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Sports and Pastimes Through the Ages

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Hunting was, as everyone knows, the great sport of our forefathers. We learn from the very slender references of ancient history that when the Romans first invaded Britain her inhabitants were a bold, active, sport-loving people, holding fast to their customs and recreations, and capable of fighting with great bravery. In the days of our forefathers the pursuits of a soldier were the pursuits of the sportsman, and they included hunting, running, leaping, swimming and other exertions which require strength, agility of body and a spirit of sportsmanship. After the Romans had conquered Britain they conscripted the young men and trained them for service in their machine-like cohorts and destroyed the robust character of the old race by the introduction of their own luxurious habits.

If we study the latter days of this part of British history, we shall find that sports and pastimes almost ceased to have any place in the life of the people, and that they became an indolent and effeminate race, totally lacking their old love of outdoor contests. The arrival of the Saxons introduced a new sporting element into the annals of this country. The times were very turbulent, and the peace of every homestead was exceedingly uncertain. The woods were full of broken men - the last of the old natives, Saxon thieves, robbers and deer-stealers - and it was only by the personal hardiness of the holders of each small community or manor that the roof was kept on the hall, the thatch on the barn and the plough in the furrow. It was natural that sports which accustomed the body to fatigue should have constituted the chief part of the education of the young nobleman and his retainers; accordingly we find that hunting, hawking, casting spears, running of races, dancing and other pastimes engrossed the attention of each community.

The chase of that period was, of course, a more hazardous affair than that of the present day. In ancient hunting the fox was considered an inferior animal, for there was larger and more exciting game, and fox-hunting seems to have onty gained popularity in the eighteenth century. The stag, wolf, bear (extinct about the end of the nth cent.), boar, hart and the hare were the beasts of "venery" in the Anglo-Norman chase. Angling was not looked upon as a sport in Saxon times; it was considered rather an irksome job which could well be left to the care of the women-folk. As a matter of fact, angling was little understood before the time of Walton and Cotton, and those two great angling pioneers were not too scientific in their methods. It is also difficult to believe that the Saxons took any interest in fowling with the bow and arrow, for such a method would have given them little reward for long hours of stalking in order to gain a possible chance to kill; the cross bow was perhaps not much more efficient as a fowling weapon, and so we may assume that the art of shooting at flying game is a recent branch of sport which only became popular when gunpowder and the fowling-piece made it possible to take large bags. Our forefathers held bravely to falconry, the great sport of chivalry, and up to the seventeenth century shooting and fishing did not in any way satisfy a sport-loving people. Shooting in, say, 1650, was a very sorry business, and the fowler, armed with a matchlock, spent most of his day crawling towards a covey of basking partridges with the idea of getting a charge of old nails and other scrap iron into the birds before they could rise on the wing.

Nevertheless the sport of hawking, the art of training and flying hawks for the purpose of catching other birds, was widely practised among our forefathers. The period of its introduction cannot be clearly determined, but in the eighth century the Archbishop of Mons presented to Ethelbert, King of Kent, one hawk and two falcons, and in the succeeding century the sport was taken up enthusiastically by the Anglo-Saxon nobility. To tame and train a hawk is not at all difficult. But it takes a falconer deeply skilled in the sport to produce a bird which may be considered a first-class worker. A modern falconer procures his young falcons just before or just after they can fly. They are placed on a large straw-covered platform in a barn. Here they are fed three times a day on beef steak, rabbit, rook or pigeon.

When they are strong enough to fly, jesses, soft leather straps, are fastened to their legs, and later a leash is attached to the jesses in order to control them. A brass bell is fastened upon one leg, just above the jess, with a small thong termed a bewit. At feeding-times when this stage is reached they are called to the lure. That is to say, the falconer sets up a forked piece of wood to which is fastened a couple of pigeons' wings, and encourages the young birds to fly down and take the meat with which the lure has been garnished.

