Cricket to 1600
The origins of the game have been lost in the mists of time and it is unlikely that we shall ever know much more about early cricket than we do today. Several cricket lovers have spent years in libraries all over the country in an attempt to collect more data, but their work is restricted to the amount of matter available for research. And this is the real core of the problem: few newspapers of the seventeenth century are available and in those which exist little space is devoted to cricket. Apart from a few items, therefore, we are completely in the dark over the early years of cricket history, and can only deduce the story of the spread of cricket from the sparse evidence available.
Webber wrote that in 1960 and yet he could have written it yesterday for, apart from a few small finds here and a number of corrections there, we do indeed know little more today than he did in 1960. Now, as then, 99% of what we know about cricket before the nineteenth century is to be found in the works of Harry Altham, F. S. Ashley-Cooper, Samuel Britcher, G. B. Buckley, Arthur Haygarth, John Nyren, James Pycroft, H. S. Waghorn and a few others. There have been some good contributors since Webber's day but the most we can get from them is a new angle, another approach or a fresh theory.
The earliest definite reference to cricket occurs in 1597 and confirms that the sport was being played by children around 1550, but its true origin is a mystery. All that can be said with a fair degree of optimism is that its beginning was earlier than 1550, somewhere in south-east England within the counties of Kent, Sussex and Surrey, quite possibly in the region known as the Weald. The minimal information available about cricket's early years suggests that it was originally a children's game. Then, at the beginning of the 17th century, it was taken up by working men. Soon afterwards, the gentry became involved and village teams were formed to play inter-parish matches. In time, it interested gamblers and developed a lustre that attracted large crowds to the big matches. Some of the speculators became patrons who built teams representing several parishes and then whole counties. The best working class players were offered money for their services and turned professional, many of them being contracted to the new clubs that were founded. Meanwhile, the game spread throughout England and was taken overseas, leading to a county championship at home and Test cricket internationally. In the 21st century, it is big business and is believed to be the world's second most popular spectator sport after football. Not bad for a children's game from some village in the southeast.
Several sources are in agreement that cricket evolved from a generic activity which they have named "club-ball". Desmond Eagar, the former Hampshire captain, wrote the first three chapters of Barclays World of Cricket and mentioned the eighteenth century historian Joseph Strutt, who was the first to declare cricket to be a descendant of club-ball. John Nyren in 1833 agreed with Strutt. In 1851, James Pycroft went further by saying that club-ball was the name by which cricket was known in the thirteenth century but that, of course, is speculation of the worst possible kind. A few years later, Arthur Haygarth wrote that cricket has "so close an affinity to the primitive and indigenous game of club-ball as to be a direct off-shoot".
Harry Altham wrote that "most of all did our own forefathers enjoy hitting a ball with that which it was second nature for them to carry, a staff or club, be it straight or crooked". He saw that routine activity as the "parent tree" of club-ball which split into three distinct groupings: the hockey group in which the ball is driven to and fro between two goals; the golf group in which the ball is driven towards a specific target; and the cricket group in which the ball is aimed at a target and then driven away from it. Therefore, although there is no definite link between them, the cricket group must include baseball and rounders as well as cricket itself. Interestingly, Altham seems to have forgotten the tennis group, unless he thought tennis involves "goals" and so is akin to hockey. Well, it isn't, so there are four groups which involve hitting a ball with some kind of bat, club, racquet or stick. John Major begins his account by saying that cricket at its most basic is a club striking a ball and the same, he says, is true of golf, rounders, baseball, hockey and tennis. Major goes on to demolish Pycroft's nonsense and quotes Nicholas Felix, who asserted that club-ball was a very ancient game, totally distinct from cricket.
As for what club-ball was, no one actually knows. Derek Birley asks if it ever was a specific game? He doubts that and thinks it was, after all, generic. As he puts it, "a catch-all term to cover any form of ball-bashing the citizenry were apt to waste their time on".
