On this date in 1643, all copies of the Book of Sports were publicly burned by the common hangman.
Product of the queer eddies of a century’s religious reformation, the 1617 edict commonly going under this winsome title was no athletes’ According to Hoyle; rather, it authorized for Sundays “any lawful recreation, such as dancing, either men or women; archery for men, leaping, vaulting, or any other such harmless recreation, nor from having of May-games, Whitsun-ales, and Morris-dances; and the setting up of May-poles and other sports therewith used.”
The day of the week was the decisive thing here. These traditional pastimes had long multiplied upon the numerous feast-days speckling the Catholic medieval calendar, but with the English Reformation this clutch of Papist holidays had been collapsed into just … Sundays. And so sportive Englishmen took their May-poles and Morris-dances to the Sabbath.
The Sabbath Breakers, by J.C. Dollman (1895)
By the late 16th and early 17th century the burgeoning Puritan movement was burnishing its sourpuss bona fides by — among other things — espousing a strict Sabbatarianism requiring that on their one day of rest from holiday-less labor people be “taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His [God’s] worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” No vaulting or any other such harmless recreation for you!
I allowe not of such excesse of ryot & superfluitie as is there used. I thinke, it convenient for one Friend to visite another (at sometimes) as oportunitie & occasion shall offer it selfe, but wherfore shuld the whole towne, parish, village and cuntrey, keepe one and the same day, and make such gluttonous feasts as they doo? And therfore, to conclude, they are to no end, except it be to draw a great frequencie of whores, drabbes, theives and verlets together, to maintai[n] […] whordome, bawdrie, gluttony, drunkennesse, thiefte, murther, swearing and all kind of mischief and abhomination. For, these be the ends wherto these feastes, and wakesses doo tende.
As one might well suppose from the eventual alliances in the English Civil War, the sports stuff was one of the fault lines between high church and low, and between crown and Parliament. Like any proper inbred royal, King James I loved himself a good hunt, and not only of witches — so he was nonplussed when passing through Lancashire to discover citizen grievances over killjoy blackrobes shutting down their Maypoles. He issued the Book of Sports explicitly in response, “to see that no man do trouble or molest any of our loyal and dutiful people, in or for their lawful recreations.”* This gave leisure-seeking commoners something to throw in the faces of their neighborhood nabobs, and Puritans another abomination to grow incensed about.
The Book of Sports remained law of the realm into the reign of James’s Puritan-allergic son Charles I but Puritan muscle grew stronger all the while,** eventually becoming irresistible when Parliament was recalled in 1640 and the high church bishop William Laud was ousted.
The outcome in 1643 was the rough impeachment of the sports book and I don’t mean Vegas.
It is this day ordered by the Lords and Commons in Parliament, that the Booke concerning the enjoyning and tollerating of Sports upon the Lord’s Day be forthwith burned by the hand of the common Hangman in Cheape-side, and other usuall places: and to this purpose, the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex respectively are hereby required to be assistant to the effectuall execution of this order, and see the said Books burnt accordingly. And all persons who have any of the said Books in their hands, are hereby required forthwith to deliver them to one of the Sheriffes of London, to be burnt according to this Order.
John Browne, Cler. Parl.
Henry Elsynge, Cler. P.D. Com.
The Sheriffes of London and Middlesex have assigned Wednesday next the 10th of this instant May, at twelve of the clock, for the putting in execution of the foresaid Ordinance; and therefore doe require all persons that have any of the Bookes therein mentioned, to bring them in by that time, that they may be burned accordingly.
Printed for Thomas Underhill in Great Wood strete, May 9, 1643
Obviously this is not an “execution” even in the metaphorical sense of executions by effigy but part of the wider remit of the hangman, whose duties ran to all sorts of public law enforcement as well as to cajoling society’s untouchables.
Still, “purging by fire” of the printed word was extraordinary treatment reserved for blasphemous or seditious books, not uncommonly accompanied by corporal punishment or even death for their authors. It would not far stretch matters to see in the Puritan Parliament’s disdainful lese-majeste against the hand of the past king its imminent regicidal stroke upon the neck of the current one.
* The Book of Sports wasn’t all license; for the amusements it authorized, it prohibited them to those who “are not present in the church at the service of God, before their going to the said recreations.” Even for the godly it evinced explicit preference for “such exercises as may make [subjects’] bodies more able for war,” therefore excluding “all unlawful games to be used upon Sundays only, as bear and bull-baitings, interludes and at all times in the meaner sort of people by law prohibited, bowling.”
This was a man with a philosophy on exercise as rigorous as any personal fitness coach. James, who was a prolific scribbler, elsewhere “debarre[d] all rough and violent exercises, as the footeball; meeter for laming, than making able the users thereof.” In four centuries since James so pronounced, England have only ever won the football World Cup once.
** Numerous Puritans fled oppressively pleasurable off-days and took their dour Sabbaths to New England where their descendants could one day propound several of the world’s most obnoxious sporting concerns.