Part 15: The Inspiration for the Modern Olympics

In fact, just as England's first Olimpicks and other festivals were being shut down, a replacement of sorts was beginning barely 60 miles away, in the Shropshire village of Much Wenlock.

These new games, started in 1850, were similar in spirit to Dover's early competition and went on to inspire the Frenchman who founded the modern Olympics.

The Wenlock Olympian Games included ancient contests like racing and modern events such as football.

Their founder, Dr. William Penny Brookes, had read about Dover's Olimpicks in one of his favourite books, which he gave as a prize at the Wenlock event.

Dr. William Penny Brookes

Just as Dover had defended his "harmelesse honest sports" against the Puritans 200 years earlier, Penny Brookes hailed the "harmless recreation" of "Merrie England" and talked of the need to train "a noble, manly race" to build the Empire and prevent the "physical degeneracy" seen in France and America.

However, Penny Brookes had his own puritanical leanings.

As an archetypal Victorian reformer, he believed in temperance.

What's more, it wasn't enough that the games were fun; they had to serve a Higher Moral Purpose.

"As Christians we should, on moral grounds, endeavour to direct the amusement of the working classes—as patriots we should recognise and promote them."

Despite some powerful opponents, the doctor's crusade quickly grew from its village roots to become the National Olympian Association.

Penny Brookes was working on the most ambitious phase—an international event in Athens—when he came across a young Frenchman who had the same goal, as well as the connections to make it happen.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin was that rarest of things: a Frenchman who admired Britain.

The future founder of the Olympics had read Tom Brown's Schooldays and come to believe in its ethos of "muscular Christianity".

"Since ancient Greece has passed away, the Anglo-Saxon race is the only one that fully appreciates the moral influence of physical culture," he wrote.

The 27-year-old made a pilgrimage to Much Wenlock in 1890.

Unfortunately, Penny Brookes died four months before De Coubertin staged the first modern Olympics in 1896.

However, he is still regarded as "the father of the English Olympics", and Wenlock continues to host its games every July.

Meanwhile, Robert Dover's contribution was all but forgotten. Britain's oldest Olimpicks were killed off in 1852 after Rev. Bourne succeeded in enclosing Dover's Hill.

The organisers stayed defiant to the end.

As the vicar won his legal victory in Parliament, they looked to the future: "The celebrated and renowned Olimpic (sic) Games… are esteemed by all brave, true and free-spirited Britons," their posters declared. "The good old times will be revived."

* * *
©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 14: No Longer Healthy?

For opponents like Rev. Bourne, the best way to stop Dover's Games was to kick them off their turf.

Back in their founder's day, the hilltop had covered 500 acres of open land.

But even then, enclosure had been a threat.

Vast tracts of common land were parcelled up and sold, ostensibly to farm them more efficiently and produce more food for the country's growing population.

The Campden part of Dover's Hill had been enclosed in 1799, so the Olimpicks had moved to the other side, in the parish of Weston Subedge, where Bourne was vicar-for-life.

The young crusader soon launched a campaign to enclose the rest of the hill.

At the same time, officials across the country were trying to shut down other local festivities.

As in the Cotswolds, participants saw their traditions as high-spirited, old-fashioned fun, whereas opponents—often outsiders like Bourne—saw them as lawless, bacchanalian orgies of vice.

West Country native Thomas Hughes, a fair-minded man of the law, wrote nostalgically about shin kicking and backswording in his bestseller, Tom Brown's Schooldays, in 1857.

"Wrestling, as practised in the western counties, was, next to backswording, the way to fame for the youth of the Vale; and all the boys knew the rules of it, and were more or less expert," he recalled.

However, he also acknowledged that rural feasts had deteriorated since his day because of longer working hours and a lack of support by the gentry.

