Sports and pastimes of old time

A Survey of London. Reprinted From the Text of 1603. Originally published by Clarendon, Oxford, 1908.

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'Sports and pastimes of old time', in A Survey of London. Reprinted From the Text of 1603, (Oxford, 1908) pp. 91-99. British History Online [accessed 4 March 2024]

Sports and pastimes of old time vsed in this Citie.

Of sports and pastimes in this Citie, euerie thing hath his time, a time to weepe, a time to laugh, a time to mourn, and a time to daunce. Eccles. 3.

Let vs now (saith Fitzstephen) come to the sportes and pastimes, seeing it is fit that a citie should not only be commodious and serious, but also merrie and sportful: whereupon in the seales of the Popes, vntil the time of Pope Leo, an the one side was S. Peter fishing with a key ouer him, reached as it were by the hand of God out of heauen, and about it this verse,

Tu pro me nauem liquisti, suscipe clauem.

And on the other side was a Citie, and this inscription on it. Aurea Roma. Likewise to the praise of Augustus Cæsar, and the Citie in respect of the shewes and sports was writen:

Nocte pluit tota, redeunt spectacula mane, &c.

All night it raines, and shews at morrowtide returne again.

And Cæsar with almighty Ioue hath matcht an equal raign.

Stage playes.; Cock fighting.; Ball play.; Exercises of warlike feates on horsebacke with disarmed Launces.; Battailes on the water.; Leaping, dancing, shooting, wrestling.; Dauncing, Fighting of Boars, bayting of Beares and Bulles.

But London for the shews vpon Theaters, and Comicall pastimes, hath holy playes, representations of myracles which holy Confessours haue wrought, or representations of torments wherein the constancie of Martyrs appeared. Euery yeare also at Shrouetuesday, that we may begin with childrens sports, seeing we al haue beene children, the schoole boyes do bring Cockes of the game to their master, and all the forenoone they delight themselues in Cockfighting: after dinner all the youthes go into the fields to play at the bal. The schollers of euery schoole haue their ball, or baston, in their hands: the auncient and wealthy men of the Citie come foorth on horsebacke to see the sport of the yong men, and to take part of the pleasure in beholding their agilitie. Euery Fryday in Lent a fresh company of young men comes into the field on horseback, and the best horseman conducteth the rest. Then march forth the Citizens sons, and other yong men with disarmed launces and shields, and there they practise feates of warre. Many Courtiers likewise when the king lieth nere, and attendants of noble men doe repaire to these exercises, and while the hope of victorie doth inflame their minds, do shew good proofe how seruiceable they would bee in martiall affayres. In Easter holy dayes they fight battailes on the water, a shield is hanged vpon a pole, fixed in the midst of the stream, a boat is prepared without oares to bee caried by violence of the water, and in the fore part thereof standeth a young man, readie to giue charge vpon the shield with his launce: if so be hee breaketh his launce against the shield, and doth not fall, he is thought to haue performed a worthy deed. If so be without breaking his launce, he runneth strongly against the shield, downe he falleth into the water, for the boat is violently forced with the tide, but on each side of the shielde ride two boates, furnished with yong men, which recouer him that falleth (fn. 2) as soone as they may. Vpon the bridge, wharfes, and houses, by the riuers side, stand great numbers to see, & laugh therat. In the holy dayes all the Sommer the youths are exercised in leaping, dancing, shooting, wrastling, casting the stone, and practising their shields: the Maidens trip in their Timbrels, and daunce as long as they can well see. In Winter euery holy day before dinner, the Boares prepared for brawne are set to fight, or else Buls and Beares are bayted.

The Moorefield when there was no ditch by the wall of the Citie.; sliding on the yce.; Hauking and hunting.

When the great fenne or Moore, which watereth the wals of the Citie on the North side, is frozen, many yong men play vpon the yce, some striding as wide as they may, doe slide swiftly: others make themselues seates of yce, as great as Milstones: one sits downe, many hand in hand doe draw him, and one slipping on a sudden, all fall togither: some tie bones to their feete, and vnder their heeles, and shouing themselues by a little picked Staffe, doe slide as swiftly as a bird flieth in the ayre, or an arrow out of a Crossebow. Sometime two runne togither with Poles, and hitting one the other, eyther one or both doe fall, not without hurt: some breake their armes, some their legges, but youth desirous of glorie in this sort exerciseth it selfe agaynst the time of warre. Many of the Citizens doe delight themselues in Hawkes and houndes, for they haue libertie of hunting in Middlesex, Hartfordshire, all Chiltron, and in Kent to the water of Cray. Thus farre Fitzstephen of sportes.