In order to draw the birds to the lure the falconer whistles, shouts and claps his hands. Presently, as they learn to answer to the lure and call of the falconer, they are permitted to fly at large for a week or so, and if at the regular feeding-times the lures are prepared with food, the hawks will return to their platform with perfect regularity. They are then taught to wear a hood, and are carried on the fist to be flown at the quarry.

Tournaments and jousts were favourite pastimes with the nobility of the Middle Ages. The tournament was a combat between many knights, while the joust was a separate trial of skill, when only one man was opposed to another. A tournament was usually organized by a member of a royal family. The knights on their arrival tied their armorial shields to posts and pavilions, round the arena, for inspection, to show that they were worthy aspirants for the honour of contending in the lists in respect of noble birth and unspotted character. The combat took place on horseback, but when a man was struck from his horse he frequently continued, if he could, to fight on foot. The lances and swords were blunted for the occasion; but sometimes arms with fighting blades and points were used by cavaliers who sought special honour and reputation.

Formerly there was to be found on English village greens an instrument known as the quintain. This was used in tilting with the lance. Originally a stout post, it was developed into a device for discomfiting the unskilled man-at-arms. Some of the most celebrated English tournaments were held at West Smithfield, where a large open space still marks the site of the tilting ground. The "smooth-field" used for the tournaments is the origin of the present name of Smithfield. The ancient tilt-yard at the Horse Guards, Whitehall, is now a parade ground.

Bull-baiting was once very popular in England. and it is almost incredible that such a barbarous sport should have been held legal till 1835. Many of our country towns still preserve the old bullrings as memorials of the " good old days." The ring was strongly fastened to the ground, with a chain attached for holding the animal. Bulldogs were set on to attack the bull, one at a time, each dog being trained to seize him by the nose - which, when accomplished, was called "pinning the bull." The bulldog of the present day derives its name from this sport, and one of his principal good points - the nose being set back between the eyes - was to allow the dog to breathe while pinned on to the bull. Another form of the sport was to blow the nose of the bull full of pepper to infuriate him, and to loose him in a staked ring to meet the attack of a dozen or so dogs.

A bull-ring is still preserved at Carfax in the centre of the town of Horsham. When the bull was killed, the carcase was sold in a quaint narrow thoroughfare now called Middle Street, but mentioned in ancient town records as Butchers' Row. The bull-ring was about four inches in diameter, and was held by a long staple driven into a section of a tree trunk. A very good specimen of a bull-ring may be seen in the Archaeological Society's Museum at Lewes in Sussex.

Visitors to London may reach a rather elusive alley railed Bear Garden by an old stone stairway on the Surrey side of Southwark Bridge. The enlargement in the alley is part of the old bear-ring, and the White Bear inn which still survives on the spot preserves the memory of bear-baiting activities on the Bankside. At 173 Addle Street, in the ward of Cripplegate, there is a sculptured sign of a bear dated 1670, showing the animal wearing the massive collar and chain which secured him to a stake during the time when, surrounded by an excited crowd, the dogs were worrying him.

Cock-fighting flourished in England for fully six centuries, the cockpit at Whitehall having been erected and patronised by royalty. The Treasury was afterwards established over the old cockpit, and has remained there ever since. Cockspur Street, by a leisurely and not unnatural process, gained its name through being a thoroughfare noted for the sale of steel spurs used in cock-fighting, and a pair of cock-fighting spurs are still preserved in the stock of an old-established cutlery shop in this vicinity. In Maitland's "History of London" (1737) many alleys and courts are mentioned which carry the memory of cock-fighting days in their names. Drury Lane, Bunhill Fields and Gravel Lane each had its Cockpit Alley; Dean Street, Soho, and Shoe Lane both possessed cockpits, and even to-day the name is still retained in odd corners of London.

Strange to say, cock-fighting was a specially sanctioned annual sport of public schools, the schoolmaster receiving a regular tax from the boys on the occasion, which was on Shrove Tuesday.