David Underdown, who was Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University, deliberately "side-steps" the debates about cricket's prehistory and dismisses them as speculation. He doesn't mention club-ball at all except to concede that, yes, young people probably did always play whatever forms of the numerous bat-and-ball games were popular in their localities. The only one of the theories he supports is the where as he believes cricket to have originated in south-east England. He states with good reason that, before John Derrick in 1597, there is nothing any historian can usefully say about cricket.
1300 – "creag"
It may be accepted that there is a long inherent human characteristic which predates civilisation itself by millennia and impels children to play games and to use their imagination to develop what games they can from implements readily available. The question here is this. Did a child once invent a game that evolved into modern cricket or was cricket derived from a much earlier club-and-stone pastime? Was cricket invented at Guildford in the reign of Henry VIII? Did Edward II play it and call it "creag"? Or, as the 1912 writer Andrew Lang insisted, was it a Celtic game played in 6th century Dál Riata?
It is widely accepted that Lang was talking rubbish and probably trying to create a "sensation". Anthony Bateman, in his splendid Mightier than the Bat, the Pen, politely but amusingly refers to "Lang's idiosyncratic belief in the Celtic origin of cricket". The Celtic children probably did play a game that involved hitting something like a ball with some kind of stick or club but if that evolved into anything modern then it would be hurling or perhaps shinty. And yet an expert on hurling or on shinty might well say: "No, it did not". There have been a few of these "theories" lacking credible evidence.
"Creag" is, however, an interesting case. It is specified in a real document written in 1300 when Edward I (Longshanks) was king of England. On Thursday, 10 March 1300 (a Julian date which converts to Friday, 18 March 1301 in the Gregorian calendar), royal wardrobe accounts include reference to a game called "creag" being played at the town of Newenden in Kent by Prince Edward (the future Prince of Wales who became Edward II), then aged 15. Creag is probably a variation of "craic", a Gaelic word which was part of Middle English and means "fun and games in general". It has been suggested that this creag was an early form of cricket, but there is no evidence to support that view and creag could have been something quite different as per craic. The idea that it was cricket is based on the Kent location because it is widely believed that cricket developed in the south-east of England in medieval times. The Weald is generally held to have been the "cradle of cricket" and one historian Peter Wynne-Thomas even says so in a book's title. John Arlott, long regarded as the doyen of cricket writers and broadcasters, firmly believed that the Weald was the key location.
There is little doubt that the long-term policy of Longshanks was to unite all of Great Britain under English rule and then to expand into Europe. His grandson Edward III (1312–1377) resurrected the cause in 1337 by claiming the throne of France. This began a long series of conflicts that is collectively known as the Hundred Years War, which did not end until the English were finally expelled from most of France (i.e., except Calais) in 1453.
Certain references have been found which some writers have interpreted as a "French Connection" in the origins of cricket, but they have missed a key historical point. As the Hundred Years War progressed, large parts of France including great cities like Paris and Bordeaux were subject to long-term English occupation. Paris, when François Villon was born there in 1431, was described as "an English town". Calais remained an English possession until 1558, a whole century after the end of the Hundred Years War. So there may well be cricket references in France but they do not indicate a movement of the sport from France to England; they indicate that English soldiers and settlers brought their culture with them across the Channel during the long period of occupation. Cricket has often been described as the quintessential English game that has followed the English everywhere and there is a long-standing joke that if the English had colonised Mars, the Martians would now be members of the International Cricket Council (ICC)!
A statute of Edward IV (1442–1483) banned certain games, including one called "handyn and handoute", on the grounds that they distracted his subjects from their compulsory practice of archery. There is no evidence to suggest that "handyn and handoute" was a form of cricket, as proposed by James Pycroft in The Cricket Field (1851).
Although Edward IV wanted people to practice archery for military reasons, the country was actually peaceful in 1477, during a lull in the Wars of the Roses, and he was probably more concerned with foreign policy. This was the year in which Charles the Bold (1433–1477), the militant Duke of Burgundy, was killed at the Siege of Nancy by Swiss mercenary forces working for his mortal enemy, Louis XI (1423–1483) of France. Burgundy is now a province of France that is famous for its wine but, in medieval times, it was a powerful state in its own right that held territory including modern Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands as well as much of north east France. It owed its wealth to trade, especially from its great cities of Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent and Amsterdam which were the main centres of European commerce at the time.
