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Michael Flannery

Part I: Scotland - Was Scotland the Birthplace of Golf?


Item. It is ordanyt and decreyt… (th)at ye fut bawe and ye golf be Utterly.... cryt done and not usyt

Nearing the end of his reign, confronted by real and present danger on his border with England, King James II of Scotland (1430–1460) uttered a decree intended to ensure the safety of his realm through bringing his army up to the standards required for modern warfare. For more than 150 years, in battle after battle, English Longbowmen had determined the outcome. James decided that his subjects would drill until they became the 'Mothers of All Archers'.

Lutrell Psalter, 1325: Longbowmen practising at the Butt
Lutrell Psalter, 1325: Longbowmen practising at the Butt

Key to victory in medieval combat was the long bow, its length the height of a man or more, requiring great strength and much practise to draw and fire rapidly. It was a fearsome weapon, made even more so by customised arrows. The choice included armour-piercing tips for use against chain-mail; the barbed 'Swallow Tail' against horses; or flammable tips for psychological warfare. In 1188, an English knight fighting the Welsh (the undisputed masters of this particular art of killing), recounted how an arrow pierced his chain mail and clothing, continued through his thigh, saddle and finally, horse.

It would be misleading to suggest that James' only interest was to defend his realm against the onslaughts of the eternally aggressive Sassenachs. The king, who wore the dyspeptic look of someone who had bitten into a frozen haggis, was, in fact, a masterful ruler – vigorous, popular, and ambitious, with plans to annex Orkney, Shetland and the Isle of Man. Known as 'Fiery Face' for a vermillion birthmark, he was possessed of a hair trigger temper. According to a 1452 eyewitness account, James, threatened by a key alliance formed by the 8th earl of Douglas, flew into a rage and stabbed his rival to death.

While encouraging archery, James, who was passionate about weaponry in general, was also developing state-of-the-art artillery – with fateful consequences. While besieging Roxburgh Castle, one of the last strongholds still held by the English following the Wars of Independence, a canon exploded killing the 29 year old king. Under his successors, longbow practice continued to be mandatory.

Beginning a Bully for the hockey-like game of Crosse/Chole/Kolf
Beginning a Bully for the hockey-like game of Crosse/Chole/Kolf. This illustration appears in the Printed Book of Hours, Les Heurs de Romme, calendar page for January. By Simon Vostre for Philippe Pigouchet. Paris 1498.
(Courtesy Racquet & Tennis Club, New York and Golf Through the Ages)

The James edict, designed to enhance the defence of Scotland and expand his sphere of influence, harboured the innocent words, 'fut bawe and golf, a fact that attracted neither attention nor interest for the next 400-odd years. Finally spotted by some keen-eyed Victorian historian, these two words – particularly 'golf', were used to put an enduring spin on golf history.

The fateful document in which the word 'golf' first appeared, was Act of Parliament number 338, a hand-written manuscript published in Edinburg, 6 March, 1457. It was entitled, 'Anent Wapinshawing' – of the practise of arms – and read:

Item. It is ordanyt and decreyt… (th)at ye fut bawe and ye golf be Utterly cryt done and not usyt and (th)at ye bowe markes be maid at all paroch kirkes apair of buttes and shutting be usyt ilk sunday...

or, in Modern English:

Item. It is ordained and decreed… that football and golf be utterly condemned and stopped and that a pair of targets be made at all parish kirks and shooting be practised every Sunday.

It's worth taking a moment to examine James' sparse words, for the first-known written use of 'golf' created a virtually unassailable legend. Generations of historians and writers seized on the decree and cited Act number 338 to support the idea that an early target sport, similar in nature and form to the Royal & Ancient game, was already in place by the fifteenth century and popular enough at that time to warrant its prohibition, not once, but again in the acts of 1471 and 1491. As we shall see, there were such club and games, but not in Scotland.

