Social Science blog

10 May 2011

Sporting royals

All the excitement about the royal wedding got me thinking about the role that royalty has played in sport over the centuries. The present royal family, of course, has impeccable sporting credentials, particularly as far as the Olympics are concerned. As is well known, the Princess Royal competed at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, and her daughter Zara Phillips is a former World eventing champion who was only prevented from representing Great Britain in Beijing by an injury to her horse. Less well known perhaps, is that Prince Michael of Kent was a reserve member of the British team in the Bobsleigh event at the Winter Olympics of 1972.

 Earlier royals have had a rather ambivalent attitude towards sport, however. Edward II disliked the rowdy, rackety street football matches of the London apprentices and banned them from playing, and the interminable war with France which started in 1338 prompted later kings to do the same. Their justification was that their subjects would be better employed practising sports – like archery - that improved their fighting prowess, instead of shouting and knocking a ball about (someone beside me mutters “no wonder our record in the World Cup is so pathetic”).

 The appearance of being a hale and hearty sportsman was actually a desirable one at a time when government & law were represented in the person of the King. That most autocratic of the English kings - Henry VIII - was a celebrated athlete, excelling at jousting, wrestling, running and tennis. After him though, things got a bit complicated, with much debate about the propriety of sport on Sundays and Holy days, the only times when the common people were able to take their leisure. The Book of Sports was issued by James I in an attempt to clarify what was permissible on these occasions and he came down in favour of such activities as “leaping and vaulting”, archery, Morris dancing and the setting up of May poles, so British sporting prowess of the leaping variety was saved (only to be dashed later by the Puritans).

 Fortunately the powers that be have now decided - in the words of ‘1066 and all that’ that sport is a Good Thing.


England. [Miscellaneous Public Documents. (Domestic Transactions, Royal Messages, Speeches from the Throne, etc.). III. Chronological Series. James I. [1603-1625.] ] The Book of Sports, as set forth by K. Charles the I. [Issued by King James, May 24, 1618, and re-enacted Oct. 18, 1633.] With remarks, etc. (1709.)

London reference collections shelfmark: T.1810.(14.)



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