Home Page

Stefan's Florilegium


This document is also available in: text or RTF formats.

Golf-Med-Era-art - 12/3/09


"The Royal and Ancient Sport - Golf in the Medieval Era" by Baron Giles Leabrook.


NOTE: See also the files: golf-msg, sports-msg, Stool-ball-art, Brf-Lok-Tennis-art, Cambok-art, Bowling-art, Football-art, wintr-sports-lnks, Curling-art.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



The Royal and Ancient Sport -

Golf in the Medieval Era

by Baron Giles Leabrook


"And all his subjects be very glad, I thank God, to be busy with the golf, for they take it for pastime." (Catherine of Aragon, 1513)


The sport of golf has delighted and infuriated both king and common alike for over 500 years. Along with its close relatives, golf was played in the Middle Ages in Scotland, England, Holland, Flanders and France. The earliest golf links were on the Scottish East Coast, close to ports connected with the Continental trade and European influence.


What, however is golf? It is a club and ball sport, first recognized in Scotland where a small ball (less than 2 inches in diameter) is struck from a standing start across country to a target, which is a small hole. The player reaching that target in the fewest strokes is the winner. The combination of hitting for long distance with the delicacy of accuracy and the independent progress of each player unhindered by the other is what makes golf different to all other club and ball sports.


There are many games and countries that claim the origin of golf, and probably most have had some influence on the structure of the game. Even legendary figures of antiquity are credited as being golfers. Wace's "Roman de Brut", translated by Layamon (1155-1200) gives an account of sports at King Alfred's coronation in 872, and refers to players "driving balls wide over the fields". St Cuthbert is said as a child to have "played atte ball with the children that his felloes were", and is represented as a golfer in stained glass in the church of his name in Kensington. The earliest stained glass of what could be a golfer is in Gloucester Cathedral, in a window built for Sir Thomas Bradstone between 1340-50. It shows a figure swinging a club with gusto, probably at a stationary ball. Cuchullain also is attributed as a golfer, for he "set out then, and he took his hurly of creduma and his silver ball, and he took his massive Clettini and he began to shorten his way with them. He would give the ball a stroke of his hurly at it and drive it a great distance before him; and would cast his hurly at it, and would give it a second stroke that would drive it not a shorter distance than the first blow". Obviously a player of heroic stature, however none of the examples above are definitely of golf, although some may be relatives of it.

Apart from Scotland, the nation that has the boldest claim to have pioneered golf is Holland. The Dutch champion the game "kolf" or "kolven", a game that is still played today. Many authorities claim that it is the ancestor of golf. They point to a group of paintings by such artists as Auercamp and de Hooge of kolf, and note the similarities to golf. However as they all post date 1600 they cannot be evidence of Dutch origin of a game that had been played for more than 150 years. Golf might also appear in a book of hours prepared in Bruges in 1530 for Emperor Charles of Germany. He was a lover of all sports, and many are represented on the borders of the pages; one such shows 3 players with club and ball, one of who is definitely putting into a hole. Certainly the name of the game comes from Holland, from the old German "kolb" for bent stick or club. This makes the expression for a golf stick as a "golf club" redundant. Many other golf terms come from the Dutch, for example "tee", "stymie" and "putt".


Kolven is an ancient game, older than golf. One of its earliest records shows that in 1398, Albert, Duke of Bavaria, gave the citizens of Briele the right to play kolven outside the ramparts of the town. Like all sports in the Middle Ages, it suffered from official dislike; the town of Naarden in 1456 issued an edict forbidding the playing of kolven in churches and churchyards. Games in those locations would have been quite possible in that period, as the body of the church had no seats, and in the yards the tombstones were laid flat, rather than the ornate monuments that we are used to. It was also played on ice, as depicted in many Dutch paintings from the 16th century. However the Naarden edict indicates that medieval kolven is similar to that played today. It is not a field game like golf, but is played in an enclosed space or covered court, with two posts at either end of the "kolf-bann". The player who succeeds in striking the two posts in the fewest shots is the winner. Even the ice paintings show the posts as the player's objective, and the limited area. Most Dutch paintings show the ice to be crowded, and any full-blooded stroke would result in many injuries. Thankfully, the playing action is not a swing and stroke, but a shove or putt. The clubs are larger than golf clubs with straight faces, and the balls are bigger than a fist and weigh nearly two pounds! Kolven seems closer to crazy golf or putt-putt than real golf, and cannot be its ancestor.



