From Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, edited by William Andrews; London :  William Andrews & Co., 1897; pp. 215-228.




Games in Churchyards.


IN bygone ages it was a common practice for games of various kinds to be regularly played in churchyards. Strange as it may appear in these days, it was then looked upon as a regular and natural course of events. Just as the church was used for certain secular purposes, such as the holding of manorial courts, the storage of wool and other valuables, so the churchyard came to be looked on by the people from a secular as well as from an ecclesiastical point of view. The use was a gradual one, so gradual indeed that no one’s feelings appeared to be shocked by the desecration until great and grave abuses had crept in. Public opinion was very different in those days from what it is now, and the exigencies of the times, and the lack of public recreation grounds and parks, gave, it is supposed, some sort of an excuse for the practice of playing numerous kinds of games, and even dancing and holding fairs in our churchyards. These practices were 216 not confined to our own country, for many similar customs were at one time firmly established on the continent.

In “Articles to be inquired of in the ordinary visitation of the Richt Worshipfull Mr. Dr. Pearson, Archdeacon of Suffolke,” A.D. 1638, under the head of churchyards, we read: —

“Have any playes, feasts, banquets, suppers, church ales, drinkings, temporal courts, or leets, lay juries, exercise of dancing, stoole-ball, football, 1 or the like, or any other profane usuage been suffered to be kept in your Church, Chappell, or Churchyard?”*

It is interesting to notice from the above that even so early as 1638 church ales, at one time so fully recognised as a legitimate and regular course for raising money for church purposes, had already lost their semi-religious character, and are to be found classed in a list of articles to be inquired of amongst other “profane usages.” This, perhaps, is not so much to be surprised at, considering that church ales must very early have degenerated into drinking-bouts.

The game of stool-ball referred to, was an ancient game of ball played by both sexes. According to Dr. Johnson, it is a play where balls are driven from stool to stool.


There is a little church or chapel dedicated to St. Oswald under the ruins of Bolton Castle, in Wensleydale, unenvironed by any enclosure or churchyard. In former years the villagers used to play at ball against its walls, the windows being protected from being broken by shutters.

Fives used to be played between the buttresses on the north wall of Eton College Chapel, and the pepper-box peculiar to the Eton Fives Court took its origin from a natural angle in one of these buttresses.

A correspondent to Notes and Queries writes that he remembers being told by an old man many years ago that, as a boy, he used to play ball in a churchyard in some town in Staffordshire, where there was a very broad church tower. The vicar tried to put the practice down, but was baffled by the perseverance of the boys. He gave orders that when he died he should be buried in the place where the boys played, and that an altar tombstone should be placed on his grave; saying, that though he had failed to stop the ball playing in his lifetime, he would stop it after his death. And he did so.


In days gone by, fairs were commonly held in churchyards, indeed up to the early part of the present century such have been held in the churchyard at St. James’, Bristol. At Barford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, the booths at the time of the annual fair were brought close to the church, and the south wall of the tower formerly showed unmistakable evidences of having been used by tennis players.

At Pershore, in Worcestershire, the fair was held for years in the abbey churchyard, indeed it was only abolished in 1838, and then with such opposition that the gentlemen of the town were sworn in as special constables for the occasion. This fair being held in the churchyard is commemorated in a stained glass window in the church, which gives a history of the abbey from its foundation. The fact that the gentlemen of the town had to be sworn in as special constables, on the suppression of the fair in the churchyard, proves how the people even at this period were unwilling to give up their supposed rights, and how firmly they clung to the old custom.

The practice of dancing in the churchyard at feasts appears to have been almost universal in Wales. The people did not dance on the graves, 219 but on the north side, where there were no graves. Probably this part of the churchyard, being even ground, would be more convenient for the dancers, and possibly, too, the superstition so common in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire that it is unlucky to tread on graves, may have had some influence on the revellers.

Brand, in his “Popular Antiquities,” says that it was formerly a custom in some parts of Normandy, when a wedding took place, for the bride to throw a ball over the church, which both the bachelors and married men scrambled for and then played with, but it does not seem that this custom was ever general in this country. In the north of England, among the colliers, it was usual for a party to watch the bridegroom coming out of the church after the wedding ceremony, and to demand money from him with which to buy a football; a claim which admitted of no refusal on the part of the bridegroom, who was expected to pay the money there and then in the churchyard. The colliers in the north, being proverbially fond of football, the custom seems to have been practically confined to the colliery district, and would not be at all general south of Yorkshire.


