The Cotswold Olympicks


The Ancient Greeks may hold the franchise on Olympic wrestling—but how would they have fared against a 17th-century British shin-kicker? In 1612 in the tiny village of Chipping Campden, Robert Dover opened the first Cotswold Olympicks, ushering in a new sporting tradition that revived the Olympic spirit and laid the foundation for the modern games.

Robert Dover on horsebackLet the Games Begin!

While some form of rural games may have been staged in the area as far back as Saxon times, little is known. Dover, a barrister from Warwickshire, brought the games into their own by emphasizing athletic sports and—with his sprightly presence and yellow ribbons—adding a decidedly festive touch.

The spring games, which took place on the Thursday and Friday after Whitsun (the seventh Sunday after Easter), featured contests of leaping, wrestling, pitching the bar, tumbling, running, and hunting the hare. Those less athletically inclined could dance around the Maypole—or simply observe the pageantry.

Dover oversaw the games with great panache. Attired in a hat, feather, and ruff belonging to King James I, he is featured in a woodcut of 1636 striding through the gaming grounds on his horse. In keeping with his heroic significance, Dover is three times larger than the figures around him and carries a wand marking him as master of the revels. Puffs of smoke emerge from the sides of the mock castle at the top, a temporary structure recreated each year, signifying the gunfire salutes that punctuated the proceedings.

Cotswold Games
Frontispiece with a Wolbancke woodcut. Annalia Dubrensia (Annals of Dover). London, 1636. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Participants can be observed in a variety of activities, such as throwing the hammer, stick fighting, and that perennial favorite—shin-kicking. Part of the Cotswold Games since their inception, shin-kicking attracted a hardy lot known to train by toughening up their shins with hammers.

Shakespeare Rides to the Hounds

Coursing, or dog racing, was also a popular sport – so much so that, while ribbons in Dover’s color of yellow were awarded to the human winners of the competitions, the fastest dog received a silver collar.

In fact, Shakespeare makes reference to the Cotswold dog races in The Merry Wives of Windsor, when Slender tweaks Shallow by asking, “How does your fallow greyhound, sir? I heard say he was outrun on Cotsall.” Whether the race to which Shakespeare referred was part of Dover’s games or simply reflected the area’s long-standing reputation for coursing remains a matter for speculation.

Crown Urges “Publicke Spectacles”

A staunch royalist, Robert Dover’s donning of the king’s clothing was more than mere showmanship. He was, in effect, personifying royal support for the games. Elizabeth I had been cautious in her rulings about pastimes, steering a middle course between keeping her people “merry” and appeasing those of the “godly” who frowned upon frivolous pursuits. When James I ascended to the throne in 1603, however, he brought with him his favorable views on keeping traditional sporting customs alive.

In his Basilikon Doron, published while he was still King of Scotland, James advocated “for delighting the people with publicke spectacles of all honest games.” Further, he argued, “I cannot see what greater superstition can be in making playes and lawfull games in Maie, than in eating fish in Lent.”

The Basilikon Doron was later expanded during James’s reign and issued in 1618 as a policy declaration known as the Book of Sports. A rebuke to the Puritan opposition, the proclamation decreed that “As for our good people’s recreation; our pleasure likewise is that after the end of Divine Service Our Good People be not disturbed, letted [impeded], or discouraged from any lawfull Recreation; Such as dancing, either men or women, Archery for men, leaping, vaulting, or any other such harmless Recreation, nor from having of May-Games, Whitson Ales, and Morrisdances, and the setting up of Maypoles and other sports therewith used.”

A Rascally Rebellion Threatens the Fun

After James I’s death in 1625, his son Charles I assumed the throne. He reissued the Book of Sports in 1633 to demonstrate his intention of continuing his father’s policies, but his reign soon became embroiled in religious conflicts. Sabbatarians railed against indulging in any activity other than worship on the Lord’s Day. Some Puritans declared all sports inherently immoral regardless of when practiced.

