Every Boxing Day, at 11:00am, Castle Street in the Ancient Town of Winchelsea briefly becomes the scene of a bizarre and bruising spectacle. Three teams try to win an object called "the Frenchman's Head" and place it in a goal at one end of the street. There are no rules and little mercy is shown to other players (or spectators) who get in the way. Amazingly, injuries are few and typically limited to cuts and bruises, and occasional lumps on the head. Some essential modicum of order is maintained by the marshall, who throws the Frenchman's Head into the street and sits on the barrel which acts as the goal, in order to ensure it remains in place.
The vigour of the Game means that it rarely lasts beyond about 20 minutes or finishes with the full complement of players who started. Participants include younger residents, people visiting relatives and even passing hikers. With the final whistle, the players and onlookers depart for the pub to tell each other how well they played.
The history of the game (possibly)
Like much of Winchelsea’s early history, the origins of the Streete Game are sparsely documented. The first reference was apparently included in a draft of the seminal second edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles, edited by John Hooker after Holinshed’s death and published in 1587. The draft version included various accounts of the Cinque Ports by the antiquary Francis Thynne, but these were excised by the censors. Fortunately, the excisions were mentioned by the diarist John Evelyn, who wrote, in the margin of his copy of the second edition of Holinshed, that Thynne had got into trouble with the censors, among other things, about mentioning an obscure “game” of some antiquity, played by the apprentices of Winchelsea on Boxing Day, which had on occasion become an outlet for the expression of popular discontent with the authorities.
Evelyn did not elaborate on the nature of the game or its origins. However, Professor Bell has suggested that the Winchelsea game was the “curious custom” described by Enguerrand de Monstrelet in the Douai manuscript of his sequel to Froissart’s Chronicles. According to Bell, the circumstantial evidence points to Winchelsea and fixes the origin of the game during the Hundred Year’s War, specifically, the siege of Winchelsea by the French in June 1377, during the first days of the reign of Richard II. In this month, having taken Rye, French raiders moved upon Winchelsea, but were anticipated by Hamo of Offington, Abbot of Battle, who reinforced the town. The French withdrew but returned later the same year. The same sequence of events followed, except that the French, this time, decided to attack Winchelsea.
What followed is described by the Rev Cooper, who quotes from John Stow’s Summarie of Englyshe Chronicles. According to Stow, the French “came to the town of Winchelsey, where, understanding the Abbot of Battell was come to defend it, they sent him word to redeeme the towne: unto whom the Abbott answered, he needed not to redeeme the thing that was not lost, but willed them to desist from molesting the towne upon paine of that which might follow. The French, exasperated with this answer, requested him that if hee would not have peace, hee would send forth to fight man to man and more in number if hee would, to try the matter in view of armes; but neyther would the Abbot admitte the one request or the other, saying hee was a religious man, and therefore not to admitte such petitions, and that hee came not hither to fight, but to defend and preserve the peace of the country. These things being heard, the Frenchmen supposing the Abbot and his people wanted courage, they assaulted the towne with such instruments of warre, as cast forth stones far off, not ceasing from noone till evening; but by the laudable prowes of the Abbot and such as were with him, the French prevailed nothing, and left it as they found it.”
Monstrelet described the siege as lasting several days and that, during the lulls in fighting, the defenders amused themselves with a gruesome game of “mob football”, played with the head of an unfortunate French prisoner.
Interestingly, a 19th century writer on football, Montague Sherman, recorded popular claims that football was first played with the severed head of a Danish ruler of England who had been deposed. Certainly, the Winchelsea game seems reminiscent of medieval football in many ways: an unlimited number of players and either fairly vague rules or a complete lack (by some accounts, in medieval football games, any means could be used to move the ball to a goal, as long as it did not lead to manslaughter or murder).
Rye historian Samuel Jeakes suggested that the unusual feature of three teams in the Winchelsea game derived from the presence in besieged Winchelsea of three bodies of armed men: the citizens of the town itself, crews of ships from other Cinque Ports who had come to Winchelsea’s aid, and the Abbot of Battle’s men.
