harvest-home still lingers on in some places; but modern habits and notions have deprived it of much of its old spirit and light-heartedness. We have our harvest thanksgiving services, which (thank God!) are observed in almost every village and hamlet. It is, of course, our first duty to thank God for the fruits of His bounty and love; but the harvest-home should not be forgotten. When labourers simply regard harvest-time as a season when they can earn a few shillings more than usual, and take no further interest in their work, or in the welfare of their master, all brightness vanishes from their industry: their minds become sordid and mercenary; and mutual trust, good-feeling, and fellowship cease to exist.
Neither did the harvest-men allow drunkenness, laziness, swearing, quarrelling, nor lying, to go unpunished. The labourers in Suffolk, if they found one of their number guilty, would hold a court-martial among themselves, lay the culprit down on his face, and an executioner would administer several hard blows with a shoe studded with hob-nails. This was called "ten-pounding," and must have been very effectual in checking any of the above delinquencies.
Besides the harvest-home there was also observed another feast of a similar character in the spring, when the sheep were shorn. A plentiful dinner was given by the farmer to the shearers and their friends, and a table was often set in the open village for the young people and children. Tusser, who wrote a book upon Five Hundred Points of Husbandry, did not forget the treats which ought to be given to the labourers, and alludes to the sheep-shearing festival in the following lines—
"Wife, make us a dinner; spare flesh, neither corn, Make wafers and cakes, for our sheep must be shorn; At sheep-shearing, neighbours none other things crave, But good cheer and welcome like neighbours to have."
We have in many villages and towns a feast called "the Wakes," which is one of the oldest of our English festivals. The day of "the Wakes" is the festival of the Saint to whom the parish church is dedicated, and it is so called because, on the previous night, or vigil, the people used to watch, or "wake," in the church till the morning dawned. It was the custom for the inhabitants of the parish to keep open house on that day, and to entertain all their relations and friends who came to them from a distance. In early times the people used to make booths and tents with the boughs of trees near to the church, and were directed to celebrate the feast in them with thanksgiving and prayer. By degrees they began to forget their prayers, and remembered only the feasting, and other abuses crept in, so at last the "waking" on the eve of the festival was suppressed. But these primitive feasts were the origin of most of our fairs, which are generally held on the dedication festival of the parish church. The neighbours from the adjoining villages used to attend the wakes, so the peddlers and hawkers came to find a market for their wares. Their stalls began to multiply, until at last an immense fair sprang into existence, which owed its origin entirely to the religious festival of "the wakes." Fairs have degenerated like many other good things, and we can hardly realize their vastness in the middle ages. The circuit of a fair sometimes was very great, and it would have been impossible in those days to carry on the trade of the country without them. The great Stourbridge Fair, near Cambridge, I have described in my former book on English Villages. The booths were planted in a cornfield, and the circuit of the fair, which was one of the largest in Europe, was over three miles. All kinds of sports were held on these occasions: plays, comedies, tragedies, bull-baiting, &c., and King James was very wroth with the undergraduates of Cambridge who would insist upon frequenting Stourbridge Fair rather than attend to their studies.
The "Wakes," or village feast, was a great day for all sports and pastimes. A writer in the Spectator describes the "country wake" which he witnessed at Bath. The green was covered with a crowd of all ages and both sexes, decked out in holiday attire, and divided into several parties, "all of them endeavouring to show themselves in those exercises wherein they excelled." In one place there was a ring of cudgel-players, in another a football match, in another a ring of wrestlers. The prize for the men was a hat, and for the women, who had their own contests, a smock. Running and leaping also found a place in the programme. In Berkshire back-sword play and wrestling were the favourite amusements for vigorous youths, and men strove hard to win the honour of being champion and the prizes which were offered on the occasion. There were "cheap jacks," and endless booths containing all kinds of fairings, ribands, gingerbread cakes, and shows, with huge pictures hung outside of giants and wild Indians, pink-eyed ladies, live lions, and deformities of all kinds. There were minor sports, such as climbing the pole, jumping in sacks, rolling wheelbarrows blindfolded, donkey races, muzzling in a flour-tub, &c.; but the back-sword play was the chief and most serious part of the programme.
A good sound ash-stick with a large basket handle was the weapon used, very similar to, but heavier and shorter than an ordinary single-stick. The object is to "break the head" of the opponent— i.e. to cause blood to flow anywhere above the eyebrow. A slight blow will often accomplish this, so the game is not so savage as it appears to be. The play took place on a stage of rough planks about four feet high. Each player was armed with a stick, looping the fingers of his left hand in a handkerchief or strap, which he fastened round his left leg, measuring the length, so that when he drew it tight with his left elbow up he had a perfect guard for the left side of his head. Guarding his head with the stick in his right hand, he advanced, and then the fight began; fast and furious came the blows, until at last a red streak on the temple of one of the combatants declared his defeat. The Reading Mercury of May 24, 1819, advertised the rural sports at Peppard, when the not very magnificent prize of eighteenpence was offered to every man who broke a head at cudgel-play, and a shilling to every one who had his head broken.
Such was the sport which our old Berkshire rustics delighted in. Back-sword play, wrestling, and other pastimes made them a hardy race, full of courage, and developed qualities which it is hoped their descendants have not altogether lost. The gallant Berkshire Regiment, which fought so bravely at Maiwand, is composed of the sons of those who used to wield the back-sword on the Berkshire downs, and showed themselves not unworthy of their ancestry, although the quarter-staff and ashen-swords are forgotten. The old village feasts are forgotten too—more's the pity. Then old quarrels were healed, old bitternesses removed: aged friends met, and became young again in heart, as they revived old memories and sweet recollections of youthful days. Rich and poor, the squire and the farmer, the farmer and his labourers, all mingled together, class with class; and good-fellowship, harmony, and mutual confidence were promoted by these annual gatherings. It is true that these village feasts degenerated, because the well-to-do folk abstained from them; but would it not be possible to revive them, to preserve the good which they certainly did, and to eliminate the evil which is so often mingled with the good? Such a consideration is worthy of the attention of all who have the welfare of the people at heart.