Alton is located in the northeastern part of Hampshire, approximately ten miles northeast of Winchester. It was one of the eight towns in Hampshire to reach a population of a thousand by 1600 (J.H. Bettey, Wessex from AD 1000 (London and New York: Longman, 1986), 5). The town had a generalized economy; cloth-making became important in the sixteenth century but declined in the seventeenth (John Patten, English Towns 1500-1700 (Folkestone: Archon, 1978), 169).
The Star Chamber case of 1614, Serle vs. Abrey, describes an altercation between the reform-minded churchwardens and tithingman of the parish of St Lawrence, Alton, and several men who claimed to be practicing, or perhaps reviving, the parish’s traditional summer game. Whether the men were genuinely interested in traditional festivity or were, as the authorities claimed, just drunken louts profaning the Sabbath cannot be told from the documentary evidence. Both sides make claims familiar from similar disputes that were occurring across the country around this time (such as a similar Star Chamber case from Winchester 1615-16). The controversy over engaging in sports, games and similar pastimes on Sundays would lead to King James’ issuing The Book of Sports in 1617, which defended the right of people to practice such traditional pastimes on Sundays after divine service, arguing that those activities kept the populace physically prepared for war. The Book of Sports, far from resolving the problem, itself became a major source of conflict in the tensions that led to the Civil War.