Royal shrovetide football is an ancient annual event that takes place in Ashbourne, Derbyshire on Shrove Tuesday. It has little to do with normal football, for the game has few rules. Murder and manslaughter are barred as is the transportation of the ball by vehicle. Play after midnight is also forbidden.

There are 2 goal posts, one at Sturton Mill, the other at Clifton Mill, a distance of 3 miles apart, and the 2 sides are made up of those that live north of Henmore Brook, called the Uppard`s, and those who live south of it, called the Down`ards. In reality anyone can join in the fun.

Ashbourne town centre is boarded up for the occasion and the game starts around 2pm, with a leather and cork ball being `turned up` at Shaw Croft by a local dignitary, usually after a short speech.

The ball is hardly ever kicked, but mostly `hugged` by a scrum which tries to move forward. At times there seems to be hardly any movement at all, except for players desperate to get into the scrum. Sometime or other, the ball has to go into Henmore Brook and everyone follows, regardless of the soaking they will get.

If a goal is scored before 5pm, a new ball is turned up at Shaw Croft, as the scorer is allowed to keep the ball. Women do take part and have occasionaly scored.

It is called `Royal` because in 1928 the ball was `turned up` by the then, Prince of Wales, later to become Edward the Eighth. In 2003 the ball was turned by by Prince Charles.

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The Green Man connection
Whilst the crowds gather to watch the game and the players enjoy a little pre-game refreshement, others are in the Green Man Royal Hotel continuing the Shrovetide tradition.

The Green Man Royal Hotel is the venue for the pre-game luncheon.

Here, the starter, the Shrovetide Football Game Committee and other dignitaries spend a couple of hours of socialising over drinks and a roast dinner.

The Shrovetide Anthem is sung and the starter is usually invited to make a brief speech after lunch.

It is here where the crowds get their first match-day glimpse of the ball as it is carried out of the Green Man (under guard!) and taken to the Shaw Croft car park.

The Green Man, a former coaching inn, has hosted the Shrovetide lunch since ancient times.

Once the ball has been carried out of the Green Man Royal Hotel, the starter is ‘guarded’ as he carries it along Dig Street and into the Shaw Croft car park. The guards are necessary to prevent over-eager players or souvenir-hunters from stealing the ball!

As it is paraded through the town crowds cheer and follow the ball to its starting point – a specially-constructed plinth. The starter mounts the plinth and holds the ball aloft for all to see.

The players are reminded of the rules which state that the game must not be allowed to wander onto church ground or the memorial gardens and that residents’ private property (including cars!) must be respected and should not be damaged.
After that, the National Anthem is sung and a chorus of Auld Lang Syne.

Then, at 2pm, it’s all up to the starter – he lifts the ball high and throws it into the waiting crowd.

Often, the ball is immediately lost from sight as it is grabbed by a large scrum of players, known as the ‘hug’.

From there, it’s anybody’s guess as to where the ball will go and it can often be stuck in the same spot for many, many minutes as the opposing teams push against each other.

Frequently, the ball ends up stuck in the River Henmore.

Shrovetide football has been played for centuries and possibly for over 1,000 years.
The origins of the annual Ashbourne Shrovetide football game have long been lost in the midsts of time after a fire at the Royal Shrovetide Committee office in the 1890s.

The earliest surviving reference to the game is from 1683 when Charles Cotton, who penned ‘The Compleat Angler’, wrote about it.

There are many versions as to the true origins of the game – but the most popular seems to be the theory that the ‘ball’ was originally a head tossed into the waiting crowd following an execution.

There have also been several attempts to ban the game – the most famous being in 1349 when Edward III tried to outlaw it as he claimed it interfered with his archery practice!

And in 1878 the game was briefly banned after a man drowned in the Henmore. Local land-owners signed petitions and refused to let the game take place on their properties.

The game has received true ‘Royal Assent’ only twice – in 1928 the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, turned up the ball. This is when the event officially earned the designation Royal Shrovetide Football.

Later, in 2003, HRH Prince Charles turned up the ball. He had agreed to start the game for the two previous years but had to cancel due to Foot-and-Mouth, which forced the cancellation of the game, and the death of his aunt, Princess Maragaret.

Records show that 1943 was the first year in which the ball was goaled by a woman. Doris Mugglestone goaled for the Up’ards and Doris Sowter goaled for the Down’ards – both on Ash Wednesday.

There are actually few ‘rules’ to playing in the Ashbourne Shrovetide Football Game – but there are some pointers to getting the best from the game and understanding it.

Many local traders have become wise to the ‘hazards’ of Shrovetide Football over the years and these days Ashbourne town centre is boarded up for the occasion.

This helps protect property from a surging ‘hug’ and protects the players from the possibility of broken glass.

The main rules of the game are:
Keep the ball out of churchyards, the cemetery and the Memorial Gardens.
Do not trespass on other people’s property.
You must not intentionally cause harm to others.
The ball must not be hidden in bags or rucksacks.
The ball must not be transported in motorised vehicles.
Murder and manslaughter are barred

One of the earliest rules, from ancient times, states that players must not murder their opponents!

The players are divided into two teams, the Up’ards (those born north of the River Henmore) and the Down’ards, but in reality anyone can join in the fun.

There are two ‘goal posts’ – one at Sturston Mill, the other at Clifton Mill, a distance of three miles apart.

The ball is hardly ever kicked, but mostly hugged by a scrum which tries to move forward as each team pushes towards its own goal post.

A ball is goaled by tapping it three times against a marker board attached to the stone goal plinth.

If the ball is goaled before 5pm, a new ball is turned up at Shaw Croft, as the scorer is allowed to keep the ball.

Ashbourne Town Site

Shrovetide Football Guide

Shrovetide Game History