A stage play continued 3. dayes.; A stage play that lasted eight dayes.; Theater and Curten for Comedies & other shewes.; Cocke fight.; The Ball at Tennis play.

These or the like exercises haue beene continued till our time, namely in stage playes, whereof ye may read in Anno 1391. a play by the parish Clearkes of London at the Skinners well besides Smithfield: which continued three dayes togither, the king Queene and Nobles of the Realme being present. And of another, in the yeare 1409. which lasted eight dayes, and was of matter from the creation of the world, whereat was present most part of the Nobilitie, and Gentrie of England. Of late time in place of those Stage playes, hath beene vsed Comedies, Tragedies, Enterludes, and Histories, both true and fayned: For the acting whereof certaine publike places haue beene erected. Also Cockes of the game are yet cherished by diuerse men for their pleasures, much money being laide on their heades, when they fight in pits whereof some be costly made for that purpose. The Ball is vsed by noble men and gentlemen in Tennis courts, and by people of meaner sort in the open fields, and streetes.

Running at the Quinten for prises. Math. Paris.; The kings seruants deriding the Citizens were sore beaten, but the Citizens were fined by the king.; Quinten vpon Cornehill.; Running with staues on the Thames.

The marching forth of Citizens sonnes, and other yong men on horsebacke, with disarmed Launces and Shieldes, there to practise feates of warre, man agaynst man hath long since been left of, but in their Citie, they haue vsed on horsebacke, to runne at a dead marke, called a Quinten: for note whereof I reade, that in the yeare of Christ 1253, the 38. of Henrie the third, the youthfull Citizens, for an exercise of their actiuitie, set forth a game to runne at the Quinten, and whosoeuer did best, should haue a Peacocke, which they had prepared as a prise: certaine of the kings seruants, because the Court lay then at Westminster, came as it were in spite of the Citizens, to that game, and giuing reprochfull names to the Londoners, which for the dignitie of the Citie, and auncient priuiledge which they ought to haue enioyed, were called Barons: the said Londoners, not able to bear so to be misused, fell vpon the kings seruants, and bet them shrewdly, so that vpon complaint <to> the king, he fined the Citizens to pay a thousand Markes. This exercise of running at the Quinten, was practised by the youthfull Citizens, as well in Sommer as in Winter, namely, in the feast of Christmasse, I haue seene a Quinten set vpon Cornehill, by the Leaden Hall, where the attendantes on the Lords of merrie Disports haue runne, and made great pastime, for he that hit not the brode end of the Quinten, was of all men laughed to scorne, and he that hit it full, if he rid not the faster, had a sound blowe in his necke, with a bagge full of sand hanged on the otherend. I haue also in the Sommer season seene some vpon the riuer of Thames rowed in whirries, with staues in their hands, flat at the fore end, running one against another, and for the most part, one, or both ouerthrowne, and well dowked.

Leaping, dancing, shooting, wrestling.

On the Holy dayes in Sommer, the youthes of this Citie, haue in the field exercised themselues, in leaping, dauncing, shooting, wrestling, casting of the stone or ball, &c.

Matthew Paris.; Games of defence.; Playing at the Bucklers.; Dauncing for garlands in the streets.

And for defence and vse of the weapon, there is a speciall profession of men that teach it. Ye may reade in mine Annales, how that in the yeare 1222. the Citizens kept games of defence, and wrestlings neare vnto the Hospitall of Saint Giles in the field where they chalenged, and had the mastrie of the men in the Suburbs, and other commoners, &c. Also in the yeare. 1453. of a tumult made agaynst the Maior, at the wrestling besides Clearkes well, &c. Which is sufficient to proue that of olde time the exercising of wrestling, and such like hath beene much more vsed then of later yeares. The youthes of this Citie also haue vsed on holy dayes after Euening prayer, at their Maisters doores, to exercise their Wasters and Bucklers: and the Maidens, one of them playing on a Timbrell, in sight of their Maisters and Dames, to daunce for garlandes hanged thwart the streetes, which open pastimes in my youth, being now suppressed, worser practises within doores are to be feared: as for the bayting of Bulles and Bears, they are till this day much frequented, namely in Bearegardens on the Banks side, wherein be prepared Scaffolds for beholders to stand vpon. Sliding vpon the Ice is now but childrens play: but in hawking & hunting many graue Citizens at this present haue great delight, and doe rather want leysure then good will to follow it.

Matthew Paris. Shewes for triumphes.; The Citizens roade.; Imbrodered garments.; Fishmongers Procession, for triumph of victory against the Scottes, more then 1000. horsmen.