Leaping into the debate, a group of Dover’s friends and admirers published the Annalia Dubrensia (Annals of Dover) in 1636. This collection of more than thirty poems not only celebrates the Cotswold Games and their founder, but pokes a finger in the eye of the religious naysayers. “In spite of Hipocrites, who are the worst / Of subjects; let such envie, till they burst,” taunted Ben Johnson.

Games Called Due to War

The religious debate over sports, however noisy, was only part of the rising clamor that eventually led to the English Civil War. The games were suspended in 1643 and did not resume again until 1660.

While some blamed puritanical killjoys for bringing the Cotswold Games to a halt, the reasons probably had more to do with the overall impact of the war. The region in which the games were staged—Worcestershire and the North Cotswolds—was strategically located, providing the Royal Army with a passageway to Ireland and a main approach to Central Wales.

Contemporary diarist Richard Symonds, who recorded the movements of the army, noted in 1644 that they passed “over the Cotswold Downes, where Dover’s Games were.” Also, the men who might otherwise have demonstrated their prowess with fighting sticks took up swords instead for the King.

While Dover, then in his seventh decade, was probably not among those fighting, he was certainly a witness to the war that preempted his games. He did not live to see them played again; Dover died in 1652 at the age of 70.

Gaming of a Different Sort

The Cotswold Games resumed soon after the Restoration. The Puritans continued to decry them from the pulpit as “idle and evil diversion,” but the annual event drew crowds through the 17th and 18th centuries. Theater and cock-fighting were added to the attractions and muskets replaced the longbow in the marksmanship contests.

A writer in Gentleman’s Magazine in 1797, however, describes that year’s games as “a faint imitation” of the original which “from its founder still retains the name of Dover’s Meeting.” He notes that, while the games are “usually attended by a vast concourse of people… [they are] not countenanced by persons of… rank and consequence.”

Dover's Meeting 1819 broadside. From Dover's Annalia Dubrensia, a reprint, edited by E.R. Vyvyan. London, 1878. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Dover’s Meeting 1819 broadside. From Dover’s Annalia Dubrensia, a reprint, edited by E.R. Vyvyan. London, 1878. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Later observers cited further evidence that the wholesome spirit of Mr. Dover’s games was being compromised by a bad element. In the Evesham Journal in 1908, G.M. Stratton recalled his mother’s experience selling ale on Dover’s Hill in the 1830s and 40s. Despite being granted protection by an ex-convict for whom her husband had done a favor, she nonetheless kept two loaded pistols under the serving table as insurance against the “card-sharpers, thimble-riggers, pickpockets, thieves, confidence men… and general lawlessness.”

Thanks to the railroad, crowds from the industrial Midlands could now descend upon Chipping Campden for days of drunken revelry. In the introduction to his 1878 reprint of the Annalia Dubrensia, E.R. Vyvyan regretfully—and in high dudgeon—notes that “in later years, from 1846 onwards, the games, instead of being as they originally were intended to be decorously conducted, became the trysting place of all the lowest scum of the population which lived in the districts lying between Birmingham and Oxford. These people came to Dover’s Hill and remained there the whole of Whitsun week, creating all sorts of disturbances, and in short demoralizing the whole neighbourhood, so much so indeed that Mr. Bourne, of Weston-sub-Edge, determined, if possible, to get them stopped.”

The increasing rowdiness, paired with the Victorian era’s renewed interest in the Puritan spirit, finally led to the demise of Dover’s Meeting in 1853.

Let the Cotswold Games Resume!

Happily, a band of modern-day re-enactors has revived the spirit of Robert Dover’s games. Since the 1950s, the Cotswold Olimpick Games have been held every spring on Dover’s Hill in Chipping Campden. The event combines demonstrations of traditional sports and games—such as falconry and Morris dancing—with competitions and family activities.

Shin-kicking is still practiced, albeit without the iron-toed boots favored in the 17th century. “People stuff their trousers with straw and must wear soft shoes,” says organizer Robert Wilson. “We never have broken bones, but there are some bruises.” The festival concludes with a torchlight procession, bonfire, fireworks. Robert Dover would be pleased.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Folger Magazine. Photo illustrations by David Dilworth.