The death of Charles the Bold enabled Louis XI, the notorious "Universal Spider" and the man who invented Cold War, to redraw the map of Europe. Charles was succeeded by his daughter Marie (1457–1482) as Duchess of Burgundy and she married the Austrian Habsburg archduke Maximilian (1459–1519) who later (in 1493) became Holy Roman Emperor. Louis XI took advantage of the confused situation following Charles' death to seize Burgundy itself and its territory in Artois and Picardy. A revolt in the Netherlands was suppressed by Maximilian. The remaining Burgundian lands in Franche-Comte, Luxembourg, Flanders, Belgium and the Dutch Netherlands became Habsburg territory. The suppression of Flanders and the Netherlands under the dead hand of Habsburg autocracy caused many Flemish and Dutch traders to migrate to England, where they seem to have had an impact on the development of cricket. Unfortunately for the development of the game in their own lands, it is reasonable to assume that it could not thrive under Habsburg rule.
A reference to stoolball has been found re a designated field in Oxfordshire. Stoolball was sometimes a generic term for any game in which a ball is somehow hit, although it still exists today as a game in its own right. Eighteenth century references to stoolball in conjunction with cricket clearly indicate that it was a separate activity. The modern sports of baseball and rounders are almost certainly derived from stoolball.
A poem called The Image of Ipocrisie, posthumously attributed to John Skelton (c.1460–1529), was apparently published in 1533 and it contains a few lines that could be a reference to early cricket being played by Flemish weavers in southern England. It is an interesting and possibly significant find but really it adds little to the existing theory that there was a Flemish involvement in the sport's development and particularly in the origin of its name.
Evidence in a 1597 court case confirms that "creckett" was played by schoolboys on a certain plot of land in Guildford around 1550. This is the earliest definite reference to cricket being played anywhere in the world.
1597 – the first definite mention
Monday, 17 January 1597 (a Julian date which converts to Tuesday, 27 January 1598 in the Gregorian calendar) is the first definite date in cricket history. John Derrick was born in about 1538, probably at Guildford, Surrey. Details of his death are unknown. He was a Queen's Coroner for the county of Surrey. Three hundred years later, Dr E. M. Grace was a coroner too and was even nicknamed "The Coroner". "EM" was unquestionably a significant figure in the history of cricket, one of many, not least of whom was his younger brother. While W. G. Grace may be the greatest and most significant name in cricket's history, John Derrick is the sport's first significant figure because he is the one who gives us our historical startpoint. Without him, we would know that something called "cricket-a-wicket" existed in 1598 because it is mentioned in a dictionary, but it seems to be about another sort of game that involves the "thrumming of wenches". We would then know that a match of sorts took place at Chevening in Kent sometime around the year 1610 and, from a 1611 dictionary, that the French word crosse is "the crooked staffe wherewith boys play at cricket". Nothing, not one thing, to confirm beyond reasonable doubt that cricket was being played in the sixteenth century and all we could definitely say would be that cricket was a seventeenth century game.
On Monday, 17 January 1597, Derrick testified in a court case that he had played cricket in Guildford when he was a boy. He takes the game's historical startpoint back sixty years from about 1610 to about 1550. The case concerned a dispute about ownership by the Guildford Royal Grammar School (founded in 1509) of a certain plot of land. Derrick's deposition is preserved in the "Constitution Book" of Guildford. He bore written testimony as to the parcel of land in the parish of Holy Trinity which, originally waste, had been appropriated and enclosed by one John Parvish to serve as a timber yard. This land, said Derrick, he had known for fifty years past and:
Being a scholler in the Ffree schoole of Guldeford,
Derrick was then aged 59 and his testimony confirms that cricket was being played by children in Surrey c.1550. This is the first definite mention of the sport, although some of the speculation about an earlier origin may be plausible. There are some people who insist the game was invented by the Guildford children because there is no proof that it existed before they started playing it. There really isn't much point in going down that road. The reality is that, whatever may have gone unrecorded before 1597, we have a historical startpoint.