The Shepherd Boy Golfer in a French Nativity, ca, 1450
The Shepherd Boy Golfer in a French Nativity, ca, 1450.
(Photograph courtesy Michael Flannery)

Despite the absence of any documentation showing that a golf-like game had been played in the British Isles before 1457, Robert Clark, the learned Andrew Lang, Horace Hutchinson and Robert Browning were among the golf historians who, hook, line and sinker, swallowed the 'Immaculate Conception' theory of golf. Based on a single, un-defined written word – they giddily committed to the legend that Scotland was the birthplace of golf. In 1956, writing in The History of Golf in Britain, Guy Campbell captured the absurdity of their capitulation to fantasy and wishful thinking:

'And before this Act... nothing? Nothing at all! Indeed, but for this embargo, so far as Scotland is concerned, it is as if the game might never have been…. A game that was such a national obsession must have had an origin… but since… Scottish lore can supply no reference either to myth or origin, we must seek a line elsewhere. Fortunately, this can be found on the Continent…'

Incredibly, Campbell's analytical and intuitive conclusion was met with disdain by the Scottish golf establishment. Over the next fifty years, not a single native golf writer ventured to tackle the vast resources of European history, literature and art, to test Sir Guy's conclusion. Shackled by a lamentable lack of academic curiosity and enveloped in a fog of dogma, vested interest and torpor, Scottish golf historians doggedly continued marching to their own drum – oblivious to the conclusions of contemporary research. For them, the golfing sun will forever revolve around Caledonia.

James had made it clear that time freed up from ye fut bawe and ye golf was to be devoted to archery practise. In the context of thirteenth and fourteenth century warfare, his proclamation was weighted with historic inevitability. The longbow had a well-deserved reputation for levelling odds in key battles. June 24th, 1340, at Sluys, a battle that determined control of the Channel during the Hundred Years' War, English archers devastated their ship-borne enemy, killing an estimated 20,000 French soldiers. Six years later at Crécy, English bowmen concentrated their firepower of 'swallow tail' arrows at five rounds per minute on the enemy's horses. Without their mounts, the knights' destructive potential collapsed like soufflé in a cold breeze. The vastly superior French force was slaughtered.

Football as played in London, 1314
Football as played in London, 1314, taken from The Early Days of Sport by Amadee Forrestier, first published in the London News, 1905

At Agincourt in 1415, 5,000 lightly-armoured English longbowmen fired until their last arrow was expended then, drawing their 3 foot swords, joined the fray. The French army, wearing armour from head to toe, lumbered helplessly like men in deep-sea-diving suits. Feathered shafts and greater mobility again carried the day.

The Scots, too, had learned bitter lessons, first at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, and again in 1346 at Neville's Cross, where they suffered devastating defeats at the hands of Welsh and English bowmen. James was convinced that with skilled, disciplined Scottish archers, this could never happen again. 'Practise makes perfect', became the order of the realm.

Knowing the historical context, it's difficult to fault James' logic in sharpening the skills of Scottish bowmen. But why did he single out ye fut-bawe and its companion game, ye golf, to be Utterly cryt done and not usyd? As we know them today, football and golf are harmonious social recreations and, on the surface, have about as much in common as chalk and cheese – or rugby and billiards, to stay close to our subject. Surely, the sports-mad Scots were equally hooked on the national passions, cache (hand-tennis), bowls, caber tossing, throwing the stone and wrestling?

To survive in Scotland's volatile fifteenth century political climate required a far-ranging intelligence network and the canny king was well informed. James would have been aware of the long tumultuous history of 'football' and 'golf' in France and the Low Countries. Known on the Continent as soule and soule à la crosse (a.k.a. crosse, choule, chole, kolf, kolfspelen, tsollen met der kolven), for centuries these violent games had been perceived as a threat to political stability, and had trailed death, injury and destruction in their wake (see illustration below).

Detail from the Misericorde of Gloucester Cathedral, ca. 1350, showing players of Soule
Detail from the Misericorde of Gloucester Cathedral, ca. 1350, showing players of Soule, one dribbling the soule/football, the opponent going for his eyes with outstretched fingers while preparing a blow to the heart with his right hand

Their popularity went back to the early Medieval Ages: In 1147, a French lord, in ratifying a charter of donation for his local church, laid down certain conditions, in particular that, together with a notional sum to be paid directly to him, the church would present him with seven footballs (ballons) '… of the greatest dimensions'. In 1378, soule was traditional enough to be described as so ancient its origins are beyond memory.

