Custom revived: Chipping Camden’s Cotswold Olympicks, Gloucestershire

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He [Dover] spares no cost; this also doth afford
To those that sit at any board.
None ever hungry from these Games come home,
Or e’er made plaint of viands, or of room

Nicholas Wallington

When one thinks about Olympics one thinks of Greece and the four yearly major events that travel around the world. But like the Japan Olympics the Coronavirus crisis cancelled the Cotswold one as well. Unlike the ‘real’ Olympics – the Cotswold Olympicks has an older pedigree.

The name of the game

The Cotswold’s games is a new name for what was and is called Dover’s Olympicks. Robert Dover who was a local lawyer is said to have started the games in 1612. Why is unclear but it may have been that he felt that physical exercise was important or that he wanted to bring all classes together in a single enterprise and as such the events included a wide range of county pursuits ranging from horse-racing to wrestling, hound coursing to sledgehammer throwing. The games would take place on the Thursday and Friday of Whitsun usually lying in mid June or late May. These games took place in the amphitheatre of a hill fort called now Dover’s hill. One of the features of the custom would be the erection a wooden Dover’s castle where small cannons would be fired to start the event off and fireworks at the end.

The custom soon attracted fame. Prince Rupert is reported to have attended the Games in 1636 and at the same time a collection of poems celebrating it was also produced called Annalia Dubrensia (Annals of Dover). The poetry called it “an occasion of social harmony and communal joy” and was written by noted poets Thomas Randolph, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood and Michael Drayton. The common theme was that the games were celebrating and reviving English social life, stating that it was peaceful and well behaved and contradicted views that it allowed “drunken behaviour and sexual licence”. By this time the Games had acquired their title of “Olimpicks” which was approved by Dover especially as it secularised the events. It is thought that because Dover was brought up in a Catholic family he was reluctant of course to let people know and make people especially Puritans to think he had revived the pre-Reformation church ale.

The games outlived their founder – although there has been some debate that he may not have founded it but re-founded it. This was despite some disapproval of the event from 17th Century Puritans who disliked the event being associated with Whitsun and many local landowners forbade their workers to attend it. As the custom had support from James I, it was perhaps not that surprising and especially when the English Civil war broke out it was stopped.

However, you cannot keep a great custom down, especially one which was centred around fun and frivolities and thus coming of the Restoration it too was restored. Sadly Robert died in 1652 and so did not see its revival. It was his son Captain John Dover took it over, but he died in 1696 and it based onto one of his sons , Dr. Thomas Dover.

Game over!

However, the Games were not secured, perhaps without its guiding hand, they soon become associated with drunk and disorderly behaviour. Despite Thomas’s great interest in his grandfather’s Games, by this time he had moved away and let the organisation be done by others only having an honorary presidential capacity.  After his death in 1742 the Games were held a further 220 times over the intervening years through various promoters gaining the name Dover’s games although the family had no longer an association.  Poet William Somerville described it in 1740 as “just another drunken country festival” where chairs, and forms, and battered bowls are hurled/With fell intent; like bombs the bottles fly” and writer Richard Graves in the Spiritual Quixote of 1773 as a “heathenish assembly’ with: “six young women began to exhibit themselves before the whole assembly, in a dress hardly reconcilable to the rules of decency.”

After Thomas. Dover’s death in 1742 the Games continued under a variety of promoters, right through the 18th as this advert from 1812 states:

“On Thursday in Whit-week, On that Highly-renowned and universally admired spot called Dover’s Hill, Near Chipping Campden. Glos. The sports will commence with a grand match of Backswords for a purse of guineas, To be played by 9 or 7 men on a side. Each side must appear in the ring by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Or 15s. each pair will be given for as many as will play. Wrestling for belts and others prizes. Also Jumping in bags and dancing. And a Jingling Match for 10s. 6d. As well as divers others of celebrated Cotswold and Olympic games, for which this annual meeting, has been famed for centuries.”

By 1845 the reputation of the Games was calling for their demise. The local rector Reverend Geoffrey Drinkwater Bourne, claimed that the 300000 attendees were all drunk and disorderly and that it attracted the lowest scum between Birmingham and Oxford. The event by that point was organised by local publican, William Drury, who would have been very keen to get alcohol sold there in return for his £5 fee for the event. It may have been that there were underlying reasons for local people to have it curtailed as the hill which was common land and oddly enough the consent for enclosure was given to the very same rector in 1850. Lo and behold in 1852 it was stopped this was despite very little record in court papers for any prosecutions associated with the event.