It is perhaps significant that cricket is the only one of the "plaies" referred to by name. It is more significant that it was being played by children because the 1611 dictionary clearly says about the "crooked staffe" that it is what boys use to play cricket "wherewith". As it happens, the earliest known adult participation is hot on the heels of the dictionary via an ecclesiastical court case in Sussex soon after Easter of the same year.
The Flemish Connection
Given that cricket definitely existed by the middle of the sixteenth century, a number of words in common use at that time are thought to be possible sources for its name, which appears to have no connection whatsoever with the insect. John Eddowes in his The Language of Cricket (1997) points out that Mr Derrick's surname was derived from the Flemish name Hendrik.
Given the strong medieval trade connections between south-east England and the County of Flanders when the latter belonged to the Duchy of Burgundy, the name may have been derived from the Middle Dutch krick(-e), meaning a stick; or the Olde English cricc or cryce meaning a crutch or staff. In what may be an early reference to the sport, the 1533 poem attributed posthumously to John Skelton describes Flemish weavers as "kings of crekettes", a word of apparent Middle Dutch origin. In Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755), he derived cricket from cryce, which was Saxon for a stick. In Old French, the word criquet seems to have meant a kind of club or stick, though this may have been the origin of croquet. Another possible source is the Middle Dutch word krickstoel, meaning a long low stool used for kneeling in church, the shape of which resembled the two-stump wicket used in early cricket.
In David Terry's account, he mentions that Heiner Gillmeister of Bonn University, a European language expert, derived "cricket" from the Middle Dutch met de (krik ket)sen, a Flemish hockey game which means "to chase with a stick". That may indicate a possible Flemish connection in cricket's origin, but it is more likely that the terminology of cricket was based on words in use in south east England at the time and, given trade connections with Flanders, especially in the fifteenth century when it belonged to the Duchy of Burgundy, many Middle Dutch words will have found their way into southern English dialect. Equally, it cannot be surprising if Mr Derrick did have Flemish or Burgundian antecedents as there was a considerable influx of Protestant Flemings into south-east England to escape the religious persecutions of the sixteenth century.
John Ogilby's Britannia (1695) includes road maps of his time and the known areas in which cricket was popular can broadly be described as Sevenoaks and Maidstone in Kent, the Guildford area in Surrey, and Chichester in Sussex. Ogilby's road maps show that these places formed a distinctive pattern. They are located around the perimeter of the Weald and represent seventeenth century trade routes. The game can be traced along the road from London to Rye in Kent with a spur off to Maidstone; the Guildford to Chichester road; and along the river Wey from Farnham to Weybridge. There are several hills named Cricket Hill along the route of the river Wey. While Cricket Hill could be interpreted as "crooked hill", it is unusual to find a cluster of four hills so named in such a small area. The one at Weybridge is recorded in the late sixteenth century in local manorial court records, while others are in the parishes of Bramley, Send and Seale, which are all places where early cricket was played, as given by J. E. B. Gover, A. Mawer and F. M. Stenton in The Place Names of Surrey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934).
The Flemings were active in the cloth trade in all the areas where cricket was played during the seventeenth century. Some Flemings had been in Kent from as early as 1328 and it is known they were well established in the south east by the end of the fifteenth century, as they largely controlled the cloth trade. The religious disturbances in western Europe saw some 5,000 Flemish and French Protestant refugees land at Sandwich and make their way to Canterbury in 1566, and as many again in other years entered Kent, Surrey and Sussex. These immigrants were eventually absorbed into the hinterland, and many probably joined their countrymen in the clothing trade, brewing or glass-making.
