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Cricket and the Church

by Bryan Griffiths

In pursuing my hobby of collecting (pictures of) Innsigns with a cricketing theme I was struck by the number which included a church in the picture. In many cases this is simply because the Church, the Green, and the Inn are the focal points of village life. However the history of cricket shows that there is a deeper relationship, or at least association, than this.

The history of cricket before the 1650's is largely unknown except that it developed from one of the many folk games (e.g. trap-ball, cat & dog, tip-cat, and particularly stool-ball and Handyn and Handoute) that involved a stationary player striking a ball or piece of wood away from his person, and scoring by running between two or more fixed points. That these games existed is illustrated in stained glass windows in Canterbury (c. 1180 AD - Six Ages of Man) and Gloucester (c. 1350 AD) Cathedrals entitled 'Boy/Man with curved stick and ball'. Also, there are many illuminated manuscripts e.g. a Manuscript in the Bodleian Library (MS. Bodley 264 'The Romances of Alexander' c. 1340AD) shows a monk with a curved stick (cric) and other monks 'fielding'; Bede's Life of St Cuthbert c. 1120-30 'when young played atte balle with children'; Decretal of Pope Gregory IX (c. 1230) showing a young boy holding a straight club and ball, and his tutor demonstrating a stroke with a long stick; and a 'Game of Cricket' in Schilling MS. (c. 1300AD). The oldest reference is from a 12th Century cleric of Exeter, Josephun Iscanus, who wrote:

The youth at cricks did play
Throughout the livelong day

The name 'cricket' (probably derived from 'cricce', the Anglo-Saxon word for staff) had evolved by the 1550's to denote a particular folk game and there are references to it in Court Records (Malden Corporation Court Book of 1562) about '2 persons playing an unlawful game called clykett'. Borough of Guildford records describe Royal Grammar Schoolboys playing 'crickett' in about 1550.

The history of cricket post-1650 is extensive, as this is the era when the Aristocracy patronised the game as an outlet for satisfying rivalries and for betting. However at the local village level, particularly in the forested counties of Surrey, Kent, Sussex and Hampshire (cricket 'heartland'), cricket was played mainly as village recreation, and occasionally as inter-village contests. Sundays were the only free day and the most suitable flat and smooth surface (probably the only one) to play on was the churchyard. These were enclosed open spaces relatively free, in those days, of tombstones. Literature cites that in the 17th Century a way of getting rid of 'pew-ache' after a long church service was to go out into the churchyard and play cricket. A famous Turner Painting (c. 1795) 'Wells Cathedral with a Game of Cricket' shows a double-wicket match with 2 stump wickets being played against the west front of the Cathedral.

There are also several court records of parishioners, churchwardens and even curates (e.g. Henry Cuffin of Ruckinge in 1629) being fines for playing on Sundays in the churchyard. However a case at Boxgrove deanery (1622) does seem to have involved breaking church windows whilst evensong was in progress! A popular game, particularly in the West Country was Fives and this needed a large stone wall - and of course the best ones were the Churches; thus sporting activities within the confines of the churchyard appeared to be the norm at this time. In 1330 William Pagula, vicar of Winkfield (near Windsor) wrote a poem in Latin advising Parish Priests to forbid the playing of ball games in churchyards:

Bat & bares and suche play
Out of chyrche-yarde put away

Of course there was much opposition from Puritan Ministers for 'profaning the Sabbath by cricket playing'; and a Bill was passed in 1625 prohibiting the playing of unlawful sports (however this was largely ignored in the country and cricket escaped because it was not so dangerous as contact sports, such as football, which often resulted in fatalities).

When the Aristocracy became involved, cricket, attracted thousands of spectators and grounds were created in Stately Homes or on sheep grazing Downland (e.g. Broadhalfpenny in Hambledon, Merrow in Guildford). The game became more organised, rules were published (first by Hambledon Cricket Club with the White Conduit/Star & Garter Club, the predecessor of the MCC in 1744 and 1774), and then by the MCC in 1788, and dedicated grounds were established (e.g. Lord's, Trent Bridge Inn). The 2nd President of the MCC in 1826 was the Vicar of St Albans, the Rev. Lord Frederick Beauclerk (1773-1850). He was a very colourful and controversial figure in the early years of the MCC and dominated cricket for 30 years as the finest amateur player of his time. However his confrontational personality and gambling habits were not that 'evangelical'. In the village, cricket moved from churchyard to the Green, or to fields donated by local gentry or farmers.

The close association between church and cricket exemplified by stained glass windows, illuminated manuscripts, church murals, paintings, court records and the use of the churchyard dwindled. However rural life centred around the Church, the Green (for festivals, cricket and other sports) and the Inn, so an interrelationship is inevitable. The principles of cricket that have given us such terms as 'straight bat' and that 'isn't cricket' are also Christian values. Involvement of Parish clergy in local cricket is widely described is cricket literature, not least because a village team served to bond a community, and they have always been popular as umpires for being presumed honest! Also we must not forget the illustrious list of cricket churchmen such as Very Rev David Shepherd, or Rev F H Gillingham immortalised in the Vanity Fair Spy Cartoon of 1907 as 'Cricketing Christianity'.