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The Origins of Rugby

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There are so many conflicting reports of how the game of rugby came in to being that the only thing that is for certain is that Rugby School's Webb Ellis did not spontaneously invent the game when he picked up the ball and ran with it showing "a fine disregard for the rules of football (soccer) as played at his time"; the time in question being 1823. Not only did a schoolboy contemporary of Webb Ellis refute the budding legend a few years later, but there is also the fact that rugby was by no means the first code of football to involve running and handling. In fact, before Webb Ellis did his party trick in 1823, all codes of football involved running and handling.

It is sometimes claimed by Irish historians of the game, that William Webb Ellis was actually giving a demonstration of "Caid". This ancient Irish free-for-all is very similar to rugby, and Webb Ellis could have witnessed it as a young boy when his soldier father was stationed in Ireland with the Dragoons. But in truth the origins of the game go back even further than Caid, to the Roman Empire and a popular game of the time called "Harpastum". And even then it is said that the Romans actually imported that game from China and Japan where it had been played for many centuries, while some accounts have it that the game was an Ancient Greek pastime called "Episkyros". Whatever the case, Harpastum was very much like rugby in that it involved two teams whose sole objective was to carry a leather ball stuffed with cloth or feathers over their opponents' goal line.


By the twelfth century, "foote balle" of one kind or another had become so popular in Britain that the chronicler Fitzstephen devoted a whole chapter to it in his Surveys of London. The game he described pitted one village against another in wrestling wars of attrition that ranged over distances of many miles and could go on for days at a time. The games were often brutal, savage affairs with blunt implements used as a means of gaining an advantage over the rival village. Certainly, the games were not popular with the chroniclers of the time; Philip Stubbs wrote in his "Anatomy of Abuses" in 1583: "Football playing ... may rather be called a friendly kind of fight than a play for recreation, a bloody and murthering practice than a felowly sport."

Versions of the game of football were played throughout Europe; the Irish called it "Caid", the Cornish "Hurling to Goales" (not to be confused with the Irish version), the West Country referred to it as "Hurling Over Country", East Anglians "Campball", the Welsh knew it as "Criapan", the French played a version called "La Soule" or "Chole" and the Italians of Florence had "Calcio". Yet wherever the game was played, it was incredibly violent, with the Shrovetide clashes between Chester and Derby the nastiest of them all (hence the term "local derby"). Most Sundays and every Shrove Tuesday, the ritual bloodletting would get underway, with the most noted games taking place at Cross of Scone near Perth in Scotland, Corfe Castle in Dorset, Alnwick in Northumberland, and Midlothian (where the married women played the single ones).

Gradually, though, the game began to develop beyond a good excuse for a brawl. By the 1600s the writer Boccalini was reporting in glowing terms of a highly organized game "Calcio", which was played by young Florentine nobles in two teams of 27, the Reds and the Greens. In Britain, the chronicler Richard Carew describes the Cornish game of "Hurling to Goales" which had by then developed many of the essential features of modern rugby, including offside. "There are 15, 20 or 30 players on each side who strip themselves to their slightest apparel, and then join hands in ranks one against another. Out of these ranks they match themselves by payres, one embracing another, every of which couple are especially to watch one another during the play. After this they pitch two bushes in the ground some eight or ten feet asunder, and directly against them, ten or twelve score paces off, other twain in like distance, which they term goales. Whosoever can catch or carry through the adversaries' goales hath won the game."

Yet football was no more popular with the authorities in the 1600s than it had been in the preceding centuries when virtually every English, Scottish and French monarch had tried at one stage or another to ban a pastime which took their men away from archery and could lead to some extremely violent episodes. That began to change in the 1647 when Winchester College took up a round ball version of the game, ensuring that the code of football at last had a modicum of respectability that would allow it to flourish. Different versions of the same game were being played at schools around the country, although all exhibited many of the ingredients that now make up rugby. Winchester had a well-established game, while at Eton College a 'wall-less' form of the famous Eton Wall Game had been played for almost half a century before the wall was built in 1717. Harrow, Charterhouse, Shrewsbury and Westminster all had distinct games, while a form of football with many of the features of current day Aussie Rules Football had been played at Rugby for almost a century before Webb Ellis intervened.

It was fortunate that the game was flourishing in the public schools, because football for the common man was increasingly suppressed from 1750 onwards, most notably by the 1835 Highways Act which forbade the playing of football on public land, where most of the games had taken place. Just for good measure, the Act was enforced by special constables and dragoons who quickly gained the reputation as killjoys.


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