Jeu de maille, later called Pall Mall, was played on larger areas than kolven. The London streets Pall Mall and the Mall were once used for the game. Henry, Prince of Wales, son of James I and VI in London before 1611 is described "At another time, playing Goff, a play not unlike to Palemaille" The object was to negotiate a series of obstacles, by either going around or through them, in the lowest number of strokes. The balls were struck with mallets, from which the game gets it's French name. Over hard packed dirt streets these long and supple-shafted hammers were capable of striking prodigious distances, some records say up to 400 yards. However, while a contemporary of golf and noted for its similarity, jeu de maille is probably a forerunner of croquet.  The expression "to run pell mell", that is very fast, derives from this game. Either the players ran quickly after the balls they had just struck, or the long-suffering residents of the streets had to scurry to safety!


Historians know less about the early British game cambuca, only that it was played with curved hockey-like sticks and a small turned box-root ball. The objective of the game, the field, and the number of players are open to conjecture. What is known is that it is older than golf, and was very widespread and popular. In 1363, nearly a century before the first mention of golf, cambuca is noted in the "Calendar of Close rolls", where "all Sheriffs (are) to stop all games." The Sheriff of Kent proclaimed "that every able bodied man on feast days when he has leisure, shall in his sports use bows and arrows, pellets and bolts, and shall learn the practice and art of shooting. Forbidden to all and singular on pain of imprisonment to attend or meddle with hurling of stones, loggets or quoits, hand-ball, foot ball, club-ball, cambuca, cockfighting or other vain games". Many similar proclamations were made throughout Western Europe in the Middle Ages banning "vain games", especially in wartime.


By far the strongest claimant as the ancestor of golf is the Flemish game of chole, mentioned as early as 1353. It still survives today in Belgium and some departments of northern France, and appears to have changed little over the years. The ball is still turned beech-wood. The opponents, either individually or in teams, decide upon a goal, be it a certain tree, cemetery gate, church door or the like. This mark could be any distance away - 4 leagues was not too far. Next they auction down, in which the players bid the number of turns they will need to reach the goal. The side that bids the smallest number of turns is "in" and strikes off. After each turn of 3 strokes by the "choleurs" the other side is allowed to "dechole", i.e. to strike the ball away from the goal or into any difficult place they can find. If the goal is attained in the bid number of turns or less the "choleurs" win, if not the "decholeurs" have victory. The game then has elements of attack and defense, and with both sides playing the same ball the similarities to old hockey are obvious. However, because of the cross country style of play, shooting at a target rather than a net and the number of strokes being counted, chole is closer in concept to ancient golf than any game yet examined. We also know that "unplayable lies" were recognized in chole.


A picture of chole, painted by Flemish artist Paul Bril in Rome 1624, shows five groups of players in a congested scene. This is consistent with contemporary accounts, which tell of large groups of people from all ages, classes and sex playing chole after the harvest. Some of Bril's choleurs are aiming at a door, some appear to be heading off in a completely direction; because there was no set course, each group set it's own objective. One of the players is seen "teeing" his ball up on a small heap of dirt, just as Victorian era golfers did.


Was golf a direct descendant of chole? There is no concrete evidence of golf's beginning, but there are clues. The Scot's would have had to have had access to chole on the Continent, as the concept of wandering Flemish choleurs in Scotland is laughable. One account of Scottish soldiers at work and play comes from a history written for James II called "Liber Pluscardensis", and tells of the battle of Bauge, in 1421. The French king Charles VI was having difficulty with the English Henry V, who was at that time master of all Normandy. Charles appealed to the Scots for aid, and 7,000 men set off for France. By Easter, Thomas Duke of Clarence, Henry's brother had laid siege to the town of Bauge, and some of the Scots under the Earl of Buchan were sent to relieve it. A truce was arranged for the week of Easter, however Clarence was to break it and attempt a surprise attack.


