European studies blog

10 July 2016

The English and football – then and now

Many people will have seen the sadly familiar images of some English football fans engaging in antisocial behaviour in the streets of French towns during Euro 2016. The reputation of the English for violent pastimes and delight in disorder has a long pedigree. Here’s a Swiss view from the last decade of the 17th century.

Béat Louis de Muralt (1665-1749), the scion of a patrician family from Berne, visited England in 1694. His Lettres sur les Anglois (translated into English in 1726 as Letters describing the character and customs of the English… nation, ), consisting of six letters to an unnamed Swiss correspondent, were written during this visit, but not published until 1725.

Title-page of 'Lettres sur les Anglois et les François', printed in red and black
Titlepage of Béat Louis de Muralt, Lettres sur les Anglois et les François et sur les voiages … (Cologne, 1725). 792.c.3 (also available online)

A friendly, though not uncritical observer, Muralt, in common with other foreign visitors, comments adversely on the ferocious pastimes of the common people such as throwing at cocks, watching men or animals fight, and playing football in the streets:

Quelquefois il [le Peuple] se divertit de maniere incommode, & où il y a de l’insolence mêlée; comme lors qu’il pousse le Balon à coup de pieds par les ruës; & se plait à casser les Vitres des Maisons  & les Glaces des Carrosses qu’il rencontre sur son chemin… (Lettres sur les Anglois, pp. 44-5)

There’s another [diversion], very troublesome and insolent; this is Foot-ball, where they take a great deal of Pleasure in breaking Windows, and Coach Glasses if they meet any… (Letters describing the character and customs..., p. 38)


Men playing football in an empty market-place, one of them knocked to the ground
A small, but seemingly aggressive, 18th-century football game in the market place at Barnet. Reproduced in Robert W. Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society 1700-1850 (Cambridge, 1973) X.529/44470.

Teresa Vernon, Lead Curator, Romance Collections