The Holing Game: The Curious Case of Hole v. White

(Editor’s note: This submission is from an English friend of mine, Hannah. I met Hannah when I studied in England in 2010, and she became one of my closest friends (especially because we were in the Lancaster University History Society together, and, well, that is awesome!)

In early modern England slander and libel were a very serious business. One of the most bizarre court cases recorded is that of Hole v. White. The case drew out for four years of testimonies, punishments and charges supervised by the Star Chamber, one of the most powerful courts in England.

In 1607 a local constable, John Hole, raised a protest against the traditional Wells May Games. The Wells May games (and June guild shows) were part of an extended series of traditional festivities intended to raise funds for the local church. They included elaborate processions featuring local officials, maypoles, games, morris dancing and street dancing, church ales, and performances and pageants led by the local craft guilds. Hole interpreted the King’s proclamation against “playing” as a definite ban on the traditional festivities, entering into what seemed to be a conflict with nearly every other resident of the city (including the Dean of Wells). He was soundly mocked for his comically austere attitude and became the subject of a devastating slanderous campaign led by a group that included a mysterious woman named Thomasine White.

The first and most notorious spectacle of protest was the Holing Game. The Holing Game itself consisted of two large pieces of board set at right angles to one another. The top piece was painted with three figures: a woman with a man standing on each side of her. Beneath their feet were nine holes, through which balls could be trundled along the base.

The human figures represented John Hole, the wife of his friend John Yard, and another man named Hugh Meade. This game was carried through the city and shown to a crowd of perhaps three thousand people, after which one of the collaborators proceeded to cry out (while trundling balls through holes) “he Holes it for a Crowne” and was answered by the crowd with “he Holes it not within a Yard for a Crowne.” John Hole was, by pantomime, implied to be having sex with John Yard’s wife. By refraining from using the full names of the individuals involved the orchestrators of the spectacles gained a degree of deniability, even when dressing up as the professions of those that they were mocking. Rhymes were also composed, including one titled “My Loving Friends Who Love to Play,” which begins as follows:

My loving friends that love to play use not my holing game by day, for in the night I take it best when all the birds are in their nest, yet I do live in quiet rest and think my holing game the best.

These rhymes, as well as the Holing Game, spread across the county on word and paper, succeeding in making the very puritan John Hole a laughing stock and a letch.

It has been suggested that the ringleader of the scheme was Thomasine White herself, and that she was the one who transferred the rhymes that accompanied the demonstrations onto paper.

One trial record describes record refers to Thomasine White visiting the house of the Dean of Wells with a copy of “My Loving Friends That Love to Play” where it was read aloud to at least two other women, one of whom took that or another copy away with her.

Written libel was often deemed far more serious than oral libel, and while all parties ultimately denied writing the songs it is interesting that Thomasine White’s husband was fined a great deal more than all other participants, hinting that the jury believed that she perhaps was the source of the events and the ultimate author. Thomasine’s husband had been recorded as having participated in far less than other members of the group, but at the time of the court case a husband was entirely responsible for the actions of his wife.

Was Thomasine the true mastermind of John Hole’s humiliation? I’m not going to deny the evidence.

Further reading:

Fox, Adam. Oral and Literate Culture in England 1500-1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sale, Carolyn. “Slanderous Aesthetic and the Woman Writer: the Case of Hole v. White.” In From Script to Stage in Early Modern England, edited by Peter Holland and Stephen Orgel, 181-194. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2004.

Stokes, James, ed. Records of Early English Drama: Somerset 1. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

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