Where did Ashbourne’s Shrovetide football originate? The story behind the world’s oldest match

Where did Ashbourne's Shrovetide football originate? The story behind the world’s oldest match

Photo by Harry Marshall

Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide football has been played in the Derbyshire town since the 1600s, but the exact origins of where the famed event has come from are mostly unknown.

The last day before Lent was a public holiday in times dating back to the medieval period, and football became a traditional sport that was always played on that day.

These games were eventually cancelled and banned in multiple places, including Manchester and Carlisle – but Shrovetide in Ashbourne was so popular amongst the residents that it remained untouched.

But where did the idea of the game come from? We don’t exactly know, as a massive fire broke out at the Royal Shrovetide Committee office in the 1890s, destroying all of the records which many believe would have contained the rules of the game in the process.

One of the first references made to the game is found in a 1683 a poem called “Burlesque upon the Great Frost” which was written by Charles Cotton, the brother of the Baronet of Ashbourne.

It describes a massive football match being played between two sides of a town, which most believe is a reference to the famous Derbyshire contest.

Experts and Ashbournians believe the game took on something that closely resembled the current form in the early 19h Century – it was referenced in a song in a school play.

This inspired the ‘anthem’ which is sung in a hotel shortly before the game begins, and the lyrics are mounted on the plinth from which the turning-up of the ball takes place.