The British have long loved the idea of a revival of the Ancient Greek Olympic Games. Robert Dover reinvented the existing Cotswold Games as annual ‘Olimpick’ celebrations of sport in 1612, and, these ran until 1642. The Annalia Dubrensia, was a collection of poems written in celebration of the games, first published by Dover in 1636. Contributors include Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood and others, with the first edition published in 1636 by Matthew Walbancke of the Gray's Inn gateway. So, although the literary value of the poems is slight, we have some sense of what Dover himself was like, and the form of his festivities. It was common for the use of the term