Sports, particularly the unruly recreations of commoners, were viewed with scepticism and disapproval by authorities everywhere. In 1261, as documented in Grands Chroniques de France, the French became the first to blow the whistle on violent ball games, with a proclamation that would provide a model for monarchs, the church, and municipal authorities for years to come. At the heart of the edict was the contention that ball games interfered with the regular practise of arms – which could have serious consequences for countries hell-bent on taking over others – or defending their own sovereignty. The model for the James edict had already been in place for two centuries.

In 1314, the English King Edward II, who few took seriously (not least, because of the pleasure he found in common labour and noble boy friends, but also his habit of riding around London with a lion in his cart) decided to head north to bring the unruly Scots permanently to heel – something not even his father, Edward I, 'Longshanks', a fierce warrior who earned the epithet Malleus scotorum – 'Hammer of the Scots', had managed to do.

To eliminate one potential distraction from this high profile, well-organised campaign, Nicolas Farndone, the Mayor of London, decided to chase football out of his bailiwick. (Concerned by) '… great uproar in the City through certain tumults arising from great footballs' (grosses pelotes de pee), Hizzoner forbade play within city walls '… upon pain of imprisonment'. The forceful ban and ensuing (temporary) calm weren't strong enough medicine to save Edward's bacon. His army was slaughtered at Bannockburn by Scots led by Robert Bruce.

Living up to his reputation, the English king ignominiously fled the battlefield and skulked home. 16 November, 1326, all credit with his lords gone, Edward was arrested. January 1327, he abdicated and shortly thereafter, was brutally murdered. In one sense, the tragic monarch had the last word. Gloucester Cathedral (where Edward II is entombed) possesses a magnificent Great East Window which contains the image of a French soule à la crosse player, often referred to as 'The Golf Player' – a warning against playing outlawed games.

At Gloucester Cathedral, within the Great East Window, is The Golf Player
At Gloucester Cathedral, within the Great East Window, is The Golf Player,
a player of Soule à la Crosse, ca 1350

Bans against ball games – even though there was little evidence that they worked, and considerable, that they didn't – quickly became a tradition and authorities in England, France, and Brussels followed suit, sometimes issuing them long after the reason for doing so was gone. James' 1457 edict was repeated more or less intact in two similar acts (1471 and 1491) before it was recognised as redundant and dropped from the books. But canny James had a very good reason for singling out these two games. In a word, if you played ye fut bawe or ye golf, you were likely to be badly injured, and an injured bowman was as useless as a soggy bagpipe.

In 1583, Phillip Stubbes' Anatomy of Abuses was published. One passage captures the mad dog nature of football: 'For as concerning footballe playing, I protest unto you it may rather be called a friendly kinde of fight than a play or recreation, a bloody murthering practise than a felowly sporte or pastime. For dooth not everyone lye in waight for his adversarie, seeking to overthrowe him, and to picke (pitch) him on his nose, though it be upon hard stones… So that by this meanes, sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their legs, sometimes their arms; sometimes one part thrust out of joint, sometime another; sometime the nose gush out with blood, sometime their eyes start out: and sometimes hurt in one place, sometimes in an other.'

The truth is that ye fut-bawe and ye golf were two sides of the same, badly-tarnished coin. The French historian, Jean-Michael Mehl, lumped them together under the French term, soule: “The brutality of soule, a game played with the hand, foot or crosse (a hockey-like club) explains its frequent mention in letters of remission (a legal document) which permits one to form a rather precise idea of the game. It consists of two teams, sometimes made up of several tens of players who contested the possession of a large ball of wood or of a ball of leather filled with moss and bran, to carry it to a place determined in advance, be it the side of their adversary or their own side… These games were bloody and often deadly.”

Played by medieval commoners, the 'games' were most often mob scenes with no semblance of team play– all glory accrued to whoever scored the goal. At any stage, anyone could join the fray and attempt to wrest the ball away, using fists, knees and feet to achieve his aim – often a golden opportunity to repay old scores and grudges.

Despite their shared brutality, there was a vital distinction between soule and soule à la crosse (soule played with a crosse). The introduction of a one-piece wooden club with a curved hockey stick-like head, meant that the ball had to be struck with a club to propel it – instead of being carried, thrown or advanced with the fist, foot or knee.