Late on the afternoon of Easter Saturday the Scots were taking advantage of the truce by "playing ball and amusing themselves with other pleasant and devout occupations. But by God's mercy, some of the men of note were playing close to the crossing of a certain river." They caught sight of the English, who were advancing under cover of the woods. One was sent to warn Buchan while the "men of note" Hugh Kennedy, later leader of the Garde Ecossaise under Joan of Arc, Robert Stewart of Ralston and John Smale from Aberdeen "with their men" prepared to contest the river crossing. Clarence had outmarched his archers, and attempted to force the crossing against the small force of Scottish spearmen and crossbows. The men of note delayed the English long enough for the rest of the Scots to arrive. Clarence fell at the first, along with the Earls Kent and of Ross and Lord Grey, while the Earls of Somerset and of Huntingdon were among the many prisoners. It was the first serious English defeat since Agincourt.


The game that took the Scots far from their camp and down to the river was chole, or a variant, as no other ball sport fits the description. It was a cross-country game, played by a few gentlemen and their hosts, whilst being attended by their clansmen and bodyguards. Other ball games were probably being played, however pitches for football and shinty would be made near the Scottish camp, and tennis is not played in the fields. On their return to Scotland, those fortunate and famous men were well regarded, and so, no doubt, was the game they were playing, the game that led to the death of the brother of the English king. Golf was not mentioned in 1421, however the entire game, with rules, equipment, traditions and a widespread popularity had suddenly sprung up in less than 40 years. Mixing chole with local sports would be obvious, and with the associated glamour of the victors of Bauge, golf might have been quite fashionable. Fashionable enough to be attacked by the Scottish Parliament in only the second recorded time golf is referred to, in 1457.


Recognizing the importance of the archer for national security, most countries in the middle ages tried to tempt their commoners into practice on their only free days – the religious feasts and festivals. However the hardworking serfs had better things to do than use the bow. They wanted to play games. So it is easy for us to find out what sports were popular then, by noting which the authorities banned so that archery could be practiced. The first recorded reference to golf is in 1452, and shows the sale of a golf ball for ten Scottish shillings. For the next 50 years golf doesn't enjoy a history as innocent and humdrum as that. The 14th Parliament of James II on 6 March 1457 enacted a decree that "fut ball and golfe must be utterly cryit doun and not usit". It is inconceivable that at this early stage golf could rival football, even so no other game is mentioned, indicating that golf was very popular. The stubborn Scots clearly ignored their Parliament, not for the first or last time, and broke this and other edicts. James IV, who had insisted that golf was a ridiculous game with no strength or skill, had his Parliament of 1491 decree "It is statute and ordained that in na place of the Realme there be used Fute-ball, Golf, or any other sik unprofittable sportis (contrary to) the common good of the Realme and defense thereof." This law not only imposed a fine and imprisonment for the players, but also for those whose land the game was being played on.


Fortunately for golf, James signed a treaty of perpetual peace with England in February 1502, and wedded Princess Margaret, Daughter of Henry VII at Holyrood Palace in August 1503. Now there was no need to ban golf, although it was still an offense to play on Sunday "in time of sermonis". Luckily also for James, who had been bitten by the golf bug, and was being accused of breaking his own law, although it only affected commoners, not nobility. James' Lord High Treasurer records his kings growing involvement with golf. In 1502 "Item: the xxi day of September, to the bowyar of Sanct Johnestown (Perth) for clubbs xiiijs", and in 1504 "the third day of Februar, to the King to play at the golf with the Earl of Bothuile, ij French crowns, sumena xlijs, for Golf Clubbis and Ballis to the King that he playit with, lxs".


This short alliance even brought golf to England. In 1513 Catherine of Aragon wrote to Cardinal Wolesly, "And all his subjects be very glad, I thank God, to be busy with the golf, for they take it for pastime." Less than a month later, though, England and Scotland were back at war. James "of the Iron Belt" was to die fighting on foot surrounded by his spearmen on the tragic field of Flodden.


