July 27, 2012 by

Mob Ball, Football, and the Origin of Sports

Categories: Research, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post is of particular relevance not only because my husband is a soccer fanatic and am I about to tell you about the origin of soccer (football), but because there’s been two stories about Wales football recently, both fraught with ancient grudges and political implications of the relationship between Wales and England for the last 1000 years.

The first is about listing a Welsh footballer as English http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/olympics/18997930

and the second is the elevation of a Welsh footballer for a best player in Europe award:  http://www.bigsoccer.com/soccer/david-bolt/2012/07/18/messi-ronaldo-and-les-davies/

People (and by that I generally mean ‘men’) played sports a thousand years ago or more, even if those sports wouldn’t have looked quite like what we experience today.  Soccer (or Football) even existed, with the rather ominous name of ‘mob ball’ or ‘mob football’ (see below).

Other sports included:  Archery–always popular and in the reign of Edward I, a required activity for all villagers on Sunday afternoons; ‘Bowls’–a form of bowling, which also included another game called ‘skittles’; ‘Colf’, the precursor to golf; hammer-throwing; ‘shinty’–a hockey-like game; wrestling; horseshoes; quarterstaff contests; and ‘stoolball’–a precursor to cricket.


‘Mob football’ developed between the 7th and 9th centuries in Britain.  This site writes: “It was explicitly violent and played between villages, at the time of celebration and festivity. In fact, it was so violent that people living nearby would barricade their windows during matches.  Both “teams” tried to force a ball into the center square of the enemy village or they might have played across different parts of town, again centered at a market place or a town square.  There are many theories as to how exactly mob football came about. Some of the earlier versions, like Shrovetide football, had vague rules restricting only murder or manslaughter.   Legends (from Derby) preach that the game originated in Britain around 3rd century as a celebration over the defeated Romans. Others (Kingston-on-Thames and Chester) claim that the game was originally played with the severed head of a vanquished Danish prince.  The game may also have been a pagan ritual in which the ball, representing the sun, had to be conquered and driven around the field, ensuring good harvest. There is also evidence (from Scotland) of this early rugby being played in teams between married men and bachelors, probably also as a heretic rite.”

Not everyone loved ‘Futeball’, as you can imagine.  King Edward II issued a proclamation, that said: “For as much as there is a great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls, from which many evils may arise, which God forbid, we command and forbid on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city future.”


This site (http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Fwales.htm) claims that soccer was slightly different in Wales than in England.  According to George Owen (c. 1550) “There is a round ball prepared… so that a man may hold it in his hand… The ball is made of wood and boiled in tallow to make it slippery and hard to hold… The ball is called a knappan, and one of the company hurls it into the air… He that gets the ball hurls it towards the goal… the knappan is tossed backwards and forwards… It is a strange sight to see a thousand or fifteen hundred men chasing after the knappan… The gamesters return home from this play with broken heads, black faces, bruised bodies and lame legs… Yet they laugh and joke and tell stories about how they broke their heads… without grudge or hatred.”

Fun, huh?  Hmmmm.  Maybe not.

4 Responses to Mob Ball, Football, and the Origin of Sports

  1. Madcom

    Sarah, Interesting post but knappan was not soccer it was more like rugby. It was called football because it was played on foot not because they kicked the ball around.
    They actually formed scrums!

  2. Steven Fletcher

    Very interesting in light of the World Cup matches in South Africa. The part I like best about your blog entry on”mob ball” is that they return home and “…laugh and joke and tell stories about how they broke their heads … without grudge or hatred.” Somehow this sounds very familiar !!!

    • Sarah Post author

      At one time in his life, I’m pretty sure my husband would have loved the game 🙂