Cricket, the quintessential English pastime, was imported to England by Flemish immigrants, according to new Australian research.
The claim challenges the traditional theory that the sport evolved from children’s games played in England since Anglo-Saxon times. And to add further insult to injury, the new evidence that the game had foreign origins has been unearthed by an academic from the country’s traditional cricketing rival, Australia.
Paul Campbell, of the department of English and theatre at the Australian National University, in Canberra, uncovered a reference to the sport in a 1533 poem, attributed to John Skelton, a popular poet and playwright of the day, in which he links it to immigrants from Flanders, in modern day Belgium.
In the work, “The Image of Ipocrisie” – much of which is a diatribe against parts of the Church – Skelton also appears to rail against the Flemish weavers who settled in southern and eastern England from the 14th century, labelling them dismissively as “kings of crekettes”.
In what appears to be a call for the weavers to be driven out of England, Skelton writes:
“O lorde of Ipocrites/Nowe shut vpp your wickettes/And clape to your clickettes!/A! Farewell, kings of crekettes!”
The poem is the earliest known reference to the sport and adds weight to claims that the weavers brought the game over with them and played it on fields close to where they tended their sheep, using shepherd’s crooks – or curved sticks – as bats to strike a ball.
It was uncovered by Mr Campbell following a search of historical archives, in which he looked for variations of the early ways in which the word cricket was spelt.
Mr Campbell was guided by a German academic, who first established that the word has its linguistic origins in Flemish.
Dr Heiner Gillmeister, of the department of English at the University of Bonn, suggests the term cricket has its roots in the Flemish phrase “met de krik ketsen”, or “to chase with a curved stick”.
He goes on to suggest that the origins of hockey goals and the wickets in cricket were in imitation of chivalric games, in which a knight on horseback guarded a narrow passage or opening.
It had previously been thought that the first written reference to cricket was in 1589, when it was mentioned during a court case in Guildford, Surrey, in which a certain John Derick – possible from the Flemish name Hendrik – recalled that as a young man at the Royal Grammar School “he and diverse of his fellowes did runne and play there at creckett and other plaies”.
But the new finding is the most conclusive proof that the sport – as well as the word itself – was foreign in origin.
Dr Gillmeister said: “The discovery of this poem is very intriguing. It could be the earliest known reference to the game which we know as cricket.
“My studies have shown that weavers from Flanders first settled in rural areas around Kent and Surrey and it was here that the English game of cricket we know today originated.
“Of course there is something quite ironic about a German and an Australian making discoveries about what is considered to be such an English game, and in reality that game being a foreign import.”
English cricket historian John Eddowes, the author of The Language of Cricket, describes Mr Campbell’s discovery as “extremely significant” in supporting the theory that cricket was a Flemish import.
Mr Eddowes said: “Gillmeister thinks that the game of cricket did not originate in England, but developed on the extremely prosperous Franco-Flemish border from as early at 1150.
“Weavers were the aristocrats of labour, having the leisure time to play sports and brought their games with them when English kings invited them to this country from at least 1331 to improve the quality of English woollen exports.
“The poem appears to mix popular anti-Papist and anti-Clerical feeling with widespread resentment at foreign craftsmen. The poem implies that the ‘kings of crekettes’ should be deported.
“The reference to ‘wickettes’ makes it conclusive that cricket is being referred to and that the game was fairly well formed by this early date.”
He disputes the commonly held belief that the game originated in the Weald between Kent and Sussex during the Anglo-Saxon period, pointing out that the area at the time was too boggy to allow for field games.
Instead evidence of the game’s spread shows it followed closely the movement of Flemish weavers across the southern counties.
“In my book I show that none of the early mentions of cricket were in the Weald, as popularly supposed, but along the Pilgrims’ Way or North Downs where you would expect Flemish weavers to settle for the grazing and the water,” said Mr Eddowes.
Skelton’s poem is contained in a collection published by The Ballad Society in 1868, under the title “Ballads on the condition of England in Henry VIII’s and Edward VI’s reigns, (including the state of the clergy, monks and friars,) on Wolsey, Anne Boleyn, Somerset, and Lady Jane Grey”.
However it may have been written by one of Skelton’s imitators and mistakenly attributed to him at a later stage.