Two academics claimed in early March 2009 that the archetypal English game of cricket is really Flemish, not — as traditionally believed — based on English children’s games that date from Anglo-Saxon times. As the Ashes test matches between Australia and England were due to be played in England a few months later, this challenge to England’s claim to be the homeland of cricket provoked much uncritical newspaper comment in cricket-playing nations.
Paul Campbell, in the department of English and theatre at the Australian National University in Canberra, and the German linguist Heiner Gillmeister, professor in the department of English at the University of Bonn, claim to have discovered an Elizabethan poem that proves the matter.
Press reports say in varying detail that Mr Campbell uncovered a poem by the sixteenth-century poet and playwright John Skelton, dated 1533 and entitled The Images of Ipocrisie (we would spell this last word “hypocrisy”) which has these four lines in it:
O lorde of ipocrites,
Nowe shut vpp your wickettes,
And clape to your clickettes, —
A farewell, kinge of crekettes!
Combining various incomplete newspaper reports, it appears that Mr Campbell is arguing that the poem shows the game of cricket was imported from the Low Countries by Flemish weavers, who settled in parts of the south-east of England 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.
There are several insuperable objections to this extraordinary theory. The poem is hardly unknown: it has been included in at least three collections of Skelton’s works that I know about. Though the date is accepted, Skelton can’t have written it, as he died in 1529, and it must have been penned by another poet in Skelton’s style. The four lines were misquoted in all the reports in which they appeared — in particular, in the last line kinge appears as kings, a subtle but significant error, since Campbell argues that this stanza is a call by Skelton for all these cricket-playing Flemish immigrants to leave the country. But the major problem is that the poem is a long diatribe, full of satire and bitter invective, directed against the hypocrisy of every level of churchman — the Pope, cardinals, bishops, monks, friars, down to churchwardens and bell-ringers — and contains no reference whatsoever to weavers or of their bringing cricket to England. Something very odd is going on here, which I hope for the reputations of the academics concerned is the result of press misunderstandings.
The quoted lines don’t support a reference to cricket. The word clickettes that ends the third line was a common way at the time in which to write clickets, the plural of an obsolete word for the latch of a gate or door. That suggests that wickettes at the end of the previous line is the modern wickets, small gates or doors, often within larger ones, not the cricket type of wickets, which aren’t recorded before the eighteenth century. Clape to meant to slam a door. The poet is saying, in essence, “go away and shut the door firmly behind you”. This pulls the rug out from under the suggestion that the final word in the stanza, crekettes, means the game of cricket. The lines are in a part of the poem that castigates the Pope in powerful terms as a liar and “the devil’s vicar” as well as “lord of hypocrites” (in the first line of the stanza); how the Pope might in addition be excoriated as a king of cricket is hard to imagine. It could be the other sort of cricket, of course, for which crekette is a known contemporary spelling, and the poet might be comparing the Pope to a noisy chattering insect.
The first known reference to the game of cricket that we have at the moment is from a court case in Guildford in Surrey in 1598, in which a local man swore that as a child, fifty years before, he had played creckett and other games on a disputed piece of land. The similarity of that word with the one in the poem is intriguing, but hardly firm evidence of anything.
Lacking the supposed evidence from the poem, the link with Flemish rests on a comment from Professor Gillmister, who is quoted as saying, “I immediately thought of the Flemish phrase ‘met de krik ketsen’ which means to ‘chase a ball with a curved stick’.” This might, of course, be a description of any number of games, from hockey to golf, though cricket was indeed initially played with a curved bat. Professor Gillmister’s suggestion is not new, since a link with krik has been suggested before and is mentioned in the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. But no compelling evidence exists for it, let alone for importation of the game to England by Flemish settlers.
There still isn’t.