Amid all the excitement and media hype surrounding the London Olympics, it seems to have gone almost entirely unnoticed that this year marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Cotswold Olimpicks in 1612. In that year Robert Dover, a gentleman residing at Saintbury and Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, organized the proto-Olympics on a hillside above Chipping, which became known as Robert Dover’s Cotswold Olimpick Games.
The most detailed account of the games occurs in Annalia Dubrensia: vpon the yeerely celebration of Mr. Robert Dover’s Olimpick games vpon the Cotswold-Hills (London: printed by Robert Raworth for Matthew Walbancke, 1636), which contains Pindaric paeans by thirty-three poets including Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson. Sports included horse-racing, pike exercises, backswords, coursing, throwing the sledge hammer, spurning the barre, tumbling and even shin-kicking, with dancing for the ladies as well as feasting in tents on the hillside.
Sadly the Library does not hold a copy of the rare first edition (Mrs Rylands was not a great sports fan). However, we do hold a facsimile edition produced by Rev. Alexander B. Grosart in 1877 in his series Occasional Issues of Unique or Very Rare Books, printed in Manchester. This is something of a rarity itself, having been issued in only fifty-two subscribers’ copies (COPAC records six copies in the UK and Ireland).
Grosart reproduced the frontispiece of the first edition, which shows Dover on horseback, surrounded by the various games and the castle erected for the occasion, complete with starting guns.
History does not record whether Dover employed a private security firm to police the event, nor whether all the seats were sold. However, the games were clearly a huge success and they continued until 1852, when a spoil-sport clergyman suppressed them. The games were revived for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and they have been staged annually since 1966.
For further information on the Cotswold Olimpicks, visit the dedicated website, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry for Robert Dover (subscription-only access).
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