In the sense that myth is a reordering of various random elements into an intelligible, useful pattern, a structuring of the past in terms of present priorities, nineteenth-century Englishmen were inveterate myth-makers. As liberal and scientific thought shook the foundations of belief, the Victorians erected gothic spires as monuments to a medieval order of supposedly simple, strong faith. While their industrial masses languished, they extolled the virtues of self-made men. Confronted with foreign competitors and rebellious colonials, they instinctively asserted the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. In classic myth-making style, the Victorians set about “reorganizing traditional components in the face of new circumstances or, correlatively, in reorganizing new, imported components in the light of tradition.”
Myth not only serves self-validating ends; it also provides a cohesive rationale, a fulcrum propelling people towards great achievements. If the Victorians were confident and self-congratulatory, they had cause to be: their material, intellectual, and political accomplishments were many. Not the least of their successes was in the sphere of sports and games, a subject often ignored by historians. Especially in the development of ball games—Association and Rugby football, cricket, lawn tennis, and golf—the Victorians modernized old games, created new ones, and exported them all to the four corners of the earth. Stereotyped as overly-serious folk, they in fact “taught the world to play.”
Since sport, more than most forms of human activity, lends itself to myth-making, it is not surprising to find a myth emerging among the late-Victorians having to do with the origins of Rugby football. Like baseball's Doubleday myth, the tale of William Webb Ellis inspiring the distinctive game of rugby is a period piece, reflecting more of the era which gave it birth than of the event to which it referred.