It is possible that the pit of our theatres is an abbreviation of the term cockpit, and this view may be supported by such a quotation as the following:

"Let but Beatrice
And Benedict be seen: Lo! in a trice,
The cockpit, galleries, boxes, all are full."

One could not pretend to investigate the antiquity of the famous Grasmere Sports in Westmorland, Personal interrogation of the old inhabitants and following up ancient records have tended to establish the origin of this event in the wrestling matches which followed the old custom of rushbearing at the village church of St. Oswald, a ceremony which dates back to about 1060. It is said that the first wrestling matches took place in the graveyard, a spot which has since become an English landmark, for here the poet Wordsworth is buried.

In 1790 the wrestling bouts used to take place on the village green, and later in a field near the Red Lion hotel, and here William Wordsworth was often a spectator of the bouts between the giants of the dales. The venue of the sports was changed afterwards to Pavement Field, and here the first attempt to run the meeting as a regular event was made. The first pavilion was a thatched hut, and the "ring" was composed of rough larch-pole forms. In those early days many of the spectators managed to slip in without paying at the gate, and to countercheck offenders the committee introduced the plan of stamping the wrist of each patron with a symbol in aniline dye in order that anyone who had once paid could readily satisfy the officials when challenged by them. In 1904 the arena was changed to a field near Dove Cottage, once the home of Wordsworth, and since that time no change has been made in the scene of the sports. The meeting is divided into three important sections - Wrestling, The Fell Races and the Hound Trail. The two latter events are not to be witnessed outside Grasmere.

In the Fell Race (often called the Guides' Race) some dozen or so young shepherds start from the ring and, after crossing two fields, start climbing through the bracken and over rocks to the highest point of Butter Crag, some 1,200 feet high. The spectators have commanding views of the precipitous course, and follow the men with breathless excitement as they pick their way to the summit, where they are each handed a ticket as the stewards' flag is reached. The next phase of the race is a helter-skelter dash down the mountain, the men, in white singlets, darting from rock to rock like spilt quicksilver. It is a most extraordinary spectacle, and many jumps of twenty feet are negotiated as each competitor endeavours to gain on the other "guides" by taking the most hazardous course. At this point the champions forge ahead and leave a string of stragglers all down the mountain side, and later the winner reaches the lowest part of the mountain and is seen flashing across a meadow like a hare. This is the home run, and he enters the arena amid the applause of many thousands of people.

In the Hound Trail a number of hounds are slipped from the "ring" to run over a ten or twelve mile course across the mountains, the course being traced out by dragging an aniseed bag over it an hour or so before the race. These hounds are peculiar to the district, being like a foxhound, but lighter built, and bred specially for running.

Archery can perhaps lay claim to a greater antiquity than falconry, and it must rank next to hunting in its links in the history and literature of the world. No other sport has played such a tremendous part in the early shaping of the people of Britain. For ages the bow was the most efficient weapon of the chase, and for ages it was the most deadly instrument carried by our soldiery. All through the fourteenth century the English archers were ubiquitous - whether on land or sea, in the field or in the siege, attacking or defending, they loom over military history as the one force which lifted our armies safely out of all the most desperate engagements. The flights of their arrows have been likened to the downfall of tropical rain; and there is little need to recapitulate here their feats at the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt.

The bows at present in use in England for target-shooting are about six feet in length, and the ordinary length of gentlemen's arrows is twenty-eight inches, and of ladies' twenty-five inches. The feathers are an important detail; formerly, the "grey goose wing" is said to have been preferred by archers, but to-day the wing feathers of the turkey or peacock are generally favoured. A curious point about the modern arrow is that its weight is reckoned in terms of its weight against new silver. Thus, if the weight of an arrow equals five shillings it is stamped with a "5"; if it weighs four and ninepence, it is marked "4.9," and so on. The bow used by the English archers in the Middle Ages is the hub of much inquiry and speculation. Not a single specimen of the Agincourt bow exists, but from the illustrations in old documents and books the bow seems to top the head of the average archer by some inches.

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