Disapproval by the authorities
In the reign of Henry VI, an Ordinance of the Town and Harbour of Winchelsea of 1427 reveals that the game may have quickly acquired a reputation that caused the authorities to frown upon it. The Ordinance states "Theis ben the ordynance made on Sunday, the XXV day of Aprill, and the yer of the reigne of King H. VIto, ye Vto, in the hundred ther held...Item, that no manner persones play at tenyse, dyse, cards, quoit, nor at bowlys, nor at any other unlawfull game in the strete, nor at the towne grene, upon payne of every persone so founde paying xijd., as ofte as they soo play."
A stage for protest
The historical trail of the Winchelsea Streete Game goes cold until the early 17th century, when the event reappears as a platform for popular protest at the growing abuses of power in the Winchelsea Corporation and the associated corruption surrounding the election of the town’s two MP’s. In 1623, the three teams, having interrupted their game to take refreshments at the Kings Arms, carried the Frenchman’s Head to the house of the mayor, Paul Wymond (later imprisoned for electoral abuses), broke several windows and threatened to burn the house down, until assured by Wymond’s terrified wife that the mayor had fled to the safety of Rye and offered more drink at the mayor’s expense.
In 1680, during the reign of James II, the Game turned into an anti-papist demonstration and several suspect jurats were put to flight. It is interesting to note that, it was in this period, that the freemen of Winchelsea briefly took an independent line in elections, rather than following the dictates of the “patron” of the rotten borough which Winchelsea had become.
In 1711, violence again broke out after the Game, directed against the government’s candidates, Robert Bristow and Sir Francis Dashwood, and the mayor, John Parnell, and in favour of their opponents William Penn and Richard Jones, who polled most votes, only to see most of their voters disqualified by the mayor. It was also in 1711 that the first modern fatality of the Game was reported, when William Haddock, a tanner of Winchelsea, “was sat upon by a great multitude, who did burst his lunges”.
Matters appeared to have settled down until the 1760’s, when a bitter contest arose between Arnold Nesbitt MP and the Earl of Egremont for control of the town’s votes. The populace tended towards Nesbit and the players took much pleasure in terrorising the supporters of the government party. A further fatality took place in the election year of 1761, this time the result of a fractured skull. And in 1768, the mayor, William Marten, was dragged from his house by players after the Game and much drinking, and hung --- by his trousers from the Strand Gate, “greatly to his alarme as the ancient tower was in much decaye”. When the Magistrates turned up and attempted to read the Riot Act, they were set upon by the crowd and made to eat the document.
The notoriety of the Game and its associated drunkenness prompted John Wesley, during a visit to Winchelsea in 1785, to rail against “this wanton barbarism, fuelled by drinke”.
Decline and revival with a vengence
The violence of the Game seems to have subsided during the Napoleonic Wars, perhaps because of the presence of a garrison in the town. After the War, the Game quickly re-appeared and became closely associated with local smugglers, but real trouble did not erupt again until 1830, during the Swing Riots that were triggered by the introduction of threshing machines. The Games of 1830 to 1833 were notably violent, with fatalities only narrowly avoided, and were followed by attacks on farm machinery and arson.
From 1834, the focus of popular anger shifted to the Poor Law and the local Guardians, one of whom was run out of Winchelsea on a fence post with a “privy pot upon his head” and dumped in the River Brede. In 1836, discontent followed the smashing of the United Brothers of Industry, an agrarian trade union based in Rye, by a lock-out orchestrated by two members of the Curteis family. Both were Whig MP’s and relations by marriage of Richard Stileman, squire of Winchelsea. Local gentry coming to observe the Game were pelted with turnips and there was a rash of arson on several farms.
Suppression and resurrection
The rolling discontent during the 1830s prompted strenuous efforts by the authorities to suppress the Game. They largely succeeded, until the 1850’s, when it re-appeared on the streets of the town and continued with only modest levels of mayhem and injury into the early 20th century, watched uneasily by the local gentry. However, widespread social and political discontent in 1911 provided the authorities with an excuse to clamp down on all disorderly celebrations. Along with Bonfire Night, the Streete Game was prohibited and the militia was called out to enforce the prohibition.
The Great War inevitably pushed the Game to one side and it was then lost for most of the 20th century, until revived in 1999 if only as a pale reflection of its former colourful self.