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Tudor sports and Henry VIII

Discover the sports practised at the Tudor court and learn about the importance of sport in the life and reputation of Henry VIII.
An illustration from the Westminster Tournament Roll showing Henry VIII sat atop a horse, jousting in front of his wife, Katherine of Aragon in 1511.
© Historic Royal Palaces

In the Tudor period, much like today, sport fulfilled many functions. Sport was used to develop athletic and strategic skills, enforce the bonds of friendship, and accustom the practitioner to the thrill of victory and the sting of defeat: all useful experiences for the battlefield and kingship. Yet sport was also used for recreation and even provided spectator events.

This article will explore some of the many sports that were practised at the Tudor court. It will begin by looking at the role of sport in childhood, then identify the sports that were theoretically the preserve of the Tudor elite, and finally discuss the importance of sport in the life and reputation of Henry VIII.

Childhood and play

Tudor conceptions of sport and play stemmed ultimately from the ancient world. The ancients dictated that life consisted of a series of stages: infancy (up to the age of 7) was a time of growth, while childhood (from 7 to 14) was a time of play. After 14, life was supposed to get more serious. There is very little evidence for play having a serious role in Tudor schools, and it was usually discouraged, or at least adapted so that it might aid more serious learning. For example, a set of exercises issued in 1525 for Manchester Grammar School stipulated play was only allowed by special permission, and that the boys were:

‘…to play honest games and convenient for youth, and all together in one place, to use the Latin tongue.’
*A ball used for real tennis discovered in the rafters of Westminster Hall.
A ball used for real tennis discovered in the rafters of Westminster Hall. There’s no evidence that real tennis was played at Westminster after c1520, so this ball almost certainly dates to the late 15th or very early 16th century. It is made from leather and stuffed with compacted dog’s hair. © Museum of London
Play in schools was often only allowed on special occasions, such as on the Feast of St Nicholas (6 December) and on Shrove Tuesday (known to many as Pancake Day!). The medieval chronicler, William FitzStephen, writing in the 12th century, describes the schoolboys of London partaking of cockfighting and playing a ‘game of ball’ on Shrove Tuesday. Cock-fighting was one of the many blood sports practised in the Tudor period, which we will explore more fully in Week Three.
The ‘game of ball’ was a violent precursor of modern football, which took place in ‘the fields’ of London. Each school would provide a team to participate in this violent sport, as would the workers of each trade. The game was watched by many on horseback who would ‘re-live their own youth vicariously’. In common with the modern game, this provided spectators the opportunity to enjoy the action while reminiscing about their own past sporting achievements. According to the 16th-century writer Thomas Elyot, football was a game of ‘beastly fury and extreme violence’, and attempts were made to ban it several times in medieval and Tudor England. However, even Henry VIII may have taken part occasionally in this highly aggressive activity, and one account records that he spent 4s on a pair of shoes for football.

Tudor elite sport

In sport, as in all other aspects of Tudor life, people were segregated along socio-economic boundaries. Tudor elite society was broadly divided into the gentry and the nobility. The gentry consisted of just a few thousand families, while the more prestigious nobility numbered approximately just 50. This small portion of the population sought to distinguish themselves in many ways, including during their leisure time, of which they had a considerable amount.
The Tudor elite participated in a great variety of sports, including traditional aristocratic pursuits such as jousting, hunting and falconry, but also sports like bowls and tennis, which were growing in popularity throughout the period. Tennis, for example, began as an urban game enjoyed by all, but gradually began to be adopted by the ruling elite who built private courts within their homes so that they could enjoy the sport in relative privacy. However, hunting and jousting remained the most prestigious of elite sports, partly because they were the most expensive to participate in. Writers at this time thought it inappropriate for gentlemen to compete with those of low birth, and the huge cost of maintaining the animals, equipment and the staff required for these sports helped keep them elite. We will learn later this week how this exclusivity was then further enforced by the law.
Depiction of a mounted knight in tournament armour (detail), possibly Henry VIII.
Mounted knight in tournament armour (detail), possibly Henry VIII. © British Library Board

