Whole Town Shuts Down For Most Brutal 'Medieval' Football Match You'll Ever See

Since the 12th century, the British town of Ashbourne has competed annually in a game of 'medieval football' -- and it is brutal.

So brutal in fact, shop owners board up their stores in the days prior to the match to protect from damage.

The game takes place every year over Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday.

Boarded up shops in Ashbourne. Image: AP

Ashbourne, which essentially shuts down for the two days, divides itself into two teams north and south of the River Henmore -- the Down'ards and the Up'ards -- to battle it out.

The teams' goals are located nearly five kilometres apart, on opposite sides of town.

The goals are at old mill sites, called Clifton (Down'ards) and Sturston (Up'ards), that have long been demolished.

In 1996, permanent scoring posts were erected on the riverbanks at each site, and the player must stand in the water and hit the ball on the post three times for a goal to be scored.

Whoever scores the goal has the privilege of having their name painted on the ball and gets to keep it.

Instead of kicking the ball, it is passed through the town in a 'hug', or a scrum-like formation that follows the ball around the town.

On the edge of the hug are runners, that wait for the ball to make its way out of the hug. These guys then make a break and try and cover as much ground before they eventually get caught in a hug.

Each team has designated runners, and it is a position that is earned by training throughout the year. There are even runners that specialise in 'river play', or moving the ball through water.

Entire matches have been known to have been played in the River Henmore.

Runners wait for the ball in the river. Image: EPA

The game gained its 'Royal' name in 1928, after the then-Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, took part in the match, reportedly ending up with a bloody nose.

Prince Charles also took part in 2013, but from the much safer position on a plinth to throw the ball in to the crowd to begin the game.

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Despite the brutal nature of the game, there are rules and expectations.

Play starts at exactly 2pm and finishes at 10pm -- anyone caught playing even a minute outside of these times can expect a fine.

Unnecessary violence is also frowned on. Churchyards, cemeteries and memorial gardens are out of bounds.

The ball stuck in a 'hug'. Image: EPA

The ball must be carried on foot -- the use of cars is not allowed -- and the ball can't be concealed in bags.

Committing murder or manslaughter during the match is also prohibited.

Good to know.

If you're keen to follow this year's play, there's a live blog with regular updates on all the action.