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  • Writer's pictureKai Abbott

Royal Shrovetide: Football's Greatest Medieval Game

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

Once a year, for the past five centuries, chaos has been unleashed on the quiet and quaint streets of a small English village in Derbyshire, by the name of Ashbourne. Thousands of players, visitors, and spectators gather to view the spectacle that is Royal Shrovetide Football, England’s favorite sporting event, that’s only rule is to not kill the opposing team.

The Royal Shrovetide football match occurs annually on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday in Ashbourne, England. The famous game dates back close to 500 years, though official records are unknown, due to a town fire in 1667. The match is the biggest highlight in any Ashburian’s calendar, and was even continued during the First and Second World Wars, when soldiers sent letters begging the town to carry on the tradition, whilst they were gone. The game occurs on these dates, because in Medieval times, sports and festivals were held in preparation for fasting, and the beginning of Lent, in the Catholic and Protestant religions.

The game is solely played between those who are born in Ashbourne, with players being assigned to either the Up’ards or the Down’ards based on whether they were born north or south of the Henmore Brook. The match starts at 2pm, when the Shrovetide ball is ‘turned up’ from a stone plinth located in the town center, by the ‘turner-up,’ the person given the job of throwing the four pound ball into the crowd that awaits. Some notable ‘turner-ups’ include King Edward VIII (who gave Royal Shrovetide its “Royal” name), the Duke of Devonshire, and as recently as 2003, King Charles III.

Once a person on either the Down’ard or Up’ard side receives the ball, their objective is to bring the ball to their designated stone plinth, which for the Up’ards is located at Sturston Mill, and for the Down’ards, Clifton Mill. Both plinths are located close to three miles away from each other, and between them, a fair amount of obstacles lie in the way, one of those simply being the town of Ashbourne, and its famous river. To score, or ‘bowl’, the player must tap the ball on the plinth three times successively. All goals scored before 5pm result in the return of all Down’ards and Up’ards to the ‘turning-up’ plinth in the center of town, for the ball to be ‘turned-up’ again, but if a goal is scored after 5pm, the game ends for the day, meaning that events have less goals, and more competition.

In Ashbourne, Royal Shrovetide is no leisurely and slightly rousey game that you play once a year for a bit of fun. For most of these Ashburians, it is something you live by, as one Ashburian said recently in a documentary, “if my son came to me and said he was gay, I’d still love him and he’d be my son, but if he came to me and said he wants to be a Down-ard, I’d kick him out the house.”

For local ball painter Tim Baker, Shrovetide is a way of life, as for the past 31 years, Baker has put 50 to 70 hours of artistic work each year into the famous corc-made Shrovetide balls; all hand painted and done with extreme care and precision. Each ball usually relates to the person given the prestigious honor of turning up the ball at the beginning of the match. Recently, a set of four Shrovetide balls, one of which turned up by King Edward VIII, were sold at a private auction for a staggering £12,500 pounds. Best said by the auctioneer at this event, “Ashbourne’s Royal Shrovetide football match is famous not just in its home county but across the world, and the balls are at the heart of this magic.”

Shrovetide even has an anthem, which was created in 1891, for a concert to raise funds for the damages players would cause while playing in the streets. Now, this anthem is sung each day at the turn-up plinth during Shrovetide, in the Ashbourne town center.

In the town’s culture, the game has somewhat of a cult following, as goalscorers go down in Shrovetide and Ashbourne history as heroes of their respective side of the brook. One of these heroes was Richard Smith, a local Ashburian who trains year round for Shrovetide, memorizing routes around the town, and perfecting the art of sprinting for your life from a crowd that wants your blood. In 2018, Smith, a designated runner for the Down’ards, found himself face to face with the Shrovetide ball, after it found its way out of a crowd scrambling to grab it. In the midst of the frenzy, Smith grabbed the ball, and sprinted two miles to the goal, unbeknownst to the crowd of Up’ards, who did not even notice the ball leaving the scramble. Smith, alongside his brother and father, won the game for the Down’ards in the dying moments of the final day of Shrovetide that year, certifying his place in the Shrovetide history books. When questioned about how the goal felt, Smith said, “it felt like my life had changed,” and that “scoring a Shrovetide goal was like scoring a goal in the World Cup Final.” This was the first time the Down’ards won in over 10 years.

For the vast majority of people who are outsiders, Royal Shrovetide on the surface simply appears to be just another sporting tradition. However, one may not be fooled by the perceived “hooligans” who have participated in this match for the past 500 years. For the complicated and commercialized world of sport that we live in, Shrovetide is considered by the people of Ashbourne to be the world’s greatest medieval game, holding a special significance for the past five centuries to the hundreds of thousands of Ashburians, who have had the opportunity to experience, what they say, is the Ashbourne way of life.


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