Henry VIII and sport

Sport was an essential feature of elite Tudor society, at the top of which towered the monarch. Henry VIII’s sporting education would have begun as a young man and the focus would have been on sports that improved his physical and mental health. The Book of the Governor, written by Sir Thomas Elyot in 1531, recommended the sports most appropriate for aristocratic youth. These included weightlifting, tennis, wrestling, swimming, swordplay, riding, hawking and archery. For a noble these were suitable pastimes, but for a monarch they were practically essential. Kings were expected to be able to lead their nobles in battle and sport was a way of demonstrating their ability to do so. Henry VII (1485-1509) had won his throne on the battlefield and it was up to his son to prove he could defend it, if required. Henry VIII’s physical stature and sporting prowess were an important feature of his carefully crafted image. In 1519 Sebastian Giustinian, a Venetian ambassador, described the King in terms which would have pleased him:
He is very accomplished; a good musician; composes well; is a most capital horseman; a fine jouster; speaks good French, Latin and Spanish; is very religious; hears three masses daily when he hunts and sometimes five on other days…He is very fond indeed of hunting, and never takes this diversion without tiring eight or ten horses…he is extremely fond of tennis. -Sebastian Giustinian, October 1519

This description shows Henry to be a well-rounded individual with all the hallmarks of a fine Renaissance prince, including his sporting ability. This was a monarch who was both pious and cultured but also, at heart, a warrior too – not a king to be trifled with.

A painting of King Henry VIII by an unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist (detail),
King Henry VIII by an unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist (detail), c1520. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sport was also considered an excellent way of escaping the stresses of court politics, and Henry seems to have taken frequent advantage of this release. However, while sport provided a form of stress-relief it also had an important political role. Sport was used to forge close bonds of friendship and camaraderie, which could prove vital in times of warfare. This was most obvious in the world of the tournament, which we will explore more fully later. It’s a great example of how the skills needed for warfare were perfected in relatively ‘safe’, controlled surroundings.

The medieval notion of chivalry – the knightly system of religious, moral, and social values – was central to the elite world of sport. Chivalric literature often set stories in the context of sports like jousts and hunts. Henry used sport, especially hunting and jousting, to inspire loyalty among his elite subjects and build a sense of brotherhood. He could then draw on this bond in the world of politics and even, if required, on the battlefield. Sport also provided the opportunity to impress upon foreign ambassadors the wealth, physical prowess, and unity of the Tudor court – a clear message for them to convey to their masters overseas.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Henry VIII’s palaces were often equipped with the spaces and equipment necessary for practising a range of sports including hunting, jousting, shooting and archery. We learn about these from a variety of sources. For example, Henry was particularly skilled at archery and the chronicler Edward Hall described in May 1510 that the young King ‘shotte as strong and as greate a length as any of his guarde’. Henry’s privy purse accounts are full of references to acquisitions of archery equipment, some of which was gifted to those closest to him. In May 1530 he spent 23s 4d on archery equipment for Lady Anne (Boleyn) including bows, arrows, and a shooting glove. Inventories of Henry’s goods record sporting equipment such as shooting gloves for archery and vast numbers of bows and bow strings. These inventories also a mention a small number of angling rods, which suggests the King may have enjoyed fishing.

Sporting injuries

Practising so many sports, especially those on horseback, brought its dangers. Throughout Henry’s life he would have had dozens of near misses while careering around forests in pursuit of deer and charging down the tilt-rail in the joust. However, the odds of escaping injury forever were very slim. In 1527, Henry hurt his foot playing tennis, which led to him having to wear a single loose velvet slipper. This same year he also sought treatment for a sore leg, probably an ulcer for which he needed surgical attention. A more serious incident followed on 24 January 1536, when Henry had a serious fall while jousting at Greenwich which, according to one ambassador, left him unable to speak for two hours – suggestive of a serious concussion. It was likely also during this fall that his ulcer was aggravated, and he was afflicted by painful and distressing flare-ups for the rest of his life.

Some historians have asserted that Henry’s bad temper and irrational behaviour might be linked to the head injuries he suffered during his sporting endeavours. It is impossible to gauge the truth in this. It is, however, certainly possible to suggest that a king who had prided himself on his reputation for sporting prowess, and whose image was intrinsically linked to his physical abilities, would not have responded well to his physical decline in later life.

Discussion:

  1. What would you describe as an elite sport today?
  2. Do we still admire sporting prowess in modern celebrities?
  3. Do you play sports? What is your sport of choice?
© Historic Royal Palaces
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A History of Tudor Entertainment

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