In the end, he reckoned the change was good "if it be that the time for the old 'veast' (feast) has gone by; that it is no longer the healthy, sound expression of English country holidaymaking; that, in fact, we as a nation, have got beyond it, and are in a transition state, feeling for and soon likely to find some better substitute".
©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 13: An Orgy of Booze, Sex and Crime

In real life, though, the reformers eventually won the tug-o'-war over Dover's Games.

After a clean-up, they briefly became fashionable once again in the early 1800s, portrayed as the training ground for the kind of "muscular Christianity" that had built a global superpower.

From Wikipedia: In this illustration for the novel Hepsey Burke, an Episcopal rector gets little pay because of interference from the rich man at the right, so he shovels stone to support himself and his wife. Here the rector confronts the rich man. 
Within two decades, though, they had degenerated into a marathon orgy of booze, sex and crime.

The Victorian gentry quickly deserted the games (preferring to indulge in those sins privately), giving the lower orders run of the hill for an entire week around the Olimpicks.

Men from the mean streets of Birmingham preyed on country hospitality, ale booths sold alcohol round-the-clock, railroad workers started punch-ups, and "cardsharpers", pickpockets and thieves prowled the hill.

At least, that's the way critics portrayed it.

In 1846, a 25-year-old vicar fresh out of Oxford took over the parish.

George Drinkwater Bourne—surely a teetotaller—was shocked by the pandemonium. He estimated that 30,000 people descended on the area during Dover's Games, or roughly 83 outsiders per local.

A historian who interviewed Bourne wrote that "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".

It's tempting to depict the Olimpicks as one of those quaint old festivals that fell victim to puritanical Victorians.

But based on descriptions of the games—from Hobbinol's slapstick brawls and "warm spouting gore" in the 1700s to the rampant crime and "trysting scum" of the mid-1800s—it's clear that they didn't conform to modern ideas of fun days out for the whole family.

In fact, there's nothing like them in Britain today: imagine Xtreme Fighting matches headlining Notting Hill Carnival with a contingent of Hell's Angels thrown in, and you might get some idea of the roughneck Olimpicks.

Oh—and instead of hundreds of police, picture a handful of bobbies trying to control the crowd.

Amid this mayhem, shin kicking and backswording were probably some of the tamer displays of violence on Dover's Hill; at least they had rules and referees.

The most balanced portrayal of the event comes from a man whose mother profited from the chaos—all the while fearing for her life.

Mrs. Stratton was the landlady of a pub in Evesham who sold alcohol and food at Dover's Games every year. She never left her serving tent and always kept a couple of loaded revolvers under the table. Her son explained why:

"No one was safe from the lawlessness… During the daytime the turmoil was terrible, but all night long it was a perfect pandemonium. Cries of murder were often heard, and disorder and rapine held full sway. If the shadow of a person showed through the sheeting of the tent at night, he would almost sure to be struck with a heavy bludgeon from without, and the miscreant would crawl underneath and rob his victim."


Part 12: Ye Olde Wet T-Shirt Contest

A best-selling satire on Methodism in 1773 used the Cotswold Olimpicks as the setting for a confrontation between a would-be firebrand and a bemused mob.

In The Spiritual Quixote, written by local Anglican vicar Richard Graves, a Methodist squire named Geoffry Wildgoose sets out to change the world (on a wild goose chase—geddit?), accompanied by a Sancho Panza sidekick.

Dover's Hill is the site of "Mr. Wildgoose's first Harangue". He views the Olimpicks as "a heathenish assembly… where so many souls are devoted to destruction, by drinking, swearing, and all kinds of debauchery".

As priggish as he is quixotic, he's shocked to see young women shucking their outer garments ahead of a race and "exhibit(ing) themselves before the whole assembly in a dress hardly reconcilable to the rules of decency".

And there's no doubt the races were racy, the closest the 18th century got to a wet T-shirt contest.

In Hobbinol, Somerville worked himself into a lather describing one woman's "amiable figure": "Her heaving breast, through the thin cov'ring view'd,/Fix'd each beholder's eye..."

And the prize—a virtually see-through linen shift—didn't leave much to the imagination, either.