While golf then suffered in England, it flourished in Scotland enjoying even more Royal patronage. James V played frequently, and set up a private links at Gosford. His daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, learned the game at an early age, and continued to play in France where she was schooled. Other students would carry her clubs and she referred to them as "cadets", pronounced /kad-ay/, French for young child. This is the origin of the modern word caddie. Mary was such a keen golfer that very shortly after the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley, while she was still officially in mourning, she was seen "playing golf and pall mall in the fields beside Seaton", causing much scandal.


When James VI of Scotland ascended the throne of England as James I in 1603, golf again enjoyed royal favor in the south. In 1608 a 7-hole course was laid out at Blackheath, near London. This was for the amusement of James' Scottish courtiers, who had their fill of staghunting, and desired their native sport. The English took to golf this time, and the games' popularity there has only increased. Within a century the English were claiming golf as their own, forcing Charles II to institute the first international match, to challenge the English upstarts. Due mostly to the efforts of his partner, a cobbler named John Patersone the Scots prevailed. Patersone was the first man in history to achieve his arms through golf.


By the 17th Century, then, golf was firmly established as a royal game, and enjoying popularity at all levels of society. It was fairly standardized, although there were no official rules, or nobody had written them down. The number of holes varied according to the extent of the land over which games were played. Most matches were on "links", a name that has come to be associated with natural style course by the sea. It used to mean much the same as the English "downs'; undulating, open land, common to all, used for grazing, archery, promenading, drying of laundry, romantic rendezvous and military exercises. The grazing of sheep and cattle kept the grass cut low, making striking a small ball from the ground much easier.


The modern concept of a golf course would be alien to the ancient golfers. Now we find set holes, and a set number of them, whereas in the past golfers would play whatever number of holes suited them, often repeating several, and following erratic routes over the course. As time past, the locals devised a generally accepted path to each hole, and with traffic increasing the grass was trodden down over these routes. This provided an excellent surface to strike the ball from, and was the start of the modern fairway.


Nowadays bunkers are deep sand traps, cunningly placed to snare the unwary and frighten the unskilled. They started with sheep-scrapes in sandy hollows, made by the animals to shelter against the cutting Scottish wind. On ancient courses they occurred naturally, randomly and while a bother to the golfers were nothing compared to fiendish placement of modern bunkers, designed to maximize the player's woe. In fact it was only in the 20th century that an effective club was designed to use in the bunker: the sand wedge. Since then sand traps have become monstrous and punitive.


In fact, nothing that we think of as golf course architecture existed in the 1600's, and precious little in the 1700's.Certainly the old putting greens bore no resemblance to the large, rolling, billiard table smooth surfaces that we are used to. The first recorded rules of golf in 1744 state that the ball is to be teed for driving to the next hole within a club length of the hole just used. As green sizes and teeing distance increases after that, it is easy to assume that greens had varied little up to that date. They were small; less than 5 yards in diameter, and while well trod and hard were not at all manicured like modern greens. Because players often scraped the turf in driving, the area around the hole was scarred and pitted, so any stroke like the modern putt was impossible. The trick then was in the approach, lofting the ball so close to the hole that it could coaxed in over the rough ground. Associations or clubs of golfers did not exist, or were not incorporated, and would not come into being until 1744. There were no clubhouses, although numbers of taverns and inns nearby compensated for that. There were no professional golfers or tournaments, and the first notice of a match for a purse was in 1724. However, it is inconceivable that the canny Scots were not wagering on their prowess from the very start of the game.


Most of the equipment hadn't changed in hundreds of years. The oldest sets of clubs in the world, preserved at the Troon club in Scotland, are early 17th century. They differ from modern sticks in many respects. Their shafts are made from ash wood, and are very long. The clubheads are made from a hardwood, probably a fruit, as the most common woods for the purpose were apple, pear and thorn. These heads are long and narrow, to maximize the "sweet spot" striking area in the center of the clubface. Players rarely had more than 5 or 6 clubs, enough to carry in the crook of the arm. Bags for clubs were not invented until the 1800's. Iron clubs did not have the importance that they have now, and were used solely for getting out of troublesome lies. They tended to chop the ball up, shortening its life. This was too expensive for most golfers, with a good golf ball costing as much as an artisan would earn in a week. Indeed in 1637 a boy was hanged in Banff after stealing a golf ball.


