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After a long day of playing the game of “Haxey Hood,” muddy, bruised but happy players celebrate in true English style: with a pint of beer. Writer Darren Sketon explains the history and the rules of this annual tradition in his hometown.
Text and photos by:Darren Sketon
Country: England

he ancient game of the ‘Haxey Hood’ is without doubt one of the oldest local traditions in England that shows the best in the English character: local loyalty, self-determination, aversion to bureaucratic control, good-humoured toughness and good behaviour while drinking.

“It is a boozy day for sure, but there is never any kind of bother; I’ve been coming all my life. For me, the singing of the songs in the Duke William after a good few drinks is the highlight of the day,” Terrence Saville says.

The game probably dates back to the 14th century, according to most researchers and historians. The game itself marks the 12th night since Christmas and is held in the sleepy village of Haxey, located in the Isle of Axholme, in North Lincolnshire, England, where I was born and raised.

The game

The game of Haxey Hood is played with a ‘hood‘ made up of a two-foot length of stout leather. This is the nearest modern equivalent to the original hood, which was allegedly the freshly slaughtered head of a bullock, or castrated bull. The Lord of the Hood keeps a good hold of this all day, finally parting with it when he hands it to a local volunteer who has the honor of throwing it up in the air at the start of the game.

The basic rules of the game are: no one is allowed to run with the hood, to throw the hood or to sneak off with it. The game consists of one large rugby-like scrum or ‘sway‘ in which the hood is pushed or pulled, or as the locals like to refer to it ‘swayed’, in the desired direction. Depending on the weather, this can be a little tricky as the ground may be either frozen solid or extremely wet and muddy, or sometimes both!

The object of the game is to maneuver the sway, containing a few folk clutching the hood, into one of the four public houses (The Carpenters Arms, The Kings Arms, The Loco, The Duke William). The game officially ends when the hood is touched by the pub landlord standing on the doorstep of their establishment. The landlord then takes the hood and proudly displays it behind the bar for the next year. Traditionally, the landlord would give away one free pint of beer to all those in that pub upon claiming victory; this has been altered in recent years owing to tighter financial climates, but it is believed the hood party still receive a free pint.

There are no official teams; all participants simply join in and attempt to move the hood to their favourite public house. The Lord of the Hood acts as referee as far as this is possible, but in reality, he is more of an authority figure and just watches. It is the eleven Boggins (under the guidance of the chief Boggin) who do the real work and have the task of rounding up any stragglers, keeping the sway of people upright and steady and attempting to prevent property damage. It is this latter responsibility that is the most onerous because the sway is quite capable of demolishing the odd fence or brick wall along the way and has on occasion severely dented carelessly or foolishly parked motor vehicles.

There is quite an element of danger to the main event, such as when the sway of people collapses. Sometimes people are crushed or suffer injuries such as broken limbs, heavy bruising and strained and sprained ankles. In the past, I have had a bloody nose and bruised ribs after a game, and my cousin received a painful broken leg. This year, I chose to observe and photograph rather than to participate.

The history behind the game

The game began in the 14th century when Haxey, together with the rest of the Isle of Axholme, was owned by the Mowbray family. The wife of John de Mowbray, the local landowner, was riding across Upperthorpe Hill (the site of the current game) when a stiff wind whipped away her silk riding hood. There happened to be 13 farm workers who were working nearby who 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 and bestowed 13 acres of land to the parish on condition that the chase for the hood was reenacted each year.

For me, the legacy of the event and the social, joyful element of the day and preceding days make it something really quite significant in the lives of those who live around the villages. There is a sense of community and a sense of goodwill in it all. No one really cares who wins, just that the game is played.

The traditions before the game

Starting January 1, the ‘Haxey Hood’ party (the group of 11 Boggins wearing their red sweaters, a chief Boggin, the fool, and the Lord of the Hood) tour around the villages and the pubs around the Isle of Axholme singing their traditional old English songs and collecting money for charity.

“It is without doubt the best day of the year for me, my friends and my family. Interestingly, people from around these parts look on this day as being more important than Christmas and New Year” says Graham Skelton.

Hood Day starts early for the hood party. They shake off their hangovers from the night before and meet at the ‘Haxey Gate’ public house early morning for their traditional fry-up breakfast. Mid-morning, they arrive at The Carpenters Arms public house in Westwoodside, whereby the Lord of the Hood paints the face of the fool and they have a drink or two courtesy of the landlord. After this, around noon, they move on to the three pubs of Haxey: The Kings Arms, The Loco and then finally The Duke William, where they sing old English songs and drink ale.

Befitting the history of the game, it is near the church that the fool attempts to run away from all the other Boggins. Of course, they chase him down and carry him aloft over their heads to the jeers and the cheers of the crowd. The fool is placed carefully on the stone and he proceeds to make his speech 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 that involved suspending the fool over a bonfire of smoking straw. This ‘colourful’ practice was abandoned years ago after an incident in which someone forgot to wet the straw, and the fool caught fire. Mindful of over-zealous ‘health and safety’ rules nowadays, they keep the straw well watered.

At the end of the Fool’s speech, he urges the crowd on by proclaiming:

“Hoose agen Hoose, Toon agen Toon,

If a man meets a man, knock ‘ im doon,

But d’oant `ot’ im”,

This translates more sensibly into

‘House against House, Town against Town,

if you meet a man, knock him down

but don’t hurt him’.

He then jumps off the stone to more cheers and jeers from the gathered crowd and strides on past the church, and everyone else proceeds to the field on nearby hill separating the two villages (where the game is played).

Events themselves begin with 12 short games where the children chase after hoods made from tightly rolled pieces of sacking and attempt to carry one off the field to a local pub, where they are rewarded with £2 in prize money and a glass of juice. Getting off the field can be quite a task as there can be tens of kids chasing for the one hood and a handful of the Boggins chasing them down. This is merely a prelude to the main event. It is all good, muddy fun that I remember fondly from my childhood.

Participant’s opinions

“It is without doubt the best day of the year for me, my friends and my family. Interestingly, people from around these parts look on this day as being more important than Christmas and New Year” says Graham Skelton

“It is a boozy day for sure, but there is never any kind of bother, I’ve been coming all my life. For me, the singing of the songs in the Duke William after a good few drinks is the highlight of the day” Terrence Saville comments

“There is a great concern that the local authorities will try and end this game on the grounds of ‘health & safety’” a local villager says






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Old English game plays big role in modern era .

The Haxey Hood is a tradition and an annual event in Haxey, North Lincolnshire, England. It is a game played the 12th day after Christmas.

It was first played in the 14th century. A woman called Lady de Mowbray was riding when a strong wind blew her riding hood off. The farmers nearby tried to help her. One of the farmers caught the hood but gave it to another man who returned it to the Lady. Lady de Mowbray called the worker who caught the hood ‘a fool’ and the worker who returned it ‘a lord.’ She enjoyed the act so much that she donated land, but in return she wanted to see the chase reenacted every year. A celebration that lasts until today was then created.

People in the game:

The Lord: He acts as a referee and is dressed in a hunting coat and top hat.

The Fool: He is dressed in colourful rags and represents the worker who didn’t have the courage to return the hood to the lady.

Eleven Boggins: They represent the ordinary farm workers from the story.

Objective: The Boggins try to get the hood through the ‘sway’ (a crowd of people) in the direction of a pub. The pubs are The Carpenter’s Arms, The King’s Arms, The Loco, and The Duke William.

The game is over when the landlord of one of these pubs touches the hood. The hood then remains in the winning pub until next year.


 

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