"They may make a poor SHIFT, like the fig-leaves of Eve, to cover the nakedness of your bodies," Wildgoose splutters, jumping up on a basket. "If you have any regard to the health of your souls, shun, as you would the plague, these anti-Christian recreations..."

At first, the crowd mistakes the Methodist for a quack doctor; all they can hear are words like "health" and "plague".

But then they catch what he's really saying: "Instead of bruising the head of that old serpent, the Devil; you are breaking one another's heads with cudgels and quarter-staffs; instead of wrestling against flesh and blood, you are wrestling with one another."

Realising all this God talk might be bad for business, a pub owner starts heckling the Methodist, inciting the crowd to pelt him with dirt, dung and orange peels until they drive him Dover's Hill.

"Thus unsuccessfully ended Wildgoose's first effort towards reforming the world."


Part 11: Warm Spouting Gore

As promised, Somerville delivered all of the above, courtesy of his antihero, Hobbinol, a farmer from the Vale who fights a burly shin-kicking champ from the Wold called Pastorel on Dover's Hill.

The rivals trade vicious blows until:

"The sweat distils, and from their batter'd shins
The clotted gore distains the beaten ground."

At the end, Pastorel nails his challenger's ankle with "a furious stroke", bringing Hobbinol to his knees.

As the champ prepares to celebrate, though, Hobbinol clambers to his feet and throws him out of the ring. The losers from the Wold start a brawl, and:

"Like bombs the bottles fly
Hissing in the air, their sharp-edged fragments drench'd
In the warm spouting gore."

A justice of the peace (not unlike Somerville) stops the carnage—just in time for more "warm spouting gore" to begin.

No one wants to fight the reigning backswords champ—a slaughterman with a smashed nose and missing eye—so Hobbinol takes up the challenge.

Although he's smaller than Gorgonius, he's quicker on his feet… and he fights dirtier.

Instead of aiming for the giant's head, he attacks his shins with his cudgel.

The low blows infuriate the Cotswold Cyclops so much that he drops his guard.

Hobbinol then cracks him over the skull, sending him crashing out of the ring.

Somerville was a fan of Hogarth's; this is a spoof of the latter's "Gin Lane"

Although the Puritans had long since fallen from power, Somerville's moralising shows that their reforming zeal was still a force.

Around the same time, a minister at nearby Stow-on-the-Wold singled out "Dover's Meetings" as examples of "profanations of the Lord's Day by the bodily exercise of wrestling and cudgel-playing".

Other reformers shared his views, particularly the spiritual heirs of the Puritans mocked as "Methodists".


Part 10: First Blood and the Infirmities of Our People

Straddling both the Wold and the Vale, Dover's Hill provided neutral territory for bloody prizefights, and for over two centuries, the main attractions at Britain's homegrown Olimpicks were also the bloodiest.

In theory, backswording, or cudgel "play", was less brutal than shin kicking (which was known simply as wrestling throughout much of the West Country).

Opponents whacked each other with sticks until one wound up with a "broken head," verified by a trickle of blood at least an inch long on the scalp (an extension of the "first blood" rule in duelling).

A deft gamester could graze a scalp with surgical precision. But in practice, both backswording and shin kicking frequently degenerated into bloody spectacles, with participants often maiming—and occasionally even killing—each other.

Incredibly, some hard nuts competed in both sports on the same day.

Not surprisingly, many women disapproved of the sports. Accounts from the 1700s and 1800s (written by men, naturally) depict wives and girlfriends trying to stop their lovers from joining the fun.

Apart from the possibility that women are indeed smarter than men, shrieking Blood! Blood! with the crowd wasn't very ladylike.

What's more, women had to cope with the consequences of such wilful stupidity, nursing the broken heads and bloodied shins.

For their part, the men fought for love rather than money. Not the love of their womenfolk, you understand; simply because they loved to fight.

