Huge numbers of people participate in the Haxey Hood football matches, which are far more violent than modern organised rugby matches
Claimed to be the oldest local tradition in England, dating back to the
fourteenth century, the Haxey Hood takes place on Epiphany, (otherwise known as Twelfth Night) each year at Haxey, a parish on the southern border of the Isle of Axholme, in Lincolnshire.
At around noon on the appointed day everyone gathers at the village of Haxey and proceeds to make a short tour of the four public houses in the parish. The officials of the Haxey Hood, comprising one Lord, one Fool, one Chief Boggin and ten ordinary Boggins are by tradition entitled to a free drink at each establishment. The Fool then leads a procession to the local church during which he is often moved to exercise his right to kiss any woman on the way.
The Fool then stands on a mounting block in front of the church known as the Mowbray Stone and makes a speech of welcome during which damp straw is placed at the foot of the block and lit. This generates a certain amount of smoke and is known as ‘Smoking the Fool’, but it is only a watered down version of the ancient ritual which involved suspending the fool over a veritable bonfire of smoking straw. This time honoured practice was apparently abandoned after an incident in 1956 where someone forgot to damp the straw and the Fool caught fire.
After the Fool has been smoked the assembled crowd begins a chant of "Hoose agen hoose, toon agen toon, if tha meets a man nok im doon, but doant ‘ot im", which apparently translates into Standard English as 'House against House, Town against Town, if you meets a man, knock him down but don’t hurt him'. This indicates that the game of Haxey Hood is about to begin, and everyone proceeds to the field on nearby Upperthorpe Hill.
The festivities begin with a few short games where the children chase after balls made from tightly-rolled pieces of canvas tied with ribbons and attempt to carry one off the field, but these are a merely a prelude to the main event. The main game of Haxey Hood is played with a ball or 'hood' made up of a two-foot length of thick rope encased in stout leather, this being the nearest modern equivalent that can be employed in place of the original hood which was a freshly slaughtered bullock’s head.
The basic rules of the game are these; no one is allowed to run with the hood and no one is allowed to throw the hood, and the game consists of one large rugby type scrum or 'sway' in which the Hood is pushed or pulled or 'swayed' in the desired direction. The object being to manouvere the Hood into one of the four public houses in the parish, with the game officially ending when the Hood is touched by the pub landlord standing on the front step of his establishment. The landlord then takes possession of the Hood and proudly displays it for the following year.
There are no official teams as such; all participants simply join in and attempt to move the hood to their favoured public house. The Lord acts as referee to the extent that this is possible and the eleven Boggins, have the task of rounding up any stragglers as well as attempting to protect property from any damage. It is this latter responsibility which is the most onerous as apparently the sway is quite capable of demolishing the odd fence along the way and has on occasion severely dented carelessly parked motor vehicles.
The official explanation for these fun and games is that sometime in the fourteenth century when Haxey, together with the rest of Axholme was owned by the Mowbray family, that the wife of John de Mowbray the local landowner and the Baron Mowbray was riding across Upperthorpe Hill when a stiff wind whipped away her silk riding hood. There happened to be thirteen farm workers who were working nearby who thus rushed around the place trying to retrieve the hood.
It was finally caught by one of the field hands who, feeling unable to approach the lady of the manor personally, handed it to one of his braver colleagues who duly handed it back to her. The Lady de Mowbray remarked that the worker who had actually caught the hood but failed to return it had acted as a fool, whilst he who had returned it had acted like a lord. She was however sufficiently impressed as to bestow thirteen acres of land to the parish on condition that the chase for the hood was re-enacted each year.
It has also been suggested that this official explanation is nothing but a cover story invented to allow the villagers to continue with their enjoyment of a time honoured pagan ritual without interference from the authorities. Its survival into the modern era is a testament to the enthusiasm with which the modern day Englishman will adopt any old excuse to spend most of the day down the pub.
- Quotation from Hansard: Andrew Bennett, MP for Denton and Reddish, see