For details of Flemish immigrant trades, see:
- Journey Through the Weald by Ben Darby (London: Robert Hale, 1986)
- The History of the Woollen and Worsted Industries by E. Lipson (London: A. & C. Black, 1921)
- The Wool Trade in Medieval History by Eileen Power (London: Oxford University Press, 1965)
- The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England by Peter J. Bowden (London: Cass, 1971)
With the Flemish came their language and perhaps their sport. No evidence has been found of playing a game of cricket in Flanders, but they did play the hockey game mentioned above which appears to have been known as met de krik ketsen, meaning "with the stick chase", and this has given rise to Gillmeister's theory (see above) that krik ketsen was foreshortened to "cricket". Gillmeister believes that cricket originated in Flanders and was imported by the Flemish immigrants. This view obtained a bit of publicity in 2009 when an Australian researcher claimed to have found a reference to Flemish cricket in a 1533 poem, but the jury is still very much out on that one. While the modern name of the sport was probably derived from the Middle Dutch, it almost certainly originated in south-east England and was eventually taken up by Flemish immigrants from the late fifteenth century onwards.
The cloth-working fringe area of the Weald was poorly populated in the fifteenth century with villages being small but Flemish migration increased their populations, particularly in the middle years of the sixteenth century. It has been surmised that the Flemings moulded the traditional game of stoolball into something we would recognise as cricket, but the evidence indicates that it was a children's game until the end of the sixteenth century, though there seems little doubt that Flemish children did play it.
Following the enigmatic "creag" reference in 1300, there are others in the three centuries between then and the first definite reference in 1597. Harry Altham called this period "archaeological" and Rowland Bowen called it "prehistoric". Bowen is much nearer the mark because there is perhaps only one connection between archaeology and cricket. That is at Bourne Park in Kent where Horatio Mann had his Bishopsbourne Paddock ground in the 1770s. A team from the University of Cambridge have been digging there for some years and have found Bronze Age and Roman artefacts, but as yet no missing bails or scorecards.
Harry Altham and others have recorded the probable reference to cricket in an Italian-English dictionary produced in 1598 by Giovanni Florio (1553–1625), who defined the word sgillare as: "to make a noise as a cricket, to play cricket-a-wicket, and be merry". Some people think the reference is spurious and relates only to the insect variety of cricket but "to play cricket-a-wicket" hardly suggests insect activity. Given the reference to cricket as a boys' game in another dictionary only thirteen years later, it would seem that Florio had both an insect and a game in mind.
Florio's reference may be seen at Italian/English Dictionary: A Worlde of Words. The problem is that, in a later edition of his dictionary in 1611, Florio infers that "to play cricket-a-wicket" has sexual associations with references to frittfritt, defined "as we say, cricket-a-wicket", or gigaioggie and dibatticare, defined as "to thrum a wench lustily till the bed cry giggaioggie"! See Queen Anna's New World of Words, f.144 and f.198. All of which means that "cricket-a-wicket" was a euphemism for sex in the same way that "rock 'n' roll" originally was, and it might not actually refer to the sport of cricket.
There are social reasons why cricket would have expanded in the latter part of the sixteenth century. It was a time when parishioners began to pay poor rates instead of holding "church ales" to raise money. Church ales were largely activities within each parish. Churches in medieval times brewed and sold their own ales. Sometimes it was to commemorate a particular festival such as Whitsuntide or it might be done on a seasonal basis. The point is that the sales were a significant means of raising funds for both church expenses and relief of the poor. It was done on a similar basis to modern fetes which are themselves a genteel continuation of the practice. But the ale sales were known for provoking rowdiness and their demise in the late sixteenth century owed much to pressure from the Puritans, who were beginning to make their presence felt in no uncertain terms. With the suppression of church ale sales, inter-village sport developed and there were competitions between parishes from the 1590s at football, Morris dancing, cudgelling and wrestling. It is likely that cricket matches were arranged too, though there is no actual evidence of them.
On Tuesday, 1 January 1599, Scotland moved the New Year to 1 January from 25 March and so 1 January 1599 in England and Wales was 1 January 1600 in Scotland. England did not follow suit until 1752 when the Gregorian Calendar was introduced and, until then, dates from 1 January to 24 March were a year ahead in Scotland. Tuesday, 25 March 1600, for clarification, was New Year's Day in England and Wales, twelve weeks after the Scots.