Of course, there were prizes to be won—a gold ring, laced hat or half a dozen belts or gloves—but neither shin kicking nor backswording would make you rich.

A typical country backsword contest in 1778 promised "Half a Guinea… to each Man breaking a Head, and Half a Crown to each Man having his Head broken."

In modern money, that's barely £80 for bashers and £20 for bashees.

The first graphic account of shin kicking and backswording on Dover's Hill comes from William Somerville, a local justice of the peace who emulated Hogarth.

While the famous painter satirised the excesses of Gin Lane London, the country squire targeted "the luxury, the pride, the wantonness, and quarrelsome temper of the middling sort of people" responsible for the poverty and "bare-faced knavery" in the world (though tragically, he didn't end up much better than his subjects, dying a penniless alcoholic).

For Somerville, Dover's Games were proof that England was going to pot.

"A country-wake is too sad an image of the infirmities of our own people," he wrote in the introduction to his satiric poem, Hobbinol, in 1740. "We see nothing but broken heads, bottles flying about, tables overturned, outrageous drunkenness, and eternal squabble."


Part 9: The Trysting Place of the Lowest Scum

As it stands, Annalia Dubrensia is the ultimate in vanity publishing, compiled at a time when every self-styled Renaissance man imagined himself a poet.

One typically overblown effort compares "Cotswold Hill" to Mount Olympus and Dover to Hercules; whereas the latter took five years to organise the ancient games, though, the English showman had pulled off his Herculean feat in just one year.

When Dover's admirers weren't praising him, they were scoring points off the Puritans.

Jonson's 10-line epigram—some of the last verse he wrote—ends with a veiled swipe at religious "hipocrites, who are the worst… Let such envie, till they burst."

Ironically, the same year that was published, a puritanical vicar took over at Campden. And eight years later, the Civil War stopped Dover's Games.

Puritans and Royalists began fighting with weapons rather than words, and bloody skirmishes replaced ritualised combat on Dover's Hill.

The "Cotswold Genius" passed away in 1652, aged 70, his beloved games seemingly consigned to history.

In the battle over sports, it appeared the Puritans had finally won.

After the restoration of the monarchy, though, Dover's Games quickly bounced back.

Instead of his high-minded Olimpicks, though, they reverted to their hard-knock origins. Out went Dover's classical pretensions; in came knockdown, drag-out fights—between combatants and spectators.

Local alehouses began sponsoring the event (just as beer companies sponsor boxing today), and Dover's Olimpick spirit quickly drowned in Olympian amounts of spirits.

Once hailed as England's very own Mount Olympus, Dover's Hill was eventually condemned as "the trysting place of the lowest scum".

Young bucks from the Wold—the hills around Campden—would spar against their rivals from the Vale of Evesham, reflecting a medieval rivalry that continues to this day.

Market towns like Campden have long looked down on farmers in the valley.

"The Wold got their origins as sheep and market towns for the wool industry in the Middle Ages. The Vale people are agriculturists, they grow—well, their prized growth is asparagus," laughs Olimpick historian Francis Burns.

"You talk to the locals in Chipping Campden about Broadway, and they talk about them as if they were a different race down there. And it's what—five miles? And they talk about those funny folk down there."


Part 8: Shakespeare and the English Olimpicks

To win royal backing for his May games, Dover could count on two powerful allies who just happened to have country homes in the area.

The new lord of Campden, Sir Baptist Hicks, was one of the richest Britons ever—a multibillionaire by today's standards—who made his fortune selling fine cloth to James I and then lending him the money to buy it (plus interest).

Dover's other courtly connection was Endymion Porter, a kinsman and native of the area who was a trusted adviser to both the king and his son.

After James died in 1625, Porter persuaded Charles I to donate some of his father's cast-offs—a plumed hat and ruff—to Dover.

Despite James' notoriously questionable hygiene, the showman wore them with pride at the games.

In fact, the only known portrait of Dover shows him as Master of Ceremonies, kitted out in the dead king's hand-me-downs (possibly cut from cloth supplied by Sir Baptist).