The major technological revolution in golf was the ball. In 1503 balls were fourpence a dozen, but in 1618 they were fourpence each. Even allowing for inflation, a ball had leaped from being half as valuable as a club to the same price. This is because the form and make of the ball had changed, with a rise in production costs. The old balls of box wood turned on a lathe had the unfortunate habit of shattering. A dispatch to James I & VI, describing the siege of one of the Earl of Orkney's castles, says the cannon shot burst into fragments on the wall "like golf balls". At this time a new ball was being introduced, a ball so superior in longevity, accuracy and distance that it was well worth paying double for. It was a leather ball stuffed with down: the "featherie".


Feather stuffed balls had been common since the Romans, whose "paganica" was four to seven inches in diameter. The contemporary tennis ball was also stuffed with feathers, though like the paganica it was soft. Featheries for golf and some other sports were hard. Slow and expensive to make, leather was cut in 2, 3 or 4 lobes or strips, which were softened by soaking in warm alum. They were sewn with a fine, curved needle and beeswaxed linen thread. The stitches were close but loose, so the cover could be turned inside out through a small gap, leaving the seams inside. Then feathers, most commonly down from a goose, were boiled to make them limp and malleable and then stuffed through the gap. "As much feathers as will fill a hat" - a top hat - would be compressed into a space no larger than a duck's egg.


The ballmaker started poking feathers in with a small wooden stuffing wedge. Then he used a "brogue", an iron rod 16 to 20 inches long, tapered to a blunt point and set at the top with a wooden cross piece. With this against his chest he would give pressure into the ball, which he held in a "socket" or cup in his hand. When the brogue could drive in no more down, he used a smaller, sharper awl to squeeze in the last few feathers, and sewed up the gap. The ball was rubbed with oil for waterproofing, and scoured with chalk for visibility.


As the soggy leather and feathers dried out, two things happened; the leather shrank and the feathers expanded. This created a two-way internal pressure, making the ball tight and hard. Feathers are made of keratin, a tough hydrocarbon plastic found in hair, horns, hooves and claws. A good featherie was solid and elastic, and could be struck a long way. In 1836 M. Samuel Mesieux, a French teacher at St. Andrews University, knocked one 361 yards, although in those days 175 yards was acceptable for lesser mortals. However, in wet or even damp conditions they quickly became sodden and useless, and no matter how carefully tapped into shape with a hammer before play, they were never quite round. Whatever it's faults, the featherie was to survive until the next revolution in golf in 1846, the arrival of the gutta-percha ball.


All was not rosy for the ballmakers, though. Constant pressure on the chest, and breathing feather dust resulted in many lung illnesses or asthma. Most died young; few lived long. Even the best artisan could only produce no more than 4 or 5 featheries in along day.


It was probably the Dutch who mastered the art of making the hard featherie, for their game of kolven. History does not record the enterprising soul who thought of making similar, smaller balls and selling them to the Scots for golf. At the beginning of the 1600's the Dutch had been making them for over 200 years and were quite expert at it. No Scotsman was recorded as a ballmaker until then. In 1618 James Melvill, a student of St. Andrews, petitioned James I & VI to embargo foreign featheries for the protection of Melvill "and other puir people who now for lack of calling wants for maintenance". The king granted a monopoly to Melvill and his assigns for 21 years, and declared "escheat" (subject to seizure) any balls not bearing their marks. Half the proceeds from the sale of these contraband balls went to the Crown, the other to Melvill. Any person who wanted to manufacture balls had to do so under license.


This monopoly was authorized on the 5th August 1618, from the Court at Salisbury, the same year James allowed golf on Sunday, provided the players attended divine service first. The document says that our "Soverane Lord the King understands that there is no small quantitie of gold and silver transported zeirlie out of his Hienes kingdome of Scotland for buying of golf balls, usit in that kingdome for recreation of his Majesties subjectis". Many such monopolies were purchased by private citizens in various businesses, and were often just a means of raising cash for the Royal Treasury. They were the chief grievance of the English Parliament with James, as many monopolies did more damage to trade than the revenue derived from them.


