A History of The Olimpicks
The first Olimpick Games were probably held in 1612, organised by lawyer Robert Dover, although different sources give dates from 1601 until 1612. Little is known about Dover. He was probably born between 1575 and 1582 in Norfolk, one of four children born to John Dover, and may have been admitted to Queens' College at Cambridge in 1595, leaving early to avoid swearing the Oath of Supremacy.
Who was Robert Dover?
Robert Dover was born in Norfolk and went to Queens College Cambridge where he met a nephew of Baptist Hicks, a great benefactor of Chipping Campden. Once qualified as a lawyer he worked in Lincolns Inn as a lawyer before moving with his wife Sebilla to Saintbury to join his sisters in 1611.
Having moved to the area Robert Dover came up with the idea for a modern Olympics style competition to channel some of the more competitive traits of the local people and it is believed his vision was backed by Baptist Hicks, a rich mercer or cloth dealer who had financed a great deal of James I early reign and was at that time building his beautiful mansion by the church in Chipping Campden.
This theory is supported to some degree by the chosen location of Dover’s Hill and what is now known as the Mile Drive and the Gallops. Dover almost certainly took over existing Whitsun festivities which took place in the town. The new location about half a mile outside of Chipping Campden makes it accessible but far enough away to avoid damage and vandalism if the competitive spirit got out of hand.
Sir Baptist Hicks ~ Moneylender to James I
Baptist Hicks was a local benefactor, he not only put the local Grammar School on a firm financial footing and managed the trust running it he also built the Alms Houses, complete with clean piped water and built the Market Hall in the centre of Chipping Campden. His influence with the Royal Family meant that Dover received royal patronage. Another local dignitary, Endymion Porter from Aston Subedge, secured a suit of the King’s old clothes for Dover to wear at the Games. The style as depicted on the frontispiece of Annalia Dubrensis seems to indicate a date between 1620 – 1636, indeed it is strongly rumoured that Prince Rupert attended the Games in 1636.
Did The Bard Attend The Games?
Although Shakespeare died in 1616, the last four years of his life coincide with the first four years of Dover’s Games and as he spent these years in Stratford upon Avon it is inconceivable he did not know of their existence. Indeed the wrestling scene in As You Like It and the line “how did your dog run on Cotsall (Cotswold)?” in the Merry Wives of Windsor are thought to be about the Games. Although written earlier the plays weren’t published until the 1620’s and revisions and additions were common place, especially to suit local audiences.
In 1612 the then Prince of Wales, Henry Frederick was a sporting enthusiast and his court often staged masques, mock battles and sporting contests, all very similar to Dover’s celebrations, albeit adapted to a more modest rural style.
Here Come The Puritans
By 1636 the rising tide of puritanism was vocal against sporting contests, racing, dancing, singing, in fact fun and entertainment in general. The King, conscious of the need for a fit, strong, athletic and skilled population from which to recruit troops encouraged sports of any kind, thus Prince Rupert’s probable visit and the publication of a collection of poems supporting “Dover’s Olympicks” by poets such as Ben Johnson and Michael Drayton would have gained royal encouragement and possible patronage. The quality of the paper and binding of Annalia Dubrensis suggest a reasonable original price and therefore widespread distribution and appreciation. It was not unusual for the rich and famous to travel more than 50 miles to attend and occasionally take part.
The Civil War in 1642 curtailed most non-military or essential activities and so Dovers Games was suspended. Although Dover himself died before the restoration when Charles II took over the throne the Games were instantly revived. It says something about their enduring popularity that after a gap of eighteen or so years and with their founder dead the show was back on.
The next two hundred years saw peaks and troughs in popularity but the core activities, athletics, throwing, jumping, wrestling, horse racing and of course eating and drinking remained. Gambling of many types, fortune telling and sharp practises appeared from time to time and music was ever present.
Probably the most notable change in the original sports was the development of Cotswold Wrestling in to the very localised version known as Shin Kicking. Cotswold Wrestling, like the Cornish and Cumberland versions, involved both men gripping their opponents shoulders and attempting to trip or throw him to the ground. The tripping or leg work was known as underplay and over the years with local inter village rivalry as a spur the tripping became kicking and dominated the sport. The referee used a stock or staff between the combatants to control things and a match could only start when the Stickler withdrew his staff and kicking commenced. The phrase “a stickler for the rules” is believed to have originated from this practise.
By the 1750’s steel toe caps were common and all manner of potions were used to pickle the shins, it was rumoured that some contestants used gall on their boots to make wounds much more painful.
Back swords was another martial sport that continues to the present day, each man has a long sword and a dagger, both made of wood. The shout of “God bless our eyes” starts a bout and it continues until blood is drawn from the head. So the imprecation is not entirely traditional, as serious injury, including the loss of an eye is not unknown.
Death and Revival
This second phase of the Games came to a close in 1862, not because of drunkenness, rowdy behaviour and vandalism as has been reported but simply because vested interests led by Canon Bourne of Weston Subedge wanted the land enclosed.
In 1951 as part of the celebrations for the Festival of Britain the Games were revived and proved so popular it was decided to make it an annual event again but fate intervened in 1952 when an outbreak of foot and mouth disease closed all available land. In 1953 the Coronation celebrations took centre stage and the momentum was lost.
It wasn’t until ten years later that a group of the Scuttlebrook Wake Committee restarted it and by the late 1960’s the Games had their own Committee and Constitution. Various ups and downs have followed including an abortive attempt to move both the day and the venue but tradition prevailed.
The Silver Jubilee in 1977 was a total wash out and the following years Games were run on a wing and a prayer as funds were almost non-existent. Since then things have gone well except for that early in the new millennium foot and mouth again caused a cancellation.
2012 brought our four hundredth anniversary and coincided with the Queens Diamond Jubilee not to mention the London Olympics.
In 2017 the games didn't happen due to a lack of funds and personnel. 2018 saw an amazing effort to fundraise and has brought the games back once again with renewed vigour and, hopefully, the future is bright!