Jeu de Paume (Hand tennis), ca. 1470
Jeu de Paume (Hand tennis), ca. 1470: Two fashionably dressed teams each of three men play a match of France’s most popular ballgame.
(Courtesy Fundaçaõ Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon and Golf Through The Ages)

This marked a significant turning point in the evolution of ball games – a move from what the French termed les jeux de force (games of strength) to les jeux d'adresse (games of skill), a first step towards golf. From the earliest-known depiction of a crosse (about 1260) we see that the club was swung with both hands to generate maximum power – a primary characteristic of the game that would emerge centuries later as Scottish golf.

By now, the reader can forgiven for thinking that a medieval spectator couldn't even walk past a penny-pitching match without getting at least one black eye. Yet for over 700 years a number of non-violent social recreations flourished throughout Europe.

These included bowls, half-bowls, skittles, cloish (also called ringball), badminton, hand-tennis (jeu de paume) and whipping tops. Balls were tossed back and forth and sticks, balls and discs, thrown at targets. There were also batting and fielding games, some of which resembled baseball. The earliest known illustration of such a game, showing a crosse similar to a shepherd's crook being used as the bat, is an illustration in Bede's Life of St Cuthbert, about 1120.

Games characterised by violence when played by commoners often took on a different character in the hands of landed gentry, aristocracy and royalty. Jeanne d'Evreux (1310-1371) third wife of King Charles IV of France was documented as having played the hockey-like game of crosse using a silver club. Played in schools through the 19th century, hockey was a favourite tradition. In the mid-14th century, John of Hubant, founder of Ave Maria College of Narbonne, in Paris, encouraged his wards to play the old popular games of French folklore. A marginal note in a college record dated 1346, singles out Crocet/Crosse played with a curved club shaped like a hockey stick, among traditional children's games (Les Jeux des Enffenz).

A game called the Calcio in Italy
A game called the Calcio in Italy. Engraving by Pietro Bertelli, ca. 1591.
(Private collection, Italy)

Another sport tamed in the hands of the aristocracy was the ancient game of soule/football, which underwent a dramatic transformation when adopted at the court of the magnificent all-round athlete, Henri II. The French king's matches against the intrepid M. Laval became regular fixtures at Le Pré aux Clercs in Paris. The lineup featured His Majesty with the poet Pierre de Ronsard at his side – Henri's Hurricanes clad in white uniforms, Laval's Lions in red. Farther south in the city states of Florence and Venice, the Medici had already tarted up soule (known in Italy as calzo or calcio) in new finery, rules, and enough razzmatazz to rival the Super Bowl.

An 18th Century Mail and Boule
An 18th Century Mail and Boule. To withstand the shock of repeatedly driving a heavy wooden ball, the ends of the clubheads were reinforced with iron bands. For added strength, the ball was struck on the end grain of the wood. JG (on the ball) is the maker's mark of the legendary Jean Grasset. (Photo courtesy Brian Anderson, Troon)

Despite interdictions, soule and crosse continued to be popular through centuries – the players sometimes dressed to kill; sometimes in rags – until the two ancient ball games eventually petered out in the late 19th century in Brittany, the most sports-mad region of France. But Soule and Crosse, despite their popularity, were not everybody's cup of tea. As society developed, games that required tactics, skill, and custom-made playing equipment emerged and by the late 13th century, change was in the air. Club and ball target sports – each team or player with his own ball – became increasingly popular.

Centuries before the first reports of similar games in Scotland, golf was in the making in France. The earliest documents and artwork depicting golf-like games come from Paris and La Touraine, which most of us know for its Loire Valley. There was a historical inevitability as to why the 'Home to Kings' – fertile, prosperous and cultured – had the honours as the birthplace of golf.

The story begins in Paris, the Greatest City of Christendom where, in 1292, we pick up the first thread of early golf, and begin to unravel the game's complex fabric as it passed from France, through the Netherlands, Flanders and Italy, over more than three centuries before reaching Scotland's shores.

In Part II, 'France - the Birthplace of Noble Ball Games', Michael Flannery explores the emergence and early stages of golf from 1250 to 1480.


Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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