Melvill's grant is interesting because it shows that in 1618 the trade in golf balls was sufficiently important to make a monopoly worth securing. It was the change of fashion to the featherie, which no local made, that urged Melvill to make an arrangement with the firm of William Berwick and Co. They were the craftsmen, as Melvill was not a tradesman himself, simply the purchaser of a monopoly. In the grant, Berwick is described as the "inbringeris off the said trade" and sole manufacturer. He was not the only maker of golf balls in Scotland, as there is no point in paying for a monopoly if you already have one. He was the maker of the new, improved, and up till then, imported featherie.


Berwick and Melvill had made a masterstroke of industrial espionage, and instantly transferred the technology and manufacture of golf balls out of the hands of the Dutch, to Scotland. Artisans sprang up in all centers of golf, and ballmaking became lucrative and respected, if unhealthy. One of the new breed was John Dickson of Aberdeen, who in1642, after the expiration of Melvill's grant, was given "licence and tollerance to use and exercise his trade of making gowff ballis within this burgh in respect ther is not sich ane tradisman in this burgh during the councils pleasure, and his good carriage and behaviour."


It is clear then that even the tradesmen were expected to behave like gentlemen, and golf has always been a genteel and honorable sport. Being a game of the nobility it is intrinsically polite, with the furthest player from the hole shooting first, and the best scorer on a hole given the "honor" of teeing off first on the next. Even today, it is the lowest of cads that would cheat at golf. As a game that ladies could play as well as men, golf became gentle and courtly, a proper excuse for a long walk in the country with anyone.


This is not to say that golf did not have its risks. A monk of Crossragruel had to play a Kennedy of Cassilis on "the links atte Air" to save his nose from being severed. That monk was probably Allan Stewart, who later in 1570 was roasted over a slow fire in the Black Vault of Dunmore until he signed over abbey lands to Kennedy. Before 1600, Kennedy of Bargany (a mortal enemy of Cassilis) was said to have a "laigh" or broken nose because of "ane straik of ane goiff ball on the hills of Air in recklesnes". Modern golfers still fear the erratically hit ball, and still warn golfers in danger of being struck by their shots in the old Scots way by calling out to 'ware a "fore"!


As played today golf has many points that differ with its medieval ancestor, although the substance of the game remains the same. The object is still the fewest strokes into the hole. The clubs and balls have similar sizes and weights, although materials differ. Most importantly, golf is still one of the most friendly and courteous games played today, with ancient laws steeped in honour and tradition, reaching down to us from the middle ages. Recreating medieval golf is easy. If you do not have access to leagues of open country for the game of chole, then golf on modern courses with modern equipment in period costume is fun. Especially if followed by a solid Scottish feast! The extreme reproduction of golf is to make period clubs and balls. If you do that, be careful that you only use one era of equipment at a time, as modern clubs damage the featheries, and modern balls damage the old style clubs. Only play the balls in fine weather, as rain will ruin your precious featherie. Always play off a soft, grassy lie to protect the clubs and balls. Find a simple flat public course with few trees, bunkers and especially lakes. Many courses will be happy to have a little spectacle of ancient golf, if they aren't busy. Wear modern shoes and gloves, they are much better for your feet, ankles and hands, and make the game easier. Above all, have fun, knowing that you recreate a royal and ancient game, that has thrived for over 500 years.




Martin, J.S. "The Curious History of the Golf Ball" (Horizon Press, New York, 1968)


Cousins, G. "Golf in Britain" (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1975)


Browning, R. " A History of Golf" (J. M. Dent & Sons, London 1955)


Scott, T. "The story of Golf" (Arthur Barker Ltd, London 1972)


Gibson, N. H. "A Pictorial History of Golf" (South Brunswick N.J. 1968)


Cotton, T. "Golf: a Pictorial History" (Collins, Glasgow 1975)


Everard, H. S. C. "A History of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club" (Edinburgh 1907)


Copyright 1993, 2009 by Braddon Giles. braddongiles at gmail.com. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org