Review – The First Ever English Olympick Games

Celia Haddon, The First Ever English Olympick Games

 A brilliantly presented and written account of the Cotswold Olympicks, from an author better known for her “One Hundred ways to…” and in particular “One Hundred Ways for a Cat to Find Its Inner Kitten” atrocities committed upon the reading public.

Interleaving her chapters with extracts from the 1636 tribute Annalia Dubrensis, Haddon explores the social context of the games and the motivation of the founder, Robert Dover, arguing that with the support of King James, the Catholic Dover was seeking a remedy to the oppressive anti-sporting policies of the Puritans.

The author discusses each of the sports featured in the woodcut of the 1636 games, drawing on contemporary accounts of the games to justify her case, claiming (fairly convincingly) that the sport of shin hacking was introduced sometime between the of the games during the Restoration and 1814, when it is first mentioned by name because someone misunderstood the picture of two blokes wrestling (right side, second from the top) and couldn’t resist introducing iron toe caps into the equation. The social catchment of each of the sports is also discussed, some aimed at gentlemen (specifically those worth more than £100 per year), manly sports (for the lower class) and the sports that united them (again to the chagrin of the Puritans).

Games specificially identified are wrestling, leaping, backsword fighting (with wasters), hammer throwing, bar spurning (like caber tossing with an iron bar and using the foot rather than hands), pike tossing, running, dancing, tumbling. For the better-off were riding, hunting and coursing, a turf maze and in the tents, card and dice games played for low stakes, chess and Irish (an obscure form of backgammon).

I got my copy from the Tourist Information and English Olympick Games in Chipping Campden, but I’ve seen the paperback on the Dymocks website. If we each buy one, she might stop writing those abominable “One Hundred Ways…” books and write more like this.

Celia Haddon, The First Ever English Olympick Games, Hodder & Stoughton, London 2004.

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