Thus by the time of T. F. Thistleton Dwyer British Popular customs present and past (1875) he reports:

“The vicinity of Chipping Campden was the theatre of the Cotswold Games, which, in the reign of James I. and his unfortunate successor, were celebrated in this part of England. They were instituted by a public-spirited attorney of Burton on-the-Heath, in Warwickshire, named Robert Dover, and like the Olympic games of the ancients, consisted of most kinds of manly exercises. The victors were rewarded by prizes, distributed by the institutor, who, arrayed in a discarded habit of James’, superintended the games in person for many years. The meetings were annually held on Whitsun Thursday, and were frequently attended by an immense number of people.”

It was a dead custom the land was portioned by local land owners and enclosed. Dover’s hill might change forever and with it gone his games

Back to the game

The way back to its survival happened when fortunately the land was acquired by the National Trust opening up the possibility of public access to what had become known as Dover’s Hill. Then in 1951 someone thought of reviving the games for the Festival of Britain, amazing just under 100 years since its cancelation. However, its celebration again was sporadic; foot and mouth disease in 1952, the Coronation in 1953 prevented regular observation and it was not until 1966 that it was regularly organised. Its significance in the history of the Modern Olympics was recognised  by the British Olympic Association as the ‘first stirrings of Britain’s Olympic beginnings’ when they made their 2012 bid for London.

The organisers excellent website state the various games played:

King of The Hill One of the traditional events at the Games, this antecedant of modern events like the pentathlon involves individual competitors competing at 4 separate events (in the lower arena). These events are: Static Jump (jumping as far as possible from a standstill), Spurning the Barre (an old English version of the Scottish tossing the caber), Hammer Throw and Putting the Shot. The combined total for all four events decides the winner. Entries for this event open at 6.30pm on the night of the Games. Entry is open to all adults over 16.

 Championship of the Hill A true crowd pleaser! The traditional team challenges of ancient rural Games, updated for the 21st century! Teams of 6 participents (many from local pubs or other groups) compete against each other in a series of ever-more-frantic, and ever-wetter games! These games vary from year to year, but generally include relays involving wheebarrows, dustbins, hay bales, slippery running surfaces and lots of water!  Very limited team entries are available for this event, but you must notify us beforehand. We reserve the right to refuse entry if this event reaches its maximum of 6 teams.

 Running Races After a few years’ absence, the running races will be back this year.  The course will be entirely cross country and entirely on Dover’s Hill.  There will be a 1 lap (c. 1 mile) and a 3 lap (c. 3 miles) race.  

 Tug O’ War One of the traditional rural sports, (and former Olympic sport), and still taken very seriously. Teams of 8 people pit their strength against opposing teams, in a series of ‘pulls’ culminating in a final in front of Dover’s Castle on the Lower Arena. A limited number of team entries may be available. Please let us know your intention to enter before the Games.”

and then finally the most famed:

“Shin Kicking The media’s favourite (for some strange reason!). One of the sports which took place in 1612, and we’re still doing it to this day (although we’ve made it a bit safer since those days – Steel toe caps are banned, and we allow the use of straw to pad shins).”

This later as they suggest has taken on a life of its own and indeed could be seen as a custom within a custom.

Game set and match

I experience the Cotswold Olympicks back in the mid 1990s. Chipping Camden is a delightful village and the modern Cotswold Olympicks as they are now known is a great addition. Like the origin games, Robert Dover dressed in his ceremonial coat, hat, feather and ruff (the original a donation of James I) albeit this is now an actor starts the event. He then rides in to ceremonious applause. A reconstruction of Dover’s castle is set up on the hill’s amphitheatre. The event started with some Morris dancers – Chipping Camden a traditional team – although there was no real evidence the Morris were originally involved but they sort of come with every rural event these days.

There was a real fun atmosphere there and watching the events was both exciting and amusing. For those who miss It’s a knockout its zaniness and bizzareness will be very familiar. Special interest was the shin-kicking event of course and although no days its much safer the contestants – perhaps I should say combatants – there was determination on their faces. After adorning their white coats and stuffing their socks with a shin pad and then with straw and then more staff and even more straw they were off. It was intense and rather comical as so stuffed with straw a number of times they went to take a kick and fell over together. The competition was difficult to work out who was winning to be honest as they held on to each other and started kicking – it was like a weird ballet! Their coats being more and more dirty until one fell and they were the winner!

The event ended with a huge bonfire being lit and we were all given wooden torches and encouraged to light them. A horn sounded and we were encouraged to start our journey down into the town and as it swayed through the streets in the darkness a dragon on light. It was a magical ending to a great revived event.

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