A tradition going back hundreds of years
Shrovetide football is a mass football game which takes over Ashbourne town on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday each year. Mass football matches were played in towns around England and Scotland from the early middle ages. It is recorded as being played on Shrove Tuesday by ‘boys’ in London around 1180 and in Chester at Shrovetide in the mid 1500s. In the London example the boys were pupils at school and in Chester the match was between members of three Guilds, the Drapers, the Saddlers and the Shoemakers. At other locations it happened not at Shrovetide but on other holidays. In Kirkwall, Orkney, it is still played on New Year’s Day.
The game is more akin to rugby than football of today. The ball is manhandled rather than kicked. The goals are at old mills, Sturston Mill and Clifton Mill, which are about a mile and a half along the Henmore in either direction from the town.
All the shops are boarded up and the streets are occupied by 1000s of players and supporters. The number of those taking part is confirmed by the print commemorating the 2003 event when the Price of Wales turned the ball up (ie started the match). There are nearly 300 individuals depicted in Dig Street, who can be recognised from their ‘portraits’ in an associated key drawing naming them.
When and why ‘Royal’?
It is often said that permission to use the style ‘Royal’ was given to mark the occasion in 1928 when HRH Edward, Prince of Wales turned up the ball. This is a common misconception.
The game was granted permission to call itself “Royal Shrovetide” from 1922. Princess Mary, daughter of King George V, married Henry, Viscount Lascelles, later Earl of Harewood, on Shrove-Tuesday (28 February) 1922. In that year the Shrovetide Committee sent a Shrovetide ball to Princess Mary as a wedding present. As a mark of her gratitude the game became styled Royal. She later became the Princess Royal.
(YouTube videos of the event can be found on the internet)