Checkers: The Root of All Evil

As my work-in-progress approaches the death of George, Duke of Clarence, I had a look last night at the Parliament rolls for the 1478 session at which he was condemned. There’s actually very little about Clarence in them, perhaps because there was plenty of other business to occupy Parliament, such as this little gem:

the commons assembled in this present parliament pray, that where according to the laws of this land no person should play any unlawful games such as dice, quoits, football and similar games, but that every strong and able bodied person should practise archery because the defence of this land relies heavily on archers; contrary to which laws the said games and several newly invented games called closh, kayles, half-bowl, hand-in and hand-out, and checker-board are played daily in various parts of this land both by persons of good repute and those of lesser estate, not virtuously-disposed, who fear neither to offend God by not attending divine service on holy days, nor to break the laws of this land, to their own impoverishment, and by their wicked incitement and encouragement they induce others to play such games so that they are completely stripped of their possessions and impoverished, setting a pernicious example to many of your lieges, if such unprofitable games are allowed to continue for long, because by such means many different murders, robberies and other most heinous felonies are frequently committed and perpetrated in various parts of this land . . .[The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, ed. by C. Given Wilson et al., Scholarly Digital Editions]

Does this sound like a fifteenth-century version of Reefer Madness, or what? This wasn’t the first time, of course, that medieval English kings had outlawed games that supposedly distracted men from practicing archery; Edward III, for instance, had cracked down hard on football, obviously without long-lasting success.

Unfortunately, Edward IV may have had a closh-player lurking in his own household: his queen, Elizabeth Woodville. (Naturally, if there was trouble, the Woodvilles were going to be in the thick of it.) In 1472, a foreign observer caught the queen playing at marbles, and her ladies at a game of closheys (similar to ninepins). Ivory closheys, no less. Whether Elizabeth and her ladies were forced to find more respectable occupations after the 1478 edict, or whether the king looked the other way when the women got out the closheys, is, sadly, lost in the fog of history.

10 thoughts on “Checkers: The Root of All Evil”

  1. Wow.. I think the same speechwriter does all the anti material every time Washington State has a referendum considering allowing slot machines in tribal casinos…

    And now we know why they don’t talk about Fifi Woodville.


  2. Lol, I can see that able bodied men should practise archery instead of football, but what the heck has dice to do with the archery problem?

  3. What kind of football did Edward III crack down on? Soccer, American style football or Australian rules football?

  4. I have not, however, been able to find any link of “Australian rules” football to any medieval sport.

  5. Oh the shock and the horror!

    And there was I thinking that all medieval persons were upstanding citizens who lived only to pray and practice archery! 😉

    Mind you – I can see the problem with marbles. If someone’s ‘biggy’ gets taken it can start all sorts of violence!

  6. Susan Higginbotham

    Pretty serious stuff, huh! (Wait until I post later entries about the pernicious effect of non-nobles owning swans and wearing doublets that were too short.)

    Susan, I assume it was an early version of what we Americans call soccer–no idea about how Australian football works. In fact, I don’t even know how American football works all that well, save that a touchdown is a very good thing.

  7. okay, quick question for everyone.
    Which medieval figure would have been most likely to dance in the end zone after scoring a goal?

  8. Oh, those evil too short doublets would end in men ogling other men because of their cute buns, and we can’t have that. 🙂

  9. I agree it must have been soccer, as rugby didn’t develop till centuries later.

    Gabriele: *evil grin* 🙂

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