One of my favourite things about living in the ‘Old World’ is the prevalence of long held community festivals and traditions with ancient local origins. You just do not get these in America where I grew up, although some traditions have been brought over as families immigrated to various parts of the country. These unique events and the rituals around them are a narrative of a distinctive group of people and a place. They establish a sense of community and continuity with the past and are a way for the locale to reconnect with those within the community and the land itself (Parratt, 2000).
“Hoose agen hoose, toon agen toon, if a man meets a man nok ‘im doon, but doant ‘ot ‘im” (Traditional Haxey Hood chant in North Lincolnshire local dialect, translated: ‘House against House, Town against Town, if a man meets a man, knock him down but don’t hurt him’.) (clip by Britclip)
In the parish of Haxey, North Linconshire, on the Isle of Axholme, the annual ‘Haxey Hood’ game takes place. The game is a large rugby-esq scrum (known as the “sway”) where a leather tube (the ‘hood’) is pushed to one of four pubs where it is then held until the following year’s game. The Hood is held every year on the 12th Day of Christmas, typically falling on January 6th. The game has been held since time in memoriam, and is regarded as a “more important event than our modern Christmas” (Rudkin, 2012, p. 294).
According to legend, in the 14th century, Lady de Mowbray, wife of a local wealthy landowner, was riding towards Westwoodside on the hill that separates it from the adjacent town of Haxey when a wind tore her silk riding hood from her head. Thirteen farm hands bore witness and rushed to chase the hood all over the field and return it to the Lady. One worker caught the hood, but was too shy to hand it back to the woman, and so handed it to one of his mates to give it to her. The Lady thanked the worker who brought the hood and claimed that he acted as a Lord, and the worker who caught it a Fool. So amused by the events, she donated 13 acres of land on the condition that this event would be re-enacted every year.
While the story may seem dubious, the nobles in this story did exist. Records show that a deed granting land to commoners was enacted by Baron John de Mowbray, husband to the Lady in 1359. Some have suggested other origins, such as similarities with hoods from bog burials (Turner & Scaife, 1995), fertility rituals, and other similarities with other village sports.
The Wildscape Team took part in this year’s (2019) celebrations. Dr. Kim Davies, Prof Henry Chapman, Dr. Ben Gearey, Dr Michelle Farrell and I set out in the early afternoon for the festivities. The start of the Hood was not hard to find as local townsfolk had already begun celebrating well before our arrival. The Fool and his fellow ‘Boggins’ arrived shortly afterwards and began their procession of traditional folk songs and excessive port consumption throughout the town of Haxey. The atmosphere was light and merry, and it seemed like everyone knew each other.
Eventually we proceeded to the main church in the village where the Fool was “smoked” or burnt at the stake in a mock sacrifice before the scrum began. In past Hoods, the Fool was apparently dangled over a live fire (which can be seen on old YouTube clips!), but the event was no less of a spectacle.
The scrum was a wild affair. It began with the children’s event, where a smaller version of the scrum took place. Children who managed to capture the 12 hoods that were tossed earned the traditional 2 pound reward.
The main event, the Sway, proceeded once the children had had their fun. The Sway hood is thrown into the air then pushed to traditionally one of four pubs in Haxey and Westwoodside. Unfortunately, only two of the pubs remain open, one in Haxey and one in Westwoodside. The hood cannot be thrown or run with and although people are trying to push the hood in particular directions, there are no real teams. It is a slow process and took nearly three hours for the nearly 200 participants to push the Hood to the winning pub this year, the Carpenters Arms in Westwoodside. The Boggins continued drinking and singing well into the night, assuredly well past the time we had left.
The Haxey Hood is a great example of the long, colourful history of the Isle of Axholme, an area that doesn’t always get a lot of attention from the rest of the world. Although its origins are a curiosity, I think what is has become is more significant. In the middle of winter, this celebration of life reminds everyone of who they are and where they come from and who they hold dear.
For more information about the Haxey Hood, you can visit their website.
Rudkin, E.H., 1932. An Account of the Haxey Hood Game. Folklore 43, 294–301. https://doi.org/10.1080/0015587X.1932.9718450
Turner, R.C., Scaife, R.G. (Eds.), 1995. Bog Bodies: New Discoveries and New Perspectives. British Museum Press, London.
Wheewall, A., 2018. Haxey Hood: 700 Years of Tradition [WWW Document]. URL https://www.wheewall.com/hood/