Games and secular business were forbidden in churchyards by the Synod of Exeter, A.D. 1287. By 12 Richard II., chapter VI., servants were ordered to amuse themselves with bows and arrows on Sundays, and to give up football, quoits, casting the stone, “keyles,” and other such inopportune games. In consequence of this statute, the jury of the manor of Kirton-in-Lindsey, 4th April, 1 Henry VIII. made a presentment that “Willielmus Welton se male gessit in ludendo ad pilam pedalem et alia joca illicita.”

A curious and interesting old poem by John Myre, a Canon of Lilleshall, in Shropshire, and written probably about the year 1450, was printed some few years ago by the Early English Text Society. It is entitled “Instructions to Parish Priests,” wherein their various duties, and certain laws and rules of the Church, are set forth in verse. This poem goes to show that although the playing of games in churchyards had been forbidden by the Synod of Exeter, in 1287, still, nearly two hundred years later, it was necessary for the priest to be instructed in the matter of putting down such games.

Also wyth ynne chyrche and seyntwary
Do ryʒt thus as I the say,
221 Songe and cry and suche fare,
Sor to stynte þow schalt not spare;
Castynge of axtre and eke of ston,
Sofere hem þere to vse non;
Bal and bares and suche play,
Out of Chyrcheyorde put a-way;
Courte holdynge and such maner chost,
Out of seyntwary put þow most;
For cryst hym self techeth vs
Þat holy chyrche ys hys hows,
Þat ys made for no þynge elles
But for to praye in, as þe booke telles.
Þere þe pepulle schale geder with inne
To prayen and to wepen for here synne.

There is a note in the original manuscript in the Bodleian Library in a hand a few years later than the text: —

“Danseyng, Cotteyng, bollyng, tenessyng, hand-ball, fott-ball,
  & all manner other games out cherchyard
  I ye pra & reyng þat lent no be ther
  As it were in market or fair.”

In spite of Synods and Acts of Parliament, games continued to be regularly played in our churchyards down to the early part of this century; indeed, up to this time, cock-fighting was a frequent pastime indulged in, and this even on Sundays, immediately after service. In the west of England, single stick, or as it was there called, “cudgell playing,” was nearly always done in the 222 churchyard; and in Devonshire, wrestling matches were a very favourite amusement. At Westminster School, the boys played a game called nine holes in the cloisters, and many of these holes are still to be seen, although some have been obliterated by the work of restoration.

On yon grey stone that fronts the chancel door
Worn smooth by busy feet, now seen no more
Each eve we shot the marble through the ring.
                                          Rogers’ “Pleasure of Memory.”

At Durham, the choir boys still play marbles and other games in the cloisters, however, it should be remembered that the cloisters at Durham have never been used as a churchyard like the Westminster cloisters have.

It appeared when an account was taken of bequests made for charitable purposes in the parish of Barford St. Michael’s, Oxfordshire, before the commissioners appointed to investigate such donations at Banbury, that the rent of a certain piece of land, called White-bread, close in that parish, was formerly appropriated to the purchase of bread, which was thrown among the people to be scrambled for in the churchyard; a circumstance which naturally occasioned such scenes of indecent riot and outrage, and even 223 fighting in the church itself, that at last there was very properly effected the suppression of a practice productive of such gross abuse. The rent of this close of land is now bestowed in a much more rational and dignified manner, being distributed to the poor in coal at Christmas. The boys, it seems, in a former period, assembled from the neighbouring parishes, as well as the people of Barford, on the anniversary of this extraordinary, but to them highly interesting, exhibition.

At Haxey, in Lincolnshire, there is an annual festival called “Haxey Hood,” surviving to the present day, held on the 6th of January, or on the following Monday if that day fall on a Sunday. The game as now played is of a rather disreputable character. On the 6th of January, at about 2 p.m., twelve men called “Boggans,” dressed in scarlet jackets, headed by another, also in a scarlet jacket, but further decorated with rags and ribbons, and who is called “King of the Boggans,” march up the village to the base of an ancient cross near the church. The King of the Boggans bears the “Hood,” which is a roll of leather about two feet long, and as thick as a man’s arm. The King is then hoisted up on to the top of the ancient stone, and there in a rigmarole speech 224 invites the mob to follow him to the top of the hill and enjoy the sport of chasing the Hood. The King of the Boggans takes his stand on the appointed spot, and the twelve Boggans are posted at intervals five or six hundred yards away. The King then throws up the Hood, which is caught by one of the mob, who makes off with it at the top of his speed; he throws it on ahead of him, it is caught by another and so on, the Boggans all the time intercepting, if possible, the Hood, and when a Boggan gets hold of it he carries it back to the King, who throws it again amongst the people. The next day the Boggans and their King go round soliciting contributions, which they spend in drink. There is a general holiday in the parish on “Hood Day,” and the inhabitants are visited by their relatives and friends from all parts of the country.”§

