The Sports Archives – The World’s Oldest Football!

The latest issue of British stamps features famous landmarks from A to Z, including S for Stirling Castle…where the world’s oldest football was found in the private rooms of Mary Queen of Scots.

Dating from the 16th century, and made from cow hide with an internal pig’s bladder, it was discovered behind the paneling in the Queen’s Chamber – where it is believed to have been hidden since the 1540s.

The mother of James I of England was known later in life to take an interest in all sports, especially football and golf, and indeed recorded details of a game of football in her diaries while living at nearby Carlisle Castle.

The Queen’s Bedchamber

Now at the Smith Art Gallery and Museum in Stirling, the almost 500-year-old ball, half the size of a modern football, was discovered at Stirling Castle in the mid 1970s, when workmen were investigating behind the thickly oak-paneled walls of Mary’s bedchamber.

Expert examination has confirmed the ball to be from a period somewhere between the 1540s and 1570, during which time Mary Stuart was known to have spent time there.

A cricket ball sits at the center of this ancient sporting artifact, housed within a pig’s bladder which would have been used for the ball’s inflation, and inside a thick, round leather cover, originally stitched from the inside and with surface stitching presumed to have been undertaken later to carry out repairs.

Historians believe the ball could have been used in games between soldiers and staff in the castle courtyard, in a variation of the game which was then probably more associated with handball than football.

How it ended up behind the paneling in the Queen’s bedroom remains a mystery, although there is one possible – if somewhat odd – explanation.

Protection Against Witchcraft

In centuries past it was not uncommon to hide personal property as a protection against witchcraft…the thinking was that evil spirits would be attracted to the individual item rather than its owner, this keeping them safe from harm.

The Scottish Stuarts were, like many at the time, known to have been deeply superstitious…so perhaps it was Mary herself who hid the ball behind the wooden paneling?

Henry VIII, father of Elizabeth I – the ‘Virgin Queen’ who was responsible for her cousin Mary’s imprisonment and subsequent execution – is recorded as being one of the first royal exponents of football, having listed a pair of football boots in his Great Wardrobe catalog of 1526, a regal ‘shopping list’ drawn up towards the middle of his reign.

Perhaps his great-niece Mary had a similar fascination with the game?

Sadly, we will never know.

Nicki Williams works for Gear-Zone, one of the UK’s leading online retailers of outdoor gear and equipment ranging from football boots to rucksacks and hydration packs.

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