Mounted on a white steed, he would ride through the crowd bestowing yellow silk ribbons on men and women; some gallants supposedly wore the yellow favours all year-round.

Dover broadened the games' appeal by combining newly fashionable sports like horseracing with plebeian pastimes: throwing the hammer, spurning the bar and, of course, shin kicking.

Food and drink abounded alongside scandalous pleasures like mixed-sex dancing, while the centrepiece of the celebrations was a wooden castle, complete with a flag and real cannons (supposedly donated by King Charles) that were fired at the start of each event, echoing a similar tradition in London's theatres.

With their royal cachet, the games quickly became the biggest spectacle of their kind at the time.
Jaded trendsetters from London travelled to see them as an alternative to Bath and the Spring Gardens in Hyde Park.

Suddenly, England's country games were no longer rusticke; Dover had made them Olimpick, in keeping with the Renaissance vogue for antiquity.

And just in case anyone missed the connection, he had a musician dress up like Homer and walk around plucking a harp (the Iliad contains the earliest reference to the Olympian Games).

The first poet to dub England's Games "Olimpick" was Michael Drayton, a contemporary of Shakespeare's who helped compile a flowery tribute to Dover called Annalia Dubrensia.

Published in 1636, the book's frontispiece shows Dover as a stout middle-aged gent and also provides one of the earliest illustrations of shin kicking: two men in breeches grip each other's arms and hack at each other's tibias.

Although most of the 33 contributors were Dover's friends and relatives, the project did attract some well-known writers, including Ben Jonson.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare died long before he could be pressed into singing Dover's praises. But that hasn't stopped Campden's boosters from searching for the Holy Grail of the heritage industry: any link between the Bard and their town.

Some point to a remark in The Merry Wives of Windsor as a reference to the Cotswold Olimpicks ("How does your fallow greyhound, sir? I heard he was outrun on Cotsall").

But that's probably much ado about nothing: greyhound racing was common in the Cotswolds.

Still, Shakespeare probably would have known about the games simply because they were too big to be missed; what's more, Stratford is only 10 miles from Campden, and the Bard retired to his hometown the same year that Dover started his Olimpicks.

The two men had friends and relatives in common—and compatible personalities—but whether Bill ever met Bob is anybody's guess.


Part 7: Peeving the Puritans

Scoff if you will, but Campden's homespun Olimpicks provide a truer reflection of the ancient Olympian spirit than their more famous international counterparts.

Some events may not have the glamour and suspense of say, competitive walking or synchronised swimming, but what they lack in grandeur, they more than make up for in pedigree.

Founded in 1612, the Cotswold Olimpicks represented the first successful attempt to revive the spirit of the Greek Olympian Games, predating their modern pretenders by nearly 300 years: for better or worse, the English were the main guardians of the Olympic flame between antiquity and the modern age—a fact cited by the British Olympic Association in its winning pitch to host the London 2012 Olympics.

Campden owes its Olimpick link to an outsider who transformed the area's rural pastimes into a fashionable spectacle sanctioned by the Crown.

A country boy from Norfolk, Robert Dover studied law in London during the years when Shakespeare was writing King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest—with high-calibre competition from the likes of Ben Jonson.

So when Dover returned to the country, settling in the Cotswolds as a newly qualified barrister, his head was full of Renaissance ideals. And, like any good Royalist (and closet Catholic), he hated Puritans.

Decades before they actually started killing each other, the Royalists and the Puritans fought a war of words over a seemingly unlikely subject—sports.

The Puritans, gaining ground around Campden, believed the English were sports mad (even back then) and condemned the drunkenness and violence at country festivals.

However, Royalists argued that games were "harmlesse mirth and jollitie," as Dover put it. So when the opportunity came to organise a sports extravaganza near his new home, he quickly took up the challenge.

Not only would it be fun, it would peeve the Puritans.
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