Brand, in his “Popular Antiquities,” tells us that in ancient times among Christians, upon any extraordinary solemnity, particularly the anniversary dedication of a church, tradesmen used to bring and sell their wares in the churchyards, especially upon the festival of the dedication, as at Westminster on St. Peter’s day, in London on 225 St. Bartholomew’s, and at Durham on St. Cuthbert’s day. Much fighting and quarreling sometimes attended the monastic fairs held in the churchyards, and it was not uncommon, when a fair was held within the precincts of a cathedral or monastery, to oblige every man to take an oath at the gate, before he was admitted, that he would neither lie, steal, nor cheat while he continued in the fair.

At Scawby, in Lincolnshire, up to the early part of the present century, a game was played in the churchyard by girls only, called Bonn Ball. The church did not come into the game at all, and it was played nearer the porch than the tower. This is an interesting instance of a churchyard game surviving to within, comparatively speaking, recent times, and it would almost seem as though the game, or at least the name of it, must have been a local one, for Bonn Ball is not mentioned by Strutt under games of ball.

A correspondent to Notes and Queries, has transcribed a minute, passed at a Warrington vestry meeting, April 10th, 1732. “That hereafter no money be spent on ye 5th Nov., nor on any other state day, on the parish account, either at the church-stile, or any other place.” The 226 following extract from the parish books shows that the custom was in vigour and fully recognised in the year 1688.

Payd the 5th of November, to the ringers
      in money and drink ................... 2s   od.
For drink at the Church-steele..... 13s   od.

Miracle plays continued to be represented in the churchyards for as long a period as they were played in the churches, but they were never so popular in the open air as in the church. This is easy to understand, for the subjects of the miracle plays did not lend themselves so well to an open-air performance, and primitive as these plays necessarily were, still, they required a certain amount of convenience for the actors.

Formerly on Easter Monday the Birmingham school children used to hurry to the older Parish Church, place their backs against it as they ranged round the building hand-in-hand, till the hand of the last comer touched that of the first, then there was a song, a shout, and a race to the other church where the same ceremony was jubilantly performed. This was called “Clipping the Churches,” and this clipping, or embracing, and supporting was prettily typical of what was due and paid to the church by her children. As the 227 churches in the town increased, the custom gradually died out, lingering, however, down to the early part of the present century. Perhaps this is one of the highest types of games in a churchyard to be found, an in the days when the custom was instituted, it must have been both a pretty and interesting sight to see the children hand-in-hand each Easter Monday surrounding and supporting the Church.

We find the world “clipping,” meaning to embrace or to clasp, frequently used in old literature.

“When Robin Hood his Marion did see,
  Good Lord, what clipping was there!”
                           Robin Hood, “Ballads and Songs.”

“Our King being ready to leap out of himself for joy of his found daughter, . . . . then embraces his son-in-law; then again worries he his daughter with clipping her.”
                       Shakespeare. “Winter’s Tale” Act V, Scene 2.

Fox-and-geese boards are to be found cut on the cloister benches at Gloucester Cathedral and elsewhere. There are several of these on the 12th century tomb at Salisbury, Lord Stourton’s, so called, and which is now in the nave of the cathedral. There is cut on a bench on the garth side of the East Cloister walk at Salisbury a 228 chequer board of sixteen squares; it is carefully done, and the alternate squares are slightly sunk, showing that the squares were played upon and not the points of intersection. The form would appear to suggest something like draughts. On the bench, in the second bay from the eastern church door, in the cloister of Norwich Cathedral are eight small holes in a right line, which were probably used in some game, although the nature of it is not known.

Centuries have passed since many of the churchyard games were first introduced. There is no doubt but that they were exceedingly popular for a long period, lingering even to within seventy or eighty years ago. Many of these, suited as they were to the tastes and feelings of the times, naturally, perhaps, in some cases became much debased. With the renewal of a sense of what was right and proper, both in the church and its precincts, these games finally ceased to be played, and at the present day we find it hard to realize that at any time the churchyard could have been so regularly recognised as a public play-ground.



 *  Brand’s “Popular Antiquities,” 1841, Vol. II, page 179.

 †  Notes and Queries, 8th Series, Vol. VIII, page 355.

 ‡  Notes and Queries, 8th Series, Vol. VIII, page 217.

 §  “Church Bells of Lincolnshire.” North, p. 244.

 ¶  See Doran’s “Memories of our Great Towns.”



 1  Elf.Ed.  For more on the origins and rise of Football, European style, see The History of Football, by Montagu Shearman, on this site.