The Book of Sport was issued initially by James I. It identified the need to go to church in the morning and enjoy yourself in the afternoon. Charles I reissued it in 1633. The Norton Anthology of English Literature states that Charles probably republished the text in response to William Prynne’s Histrio-Mastix.
Histrio-Mastix was subtitled the Player’s Scourge or Actor’s Tragedy. It had taken Prynne the better part of ten years to write the book which was essentially an attack on the theatre, Christmas and dancing. Prynne was not complimentary about women actors – in particular French ones and unfortunately this was taken as an insult on Henrietta Maria rather than french actresses. Prynne was hauled up in front of the Star Chamber on charges of seditious libel in 1634.
I’d like to say that the judges in the case were measured. Unfortunately Prynne found himself being pilloried – twice. He was imprisoned for life, fined £5,000, his book was burned by the hangman, chucked out of his university, had his ears cut off and was stopped from being a lawyer.
Unfortunately despite the heavy hint to stop writing Prynne continued and wrote a series of anonymous pamphlets which his friends arranged to have published for him. When it was discovered that he had been writing inflammatory things about the Church and Archbishop Laud the rest of his ears were cut off and his cheeks were branded with the letters SL and his nose was slit.
And where does the Book of Sport fit in? Charles was essentially saying that by conforming to the Church of England and going to church in the morning you were entitled to enjoy yourself in the afternoon in appropriate and proper pursuits. The Book goes on to suggest that if Puritans didn’t like English laws and the Church’s canons that they were free to clear off elsewhere.
The list of approved actives included:
“such as dancing, either men or women; archery for men, leaping, vaulting, or any other such harmless recreation, nor from having of May-games, Whitsun-ales, and Morris-dances; and the setting up of May-poles and other sports therewith used: so as the same be had in due and convenient time, without impediment or neglect of divine service: and that women shall have leave to carry rushes to the church for the decorating of it, according to their old custom; but withal we do here account still as prohibited all unlawful games to be used upon Sundays only, as bear and bull-baitings, interludes, and at all times in the meaner sort of people by law prohibited, bowling.”
I must admit to being slightly puzzled by the inclusion of bowling – never having considered it a hot-bed of sinfulness for the “meaner sort” but perhaps I missed something. The Puritans of whom Prynne was one, as you may have already deduced, declared the Book of Sports to be The Devil’s Book as all recreation, presumably including bowls, was sinful.
For Puritans, and Presbyterians come to that, strict observance of the Sabbath was politicised. Some non-conformists chose to leave the country, others chose to write pamphlets on the subject. Prynne’s first trial didn’t make many waves but his exile to the Channel Islands in 1637 caused a bit of a furore as did his return in 1640. The second trial when his writings against Laud had been punished had turned him into a Puritan martyr.
Helmer, J. Helmers. (2016) The Royalist Republic: Literature, Politics and Religion in the Anglo-Dutch Public Sphere, 1639-1660