Share this page

Tudor Pastimes

Amy Davies takes a look back at how people entertained themselves in Tudor England.

Amy Davies

If you find yourself bored and in need of something to entertain yourself with, have you thought about taking inspiration from the Tudors? Many of their popular pastimes are still enjoyed by us today, but there are others that you may not recognise. Was there a difference between the pastimes of the rich and poor, or did any pastimes cross social boundaries? Read on to discover more…

emblemes-wither-1635-ball game
A ball game in A collection of emblems (1635)

Sports were a predominately male pursuit in Tudor times, but were enjoyed by both the rich and the poor. However there was a difference between which sports were played by the different levels of society.

A sport enjoyed by the rich was tennis. It originated in France in the 12th century but was a relatively new sport in Tudor England. It was traditionally played indoors so the ball could be hit against the walls. It is said that Henry VIII was playing a game of tennis when the news of Anne Boleyn’s execution was brought to him.

Jousting was another sport popular for the rich. Again this was a sport in which only men participated, but women would spectate and cheer on their champion! It involved two armoured knights on horses who would try to knock each other off the horse with a lance. Henry VIII was a keen participator in the sport until he suffered an accident in 1536 where he was knocked off his horse and remained unconscious for two hours afterwards. However, he continued to sponsor tournaments for the rest of his life.

By contrast one sport that was popular with lower members of Tudor society was football, which was very different the sport that we know and love today. The ball was made from a bloated pig’s stomach and the game was typically played between two villages meaning that the “pitch” could be a few square miles. There was no limit on the amount of players so it would be typically for most of the men from each village to participate. The aim was to get the football to the centre of the opposing village, usually marked by the village cross. There were no other rules. The ball did not just have to be kicked, it could be thrown, or even picked up and ran with like modern day rugby. Kicking, punching, wrestling, spitting, biting were all permitted in order to get the ball from the opposing team. The game was so dangerous and produced so many casualties that many attempts were made by the government to ban it, but to no avail…it was too popular!

A late 16th/early 17th century Sheldon tapestry border, from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections.
Two Sheldon tapestry panels (1600-1620)

Hunting and archery were activities that crossed the social boundaries in the Tudor period and were undertaken by men of all classes. The main difference here is that hunting for the rich was more for pleasure, whereas people of lower classes would not hunt for sport but to feed themselves, predominately by laying traps.

When the rich went on a hunt they would be on horseback and they would be accompanied by a large hunting party and dogs. It was a chance for them to show off their elaborate hunting garments, fine horses and weapons. They would often hunt deer and wild boar. The forests of England were owned by the monarch and the deer and wild boar within them were only permitted to be hunted by the monarch and the nobles. People of the lower social orders were allowed to hunt on common land as so would usually be restricted to hares, rabbits and game birds.

Archery was another activity that was performed by both the rich and the poor. In the Tudor period it was law for every man to practice archery on Sundays after church. This was to ensure that if war broke out every man was already a skilled archer and would not require much training. Sunday was a day of rest meaning no work was to be undertaken (apart from essentials like feeding animals). This meant that people were free to practice their archery and entertain themselves with other pastimes.

SBT_2010_3_Bone Dice_New Place_456_enlarged.jpg
Bone dice found in 2010.

Board games were popular for all members of Tudor society. The name “board game” even has its origins in this period. The Tudors referred to tables as “boards” because they often consisted of a loose board that rested on a framework of legs, making the table easy to dismantle for storage. It is thought that board games would be scratched or chalked onto the board, and pebbles or stones would be used as counters.

There is also evidence that some board games were marked out in the ground outside in larger formats. Shakespeare even refers to this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Titania says “the nine men’s morris is fill’d up with mud”.

Nine Men’s Morris was a popular game in Tudor times. It is a bit similar to our modern day noughts and crosses and the aim is to make a line of three with your coloured counters and prevent your opponent from doing so. If you succeed you are allowed to remove one of your opponent’s pieces. The game continues until one player has run out of pieces.

Fox and Geese (sometimes called Fox and Hounds) was another popular game. One person would play as the fox and would have just one counter, and their opponent would play as the geese and would have 13 counters. The person playing as the geese would try to surround the fox with its counters, and the fox would attempt to catch as many of the geese as possible. It was evidently played by Edward IV, as payment for two sets of the game were included in his household accounts: “two foxis and 26 hounds of silver overgilt.”

Tables (backgammon) and chess were popular with the nobility too, while card and dice games were played by all members of society. Gambling often went hand in hand with board and card games. Between the years 1529 and 1532, Henry VIII lost £3243 5s 10d to gambling, the equivalent of roughly £1.5 million today.

