The 2012 Olympics were the third to be held in London since the modern games were revived in the late 19th century, but in the Cotswolds market town of Chipping Camden they have an annual ‘Olimpicks’ tradition that dates back to the early 17th century.
Captain Robert Dover, a lawyer, is believed to have launched his Cotswold Olimpicks as a protest against the puritanical prejudices of the age, obtaining a royal licence to do so and choosing a local hillside site, still called Dover's Hill, for his venue.
Dover's friend, Endymion Porter, a diplomat and patron of painters and poets who also happened to hold the post of Groom of the Bedchamber to Charles I, is said to have supplied him with some useful royal cast-offs, and in appropriately regal style, Dover spent 40 years directing his annual games - very often on horseback.
Dover had a revolving castle of wooden boards erected on the hill, from which guns were fired to signal the start of games that included the familiar sports of running, jumping and wrestling, but added such splendid pastimes as cudgel-playing, tilting at the quintain, leapfrog, pitching the hammer, playing at balloon or handball and walking on one's hands. There was also horse racing and 'hustling the hare' (which, by Dover's order, was never to be killed!).
It seems, too, that attractions included the country dance of the virgins, the rules of which I must leave to the gentle reader's imagination.
Held on two days of Whitsun Week, the games were accompanied by feasting, merrymaking and playing cards in the tents that dotted the site and proved hugely popular. Dover himself died in 1641 and the games rather petered out during the Commonwealth years of Oliver Cromwell's rule, as one might expect, but were revived following the restoration of Charles II.
The Cotswold Olimpicks ceased once more in 1865, when critics complained that they were really nothing more than a drunken brawl, but in the 1960s were once again revived and continue to this day, with shin-kicking now one of its more popular events.
Olimpicks in Print
It was in 1636, however, that a curious celebration of the games was first published as Annalia Dubrensia. Upon the Yeerely Celebration of Mr Robert Dovers Olimpick Games upon Cotswold-Hills.
A slim volume, it has a frontispiece (pictured here) in which a mounted Dover is seen directing events, followed by a selection of verses, anagrams, acrostics and epigrams, among them examples by Michael Drayton, Thomas Heywood, and Ben Jonson. At the end is Dover's own 'Congratulatory Poem', in which he defends his "innocent pastime" against Puritan charges that the games were "a wicked, horrid sin".
The book was reprinted in 1736 by a descendant, Dr Thomas Dover (and issued twice more in the 19th century), and while a copy offered on May 16 by Chorley's of Prinknash Abbey Park in Gloucestershire was dated 1636, there was some uncertainty as to which edition it represented.
The two other copies that show up in auction record for the past 40 years were also dated 1636 but designated second editions. Whatever the true age of this rare example in its broken calf binding, the price of £2800 is an auction record.
This copy was part of an old Gloucestershire family library being sold by Chorley's and had for some years been on loan to the Bodleian in Oxford, but it seems that they have other copies and their loss, if such it was, proved the gain of the organising committee of the present-day Cotswold Olimpicks, who managed to outbid all other competitors.