On Wednesday, 31 December 1600, Elizabeth I granted a Royal Charter to the Honourable East India Company, often colloquially referred to as "John Company". It was initially a joint-stock company that sought trading privileges in India and the East Indies, but the Royal Charter effectively gave it a 21-year monopoly on all trade in the region. In time, the East India Company transformed from a commercial trading venture to one which virtually ruled India as it acquired auxiliary governmental and military functions, until its dissolution in 1858 following the Indian Mutiny. The East India Company was the means by which cricket was introduced into India and, hence, into Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Wednesday, 31 December 1600 was the last day of the sixteenth century (Julian calendar) in Scotland. Tuesday, 24 March 1600 (twelve weeks later) was the last day of the sixteenth century (Julian calendar) in England and Wales. So, as the century ended, it was known thanks to John Derrick that cricket was a sixteenth century game.
It should be remembered that the old Julian Calendar was used in England until Wednesday, 2 September 1752 and that the Julian year in England and Wales began on 25 March. The New Year was moved to its present anniversary on 1 January 1753, thus 1752 was England's shortest calendar year because it spanned 25 March to 31 December and lost 11 days in September to accommodate the switch to the Gregorian Calendar. This meant that a date like Monday, 17 January 1597 in the Julian Calendar would have been Tuesday, 27 January 1598 in the Gregorian Calendar (see above). Fortunately, the cricket season has never begun before 25 March. Incidentally, having switched the New Year to 1 January in 1600, Scotland also adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752. For anyone interested in conversion of calendar dates between Julian and Gregorian, a very good site is Converting between Julian and Gregorian Calendar in One Step by Stephen P. Morse.
The origin of cricket
From all of the above, where does the history of cricket begin? As we have just seen, numerous theories have been put forward about the sport's supposed origin and most of them, as per Underdown, can been dismissed as not worth mentioning. Tentatively, we can accept the general view that cricket did originate in the south-east of England and that it evolved as a specific activity from a more generic bat-and-ball one. It is credible, too, that there was almost certainly a Flemish influence in the naming of the game at least. While it is highly unlikely that "creag" was cricket, it is worthy of mention because of the timing and the location.
It must be said, however, and this is something upon which all authorities agree, that there is no evidence whatsoever of cricket having evolved from another sport and, vice-versa, none whatsoever that any other sport evolved from cricket. There is no evidence that cricket derived from stoolball or "club-ball" and, equally, no evidence that baseball or any other sport evolved from cricket. The idea of using a club to hit a smaller object has been around since children first played games but it simply is not known if any of those ancient pastimes was the direct ancestor of cricket.
It is known, thanks to John Derrick, that children were playing "creckett" in Guildford c.1550 and the key date in this article is 1597 when Derrick made his legal deposition which mentioned the sport in terms of certainty. Everything before 1597 is scene-setting and build-up. Prehistory, as Rowland Bowen called it.
- Webber, page 9.
- Barclay's, page 1.
- Haygarth, page vii.
- Altham, pages 19 to 20.
- Major, page 17.
- Birley, page 3.
- Underdown, page 3.
- Bowen, page 261.
- McCann, paragraphs 98, 361 and 377.
- Terry, Seventeenth century game of cricket.
- Bowen, pages 27 to 36.
- Altham, H. S.: A History of Cricket, Volume 1 (to 1914). George Allen & Unwin (1962).
- Bateman, Anthony: More Mighty than the Bat, the Pen. (2003). British Society of Sports History.
- Birley, Derek: A Social History of English Cricket. Aurum (1999).
- Bowen, Rowland: Cricket: A History of its Growth and Development. Eyre & Spottiswoode (1970).
- Major, John: More Than A Game. HarperCollins (2007).
- McCann, Tim: Sussex Cricket in the Eighteenth Century. Sussex Record Society (2004).
- Swanton, E. W. (editor): Barclays World of Cricket, 3rd edition. Willow Books (1986).
- Terry, David: The Seventeenth Century Game of Cricket. The Sports Historian No. 20. Sports Library (2000).
- Underdown, David: Start of Play. Allen Lane. (2000).
- Webber, Roy: The Phoenix History of Cricket. Phoenix (1960).