The York Football Riot of 1660


In 1660, York played host to the first ever recorded football riot in the UK (and possibly the world), the site of which can still be seen today

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By Henry Gee

The criticism has been made that Nouse Sport is too football centric. What fools we are to frequently cover a sport whose biggest match in its biggest tournament, the Men’s World Cup final, was watched by a measly one and a half billion people. It also disregards the great reporting we’ve done recently on rugby, netball, and snooker to name but a few. But, in light of these critical remarks, I shall be covering something a little different…a football thing. Yes, I know – I’m sorry. We’ll do better next time. I promise.

York has a long and rich sporting history. There has been at least some form of horse racing here since the Romans, York City football club turned 100 just last year, and the famously yolked gym-rat, Joseph Rowntree, helped establish many of the public gyms, swimming pools, and parks we still exercise in today. Yet, more important than any of these – in 1660, York was the site of the first recorded football riot.

Football has been around in one form or another, in Europe at least, since the eighth century. However, most references simply talk about ‘playing ball’, so it’s unclear whether these games involved the use of hands or feet – most likely a combination of both. Matches were often played around Easter, in particular on Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day, for the hungry amongst you). Nearby towns or villages would form teams of unlimited players, and attempt to get a ball, at the time an inflated pigs’ bladder, to specific markers within each town or village.

In the 1340s, King Edward III banned “handball, football, or hockey” among other sports deemed “idle” under penalty of imprisonment. He later died of embarrassment at unwittingly using a football pun. But what this decree suggests, is the separation of the various ball related games into those using hands, sticks, and feet.

Football underwent many changes in legality over the coming centuries, often changing form to avoid detection from the authorities. Here we see the formalising of many rules and tactics still recognisable with today’s game – confinement to a single field, formal goals, passing, dribbling, a designated player to mind the formal goals. Historians can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure diving, Alan Shearer, and complaining about VAR also originate around this time.

By 1660, the Puritans had taken over, and in a surprise to absolutely no one, also banned football. One of their reasons being that matches could be a potential site of Royalist mobilisation. Another, that Cromwell was always picked last in school and held onto that resentment throughout the rest of his life. (As it turns out, Cromwell appears to have actually played football during his time at Cambridge, and was rather good at it, described as “one of the chief matchmakers and players of football” whilst there. A true lads lad).

Regardless, by this time football had become a site of rebellion against Puritan laws and ways of life. Public support for them was visibly dwindling; only a few months after the riot, Charles II would be invited back to England to reinstate the monarchy. Professor Bernard Capp writes in England’s Culture Wars: Puritan Reformation and Its Enemies in the Interregnum, 1649-1660, that at the time “footballers often played on Sunday” as it was their only day off. This angered Puritans who saw it as going against the Sabbath. Many church records “cite frequent deliberate confrontations, with footballers [deliberately] playing in the Churchyard”.

These feelings came to a head in 1660. Phil Withington in Views from the Bridge: Revolution and Restoration in Seventeenth-Century York, documents how Alderman Robert Horner (equivalent to the Mayor) essentially told off a group of servants for playing football in High Ousegate (just outside Nando’s and Urban Outfitters). They responded by politely ignoring his remarks, and deliberately kicked their ball through the windows of All Hallows Church (now All Saints’ Pavement). 11 of them were fined. As Capp bluntly puts it, “the move backfired”.

Later that same day over 100 people amassed outside the mayor’s house brandishing halberds, swords, and muskets in a “warlike manner”. They then proceeded to break in and…well…run riot. It took over four hours to arrest and remove them all.

Only one man, Charles North, was punished. He had been a part of both the original group and the wider following riot, and was seen by the local courts as the potential ring-leader. He was fined ten pounds, just over £1,500 in today’s money. As the National Archives currency converter points out, that was roughly the cost of an entire cow. I like to think that as North handed over the money, he caught a glimpse of his bovine love through a window, the sun haloing around her head as she turned away, unable to look upon what could have been.

It's an interesting part of the York’s legacy (the football riot, not the imagined interspecies romance). I think it’s something to be oddly proud of. The residents of this city spat in the face of authority and refused to take no for an answer. They stood up for their rights. Yes, it was their right to kick an inflated urine sack around an uneven, cobbled, sloped street, but still; the first recorded football riot in the UK, and possibly the world. Who wouldn’t want to live in a city with that history?