To have a go at some Tudor games follow the links below:

Nine Men’s Morris:

Fox and Geese:

Illustration of an orchestra in Poly-Olbion (1613)

Another pastime that crossed social barriers was dancing to music. In fact, dancing was considered a very important skill that all members of society should be able to participate in, whether you were rich or poor, a man or a woman. This is because it would be difficult to have an active social life if you didn’t know how to dance. It also formed an important part of courtship as it provided members of the opposite sex with an opportunity for intimate contact that would not have been acceptable in any other form. Orchésographie by Thoinot Arbeau is a surviving French dance manual which was published in 1589. It stressed the importance of the role of dancing: “I much enjoyed fencing and tennis and this placed me upon friendly terms with young men. But, without a knowledge of dancing, I could not please the damsels upon whom, it seems to me, the entire reputation of an eligible young man depends.”

Music and dancing would occur at every wedding and most religious festivals throughout the year. One such holiday which still features dancing today is May Day. Most towns and villages in the Tudor period would erect a maypole which would often be painted and decorated with greenery. The ribbons that we associate with maypoles today were not added until the 19th century. Like today, dances were performed around the maypole, although no accounts which describe these particular dances survive.

Tudor dances had specific steps that had to be memorised. The rich would perform elaborate and complicated dances that often required tuition to learn. These dances would have been the height of fashion and were influenced by the courts of France, Spain and Italy. On the other hand, ordinary people were not in a position to learn these fashionable dances and would have performed traditional country dancing. These dances were a lot simpler to learn as they contained a lot of repetition, and they were passed down the generations.

At court, accompanying music would be played by hired professional musicians. People of the lower orders could listen to the music of travelling musicians who played at markets, festivals and in taverns. Typical instruments included the harpsichord, citole (the ancestor of the modern guitar), flute and harp.

Death and the Maiden
Death and the Maiden (1613)

Going to the theatre was a privilege that only the people of London could appreciate. London was the only place in England where permanent public theatres had been erected, including Shakespeare’s own Globe Theatre. For everybody else, the theatre had to come to them. Communities outside of London could see troupes of players who would travel from town to town putting on performances. These acting troupes would also be hired by the rich and noble to put on performances in their grand houses. Most of the plays in the repertoire of the theatre companies, including Shakespeare’s, were designed to be accessible to everyone and so would be performed to all members of society

Animal blood sports such as bear-baiting were also popular for rich and poor alike. On the south side of the Thames close to the theatres, the Bankside area of London was home to many arenas called “bear gardens” where such blood sports took place. One visitor to Bankside in 1639 wrote: “There you may hear the shouting of men, the barking of dogs, the growling of bears, and the bellowing of the bulls, mixed in a wild but natural harmony.”

Cockfighting was another common blood sport that members of Tudor society participated in up and down the country. London had purpose built “cockpits” similar to the bear gardens, but the sport was just as popular in rural communities. It provided not just a spectacle but an opportunity to gamble, and compared to bear or bull baiting was relatively cheap to participate in as a breeder and trainer. It was so popular that in 1614 Gervase Markham, a notable English poet and writer, published The Pleasures of Princes, or Good Men’s Recreations. This instructional book gave advice on how to properly rear and fight cocks, and was the first of its kind.

Although blood sports on the whole were popular, not everyone enjoyed them. Puritans and members of the clergy often criticised the sport, although their opposition often targeted the corruption and degeneracy that the sport encouraged in people, rather than the cruelty towards animals. When a bear garden in London collapsed in 1583 killing seven people, individuals such as the Reverend John Field and pamphleteer Philip Stubbs claimed that divine intervention was the cause and it was evidence of God’s disapproval of the activity. Furthermore, in 1585 members of parliament voted to ban bear-baiting but Queen Elizabeth eventually overruled them. She was known to be a particular fan, like her father Henry VIII before her.

Nevertheless these blood sports were big business and an established part of Tudor society, so much so that Shakespeare refers to them in his plays. In one example, Macbeth laments that “they have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly, but, bear-like, I must fight the cause” (Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 7).

Maybe this has inspired you to try a few Tudor pastimes yourself, but when it comes to bear-baiting, please do not try this at home!

Further reading

- Alison Sim, Pleasures and Pastimes in Tudor England (The History Press, 2011)

- Ruth Goodman, How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide To Tudor Life (Penguin Books Ltd, 2015)

Recommended blogs

See all blogs