Haxey Hood: All you need to know as England's 'oldest tradition' returns after Covid

A huge crowd gathers every year to play Haxey Hood, a game dating back to the 14th century. Credit: PA

It's said to be England's "oldest local tradition" – and now the Haxey Hood is back after a two-year Covid-enforced break.

A rugby-style game dating back to the 14th century, the event sees crowds from the villages of Haxey and Westwoodside in North Lincolnshire pile in to push a leather tube - the Hood - towards their favourite local pub.

"Boggins", "smoking the fool" and the "Lord of the Hood" are all part of the game's lexicon.

Confused? Well, here's everything you need to know about the origin of the Haxey Hood and what happens on the day.

How did the Haxey Hood start?

Estimated to date back over 650 years to 1359, the story goes that Lady de Mowbray, the wife of local landowner John de Mowbray, was riding towards Westwoodside from Haxey when her silk riding hood was blown off in the wind.

  • 'Throwing the Hood' being played in 1938 (courtesy of British Pathé)

Thirteen farm workers saw this and chased the hood all over the field to try to return it to her. One eventually picked it up but was too shy to approach the Lady, so he gave it to another worker who handed it back.

Lady de Mowbray thanked the man who returned it, saying he had acted like a lord, while branding the first man a fool.

So amused was she by the chase and the act of chivalry to return the hood, Lady de Mowbray donated 13 acres of land to the local people, on condition that the chase was re-enacted every year.

When does it happen?

The game itself is played every year on the twelfth night of Christmas - 6 January - but the build-up starts long before that.

Four unofficial teams compete to get the Hood (a leather tube) to their chosen local pub. Credit: PA

The Fool and the other "farm workers" - called "Boggins" - tour the surrounding villages in their costumes a few weeks in advance, singing folk songs and collecting money, traditionally to pay for the game, but now it is donated to charity.

The official start time is around 3pm, but festivities begin at noon when work in the villages stops and people start gathering.

Half an hour later, the officials of the game - the Lord of the Hood (who acts as the referee), the Fool and the Boggins - start a tour of the local pubs with the crowd. Beginning at the Carpenter's Arms in Westwoodside, they sing folk songs and ceremoniously rub soot and ochre onto the Fool's face, before he leads a procession to St Nicholas' Church at 2.30pm.

The Lord of the Hood (right) and Chief Boggin (left) supervise the game, along with 10 other Boggins dressed in red jumpers. Credit: PA

'Smoking the Fool'

The Fool addresses the gathered crowd with a welcome speech, during which the tradition of "smoking the fool" occurs by lighting a fire with damp straw behind him.

The original ritual was far more hazardous - the Fool was suspended from a tree and swung back and forth over a substantial fire, almost suffocating in the smoke, before being cut down on top of it and making his escape as quickly as possible.

This was stopped in the early 1900s - supposedly after the Fool caught fire - and replaced with the modern ceremony.

The Fool makes his speech outside the church while being 'smoked'. Credit: PA

Finishing the speech, the crowd chant along to the Fool's traditional final words:

"Hoose agen hoose, toon agen toon, if a man meets a man knock 'im doon, but doant 'ot 'im"

The chant translates as: "House against house, town against town, if a man meets a man, knock him down but don’t hurt him."

What are the rules?

After some tamer warm-up games for children, the main game begins on the playing field when the Hood - a sturdy leather tube - is thrown into the waiting crowd of players.

The game starts in a field near St Nicholas' Church on the edge of Haxey. It's just under a mile between the two furthest away pubs. Credit: Google

In the modern day game there are two basic rules: the Hood can't be thrown, and no-one can run with it, although archive footage shows both things happening in earlier versions of the game.

With no official teams, players join a large scrum, known as the 'sway', and try to push or pull the sway towards their favourite of four pubs in the villages: the Carpenter's Arms, the King's Arms, the Loco, and the Duke William Motel.

The Lord of the Hood is the game's nominal referee and the Boggins act as supervisors, in charge of safety, rounding up stragglers and protecting property from damage.

The event draws huge numbers to watch and play every January. Credit: PA

The game has no time limit, regularly taking more than two or three hours, and only finishes when a landlord from one of the pubs touches the Hood from their front step. The landlord gives everyone a free drink to celebrate.

The Hood itself is doused with beer and proudly displayed in the winning pub until the Boggins come to collect it on New Years Eve for the whole thing to start again.

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