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Singlestick and Shin Kick

These were only two of the rowdy games played in the 17th century at the Cotswold Olympicks to rile the Puritans

Because the Greek strong man Hercules was supposed to have founded the Olympic Games, an Englishman named Robert Dover became known as "the Cotswold Hercules" for his lusty interest in sport. Dover, a man famous throughout his life for his gusto and joviality, was born to an England plagued by an increasing puritanical disapproval of rowdy good times. A country boy who had moved to the city, studied law, formed a wide circle of friends among London's 17th century equivalent of café society and, in time, married a wealthy widow, Dover bought himself a fine house in the Cotswold Hills and there, in 1612, staged the first of the yearly spring festivals of sport that came to be known as the Cotswold Olympicks.

We know of these games in detail today largely because of a quarto volume published in 1636 by Dover's admirers, a list of whose names would provide a fair Who's Who of English poetry in the mid-17th century. The slim volume contains a series of dedications, jocular in purpose and learned in tone, all praising Dover's skill as an impresario of sporting entertainment.

At these games, which took place at Dover's estate each Thursday and Friday of Whit Week, sturdy yeomen tossed the hammer, heaved the bar and faced each other in games such as singlestick or "shin kicking," the rules of which have mercifully been lost. There were also horse races and foot races for men and for women. There were group games like barleybrake, prison base and one called "baloone," wherein teams with slats strapped to their arms flailed at an air-filled pig's bladder. Sexes were often mixed, and the jostling and hustling from goal to goal provided lots of opportunities for howling laughter and innocent or purposeful slap and tickle.

Besides the sport, Dover got Gypsy musicians to play for morris dancers who wore ribbons around their hats and arms and bells on their legs. A jester called "Tom Fool" buffeted the crowds with an inflated ball at the end of a pole, and there were stalls vending blood sausages, honey pastries and tankards of strong ale for the common folk. The gentry feasted on roasts and wine in tents, and for the soberest of them there was a tournament in chess.

The poems that his friends offered to Dover are heavily laden with classical inspiration, though they carry the burden gracefully. Each writer strives to surpass his contemporaries in contrived metaphor, learned allusion and anthropomorphic conceit. Michael Drayton pretended they were all Greeks striving for sacred garlands. Thomas Randolph's tribute is a tongue in cheek, rhymed tale giving Arcadian roles to all the participants in the Cotswold Games. The sweating farmers who raced or wrestled were called charioteers; their red-faced, giggling consorts were coy shepherdesses. Robert Griffin's dedicatory piece is a dialogue between Fame and Time as to who can erect the best monument to the estimable Dover. In other efforts, Dover is depicted as the intimate of Venus and Adonis, Diana and Mars, all the Muses and the Graces. He is the restorer of the Golden Age, and, more practically, the defender against misguided reformers. Thomas Heywood in his panegyric wishes Dover courage:

Thee, nobel Dover! Then go on; be still
The man thou art, and maintaine Cotswold Hill:
So when thy glass is runne, and sand is past,
Thy name and fame shall Hercules out-last!

In his own poem thanking his admirers, Dover muses:

I cannot tell what planet ruled, when I
First undertook this mirth, this jollitie,
Nor can I give account to you at all,
How this conceit into my braine did fall,
Or how I durst assemble, call together,
Such multitudes of people as come hither....

Dover sneered at those who attacked his celebrations, those busybodies who complained

O! Tis not lawful, but a cruel sight;
One silly beast another to persue,
'Gainst nature is and fearful to the view;
And man with man their activeness to try,
Forbidden is,—much harm doth come thereby;
Mixed dancing is a wicked, horrid sin,
And by the same much naughtinesse hath bin.

As long as he lived, Robert Dover kept the naughty Olympicks a yearly affair. After his death, the Games went on intermittently, but there was never a patron with the jovial appeal of their originator to preside over them. In any case, we have no later poetical reports of them—only crude commercial notices.

An advertisement for "Dover's Meeting" in the Gloucester Journal of May 1725 promises as prizes: "One Gold Ring and Six Belts to be wrestled for; One Lac'd Hat and Six Pairs of Gloves to be played at Backsword for; One Pair of Mens Shoes and One Pair of Womens Lac'd shoes to be danc'd jiggs for. All given GRATIS."

The most consistent proof of the durability of Dover's Games lay in the published sermons that attacked them: "Ridiculous gestures and acts of folly and buffoonery...grown-up persons should be ashamed," etc., etc. "Ah." declaimed one humorless critic, "dost thou call that sport where so many poor souls are devoted to destruction, by drinking, swearing and all kinds of debauchery?"

In 1852, a placard for "Dover's Meeting" advertised races and a variety of dancing and pugilistic events, plus the prizes for all divisions. It piously appealed for the attendance of Her Majesty's subjects and patriotically proclaimed. "God save the Queen!" But a year later the Victorian moralists won out. Fences enclosed the land where the revelers once vied, and the Games were called, forever. The site of the Cotswold Olympicks is still called Dover's Hill, but the merry ghost of the founder frolics alone now with the dumb sheep that graze the rich, green grass.