Of triumphant shewes made by the Citizens of London, yee may read in the yere 1236. the 20. of Henrie the third, Andrew Bokerell, (fn. 3) then being Maior, how Helianor daughter to Reymond Earle of Prouance, riding through the Citie towardes Westminster, there to be crowned Queene of England, the Citie was adorned with silkes, and in the night with Lamps, Cressets, and other lights, without number, besides many Pageants, and straunge deuises there presented, the Citizens also rode to meet the King and Queene, clothed in long garments embrodered about with gold, and silks of diuerse colours, their horses gallantly trapped to the number of 360. euery man bearing a cup of gold or siluer in his hand, and the kings trumpetters sounding before them: These Citizens did minister wine, as Bottelers, which is their seruice at the coronation. More, in the yeare 1298. for victorie obtained by Edward the first agaynst the Scots, euery Citizen according to their seuerall trade, made their seuerall shew, but specially the Fishmongers, which in a solemne Procession passed through the Citie, hauing amongest other Pageants and shews, foure Sturgeons guilt, caried on four horses: then foure Salmons of silver on foure horses, and after them six & fortie armed knights riding on horses, made like Luces of the sea, and then one representing Saint Magnes, because it was vpon S. Magnes day, with a thousand horsemen, &c.

A shew by torch light, being a Mommery of more then 100 horses.; The Prince did winne three Iewels of the Maskers.

One other shew in the yeare 1377, made by the Citizens for disport of the yong prince Richard, son to the blacke prince, in the feast of Christmas in this manner. On the Sonday before Candlemas in the night, one hundred and thirty Cittizens disguised, and well horsed in a mummerie with sound of Trumpets, Shackbuts, Cornets, Shalmes, and other Minstrels, and innumerable torch lights of Waxe, rode from Newgate through Cheape ouer the bridge, through Southwarke, and so to Kennington besides Lambhith, where the young Prince remayned with his mother and the Duke of Lancaster his vncle, the Earles of Cambridge, Hertford, Warwicke and Suffolke, with diuers other Lordes. In the First ranke did ride 48. in the likenes and habite of Esquires, two and two together, cloathed in redde coates and gownes of Say or Sindall (fn. 4), with comely visors on their faces: after them came riding 48. knightes in the same liuery, of colour and stuffe: Then followed one richly arrayed like an Emperour, and after him some distance, one stately tyred like a Pope, whom followed 24. Cardinals, and after them eight or tenne with black visors not amiable, as if they had beene Legates from some forrain Princes. These maskers after they had entered the Mannor of Kennington, alighted from their horses, and entred the hall on foot, which done, the Prince, his mother, and the Lordes came out of the Chamber into the hall, whome the saide mummers did salute: shewing by a paire of dice vpon the table their desire to play with the Prince, which they so handled, that the Prince did alwayes winne when hee cast them. Then the mummers set to the Prince three jewels, one after another, which were a boule of gold, a cup of gold, and a ring of gold, which the Prince wanne at three casts. Then they set to the Princes mother, the Duke, the Earles, and other Lordes, to euery one a ring of gold, which they did also win: After which they were feasted, and the musicke sounded, the prince and Lords daunced on the one part with the mummers, which did also daunce: which iolitie being ended, they were againe made to drinke, and then departed in order as they came.

The like was to Henry the fourth in the 2. of his raigne, hee then keeping his Christmas at Eltham, xv Aldermen of London and their sonnes rode in a mumming, and had great thanks.

L. of Misrule at Christmas.

Thus much for sportfull shewes in Triumphes may suffice: now for sportes and pastimes yearely vsed, first in the feaste of Christmas, there was in the kinges house, wheresoeuer hee was lodged, a Lord of Misrule, or Maister of merry disports, and the like had yee in the house of euery noble man, of honor, or good worshippe, were he spirituall or temporall. Amongst the which the Mayor of London, and eyther of the shiriffes had their seuerall Lordes of Misrule, euer contending without quarrell or offence, who should make the rarest pastimes to delight the Beholders. These Lordes beginning their rule on Alhollon Eue, continued the same till the morrow after the Feast of the Purification, commonlie called Candlemas day: In all which space there were fine and subtle disguisinges, Maskes and Mummeries, with playing at Cardes for Counters, Nayles and pointes in euery house, more for pastimes then for gaine.

Tempestes of lightning and thunder fiered Powles steeple, ouerthrew the standard at Leaden hall, & threw stones of the panement into mens houses.

