Blanche Parry

Pétanque is just a stone's throw from history

Stone throwing will play no part in our fantastic summer of sport but, as our local historian, Ruth E. Richardson explains, it was once a national pastime.

Stone-throwing is not an Olympic sport, despite being as popular as football in the Middle Ages. In 1369 both football and stone-throwing were forbidden by King Edward III, under threat of imprisonment, to ensure that archery was regularly practised in London. After all, archery was essential for warfare.

Despite this, stone-throwing was a recognised accomplishment for knights. William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke and Striguil / Chepstow (1147-1219) was described as 'the greatest knight who ever lived' by Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, who knew him. He served King Henry II, his sons King Richard the Lionheart and King John, and was Lord Marshall / Regent of England for John's son King Henry III. He was famous for his skill in tournaments, where he made his money, and was considered the epitome of chivalry. He acquired his title by marrying Isabel de Clare, daughter, and sole heiress, of Earl Richard, nicknamed 'Strongbow'.

As William Marshall was so famous an account was written of his life. One story describes how the redoutable Marshall took part in a competition before a number of knights, throwing a stone 1½ feet [almost half a metre] further than anyone else and setting a new distance record. This was the same game in which, 250 years later, Blanche Parry's [see June] great-grandfather Harri Ddu (the black) ap Gruffudd, Lord of Bacton, 'had a great reputation for stone-throwing', called 'bwrw maen' in Welsh, and it was obviously most competitive. Harri, tall, dark-haired and evidently handsome, liked to wear black velvet and sable, with silk and jewels of coral. The bard admiringly described him as a 'black prince'. He had fought in France on the staff of the Duke of York.

Stone-throwing may have been an ancestor of shot put. Homer described rock throwing at the siege of Troy and King Henry VIII apparently threw weights. However, stone–throwing certainly shared aspects with boules or pétanque. The Greeks and Romans had an early form of boules. This was played in France (where Harri fought), in Venice, and in Spain where it was popular at the Court of Charles V. In the Mediaeval period it was played in monasteries and even Pope Julius II saw the advantage of a game that encouraged precision. The balls were of wood but stones, even cannon balls, were apparently used on occasions and the action of the game often referred to throwing these balls. Sir Francis Drake probably played boules while waiting for the Spanish Armada in 1588.

It was a game of skill, and strength, and helped to train the eye in the accuracy that would also be essential in archery and we can all enjoy this descendant of stone–throwing today! Pétanque is flourishing across the UK and is a lively, social sport. In Herefordshire local teams, mostly centred on pubs, belong to the Marches Pétanque Club and competitions abound. An annual event is the Marches v Wales. Harri Ddu would have been delighted. Shot-put is now an Olympic sport but pétanque is not ... as yet!

To find out more about Pétanque locally visit

©Ruth E. Richardson 2012

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