Against the feast of Christmas, euery mans house, as also their parish churches were decked with holme, Iuie, Bayes, and what soeuer the season of the yeare aforded to be greene: The Conduits and Standardes in the streetes were likewise garnished, amongst the which I reade in the yeare 1444. that by tempest of thunder and lightning, on the first of Februarie at night, Powles steeple was fiered, but with great labour quenched, and towarde the morning of Candlemas day, at the Leaden Hall in Cornhill, a Standarde of tree being set vp in midst of the pauement fast in the ground, nayled ful of Holme and Iuie, for disport of Christmas to the people, was torne vp, and cast downe by the malignant spirit (as was thought) and the stones of the pauement all aboute were cast in the streetes, and into diuers houses, so that the people were sore agast of the great tempests.

Twisted trees fet from the woods.

In the weeke before Easter, had ye great shewes made for the fetching in of a twisted tree, or With, as they termed it, out of the Woodes into the Kinges house, and the like into euery mans house of Honor or Worship.

May games.; Edward Hall.; Robin hoode and his men shot before the king.; Bishops wood Bishops hall by Blethenhall greene.

In the moneth of May, namely on May day in the morning, euery man, except impediment, would walke into the sweete meadowes and greene woods, there to reioyce their spirites with the beauty and sauour of sweete flowers, and with the harmony of birds, praysing God in their kind, and for example hereof Edward Hall hath noted, that K. Henrythe eight, as in the 3. of his raigne and diuers other yeares, so namely in the seauenth of his raigne on May day in the morning with Queene Katheren his wife, accompained with many Lords and Ladies, rode a Maying from Green witch to the high ground of Shooters hill, where as they passed by the way, they espied a companie of tall yeomen cloathed all in Greene, with greene whoodes, and with bowes and arrowes to the number of 200. One being their Chieftaine was called Robin Hoode, who required the king and his companie to stay and see his men shoote, whereunto the king graunting, Robin hoode whistled, and all the 200. Archers shot off, loosing all at once, and when he whistled againe, they likewise shot againe, their arrowes whistled by craft of the head, so that the noyse was straunge and loude, which greatly delighted the King, Queene, and their Companie. Moreouer, this Robin Hoode desired the King & Queene with their retinue to enter the greene wood, where, in harbours made of boughes, and decked with flowers, they were set and serued plentifully with venison and wine, by Robin Hoode and his meynie, to their great contentment, and had other Pageants and pastimes as ye may reade in my saide Authour. I find also that in the moneth of May, the Citizens of London of all estates, lightly in euery Parish, or sometimes two or three parishes ioyning togither, had their seuerall mayings, and did fetch in Maypoles, with diuerse warlike shewes, with good Archers, Morice dauncers, and other deuices for pastime all the day long, and towards the Euening they had stage playes, and Bonefiers in the streetes: of these Mayings, we reade in the raigne of Henry the sixt, that the Aldermen and Shiriffes of London being on May day at the Bishop of Londons wood in the parish of Stebunheath, and hauing there a worshipfull dinner for themselues and other commers, Lydgate the Poet that was a Monke of Bery, sent to them by a Pursiuant a ioyfull commendation of that season containing 16. staues in meter Royall, beginning thus.

The pleasant month of May commended.

Mightie Flora, Goddesse of fresh flowers,
which clothed hath the soyle in lustie greene.
Made buds spring, with her sweete showers,
by influence of the Sunne shine.
To doe pleasance of intent full cleane,
unto the States which now sit here.
Hath Ver (fn. 5) downe sent her owne daughter deare.

Making the vertue, that dured (fn. 6)in the roote,
Called of Clarkes, the vertue vegitable,
for to transcend, most holsome and most soote
Into the crop, this season so agreeable,
the bawmy liquor, is so commendable,
That it reioyceth, with his fresh moysture,
man, beast, and fowle, and euery creature, &c.

These great Mayings and Maygames made by the gouernors and Maisters of this Citie, with the triumphant setting vp of the great shaft (a principall May-pole in Cornehill, before the Parish Church of S. Andrew) therefore called Undershaft, by meane of an insurrection of youthes against Aliens on may day, 1517, the ninth of Henry the 8. haue not beene so freely vsed as afore, and therefore I leaue them, and wil somewhat touch of watches as also of shewes in the night.


  • 1. baston] bastion 1598, 1603
  • 2. falleth] falteth 1603
  • 3. Bokerell] Bockwell 1598, 1603
  • 4. Sindall] Sandall 1603
  • 5. Ver] 1633; 1603 Vere
  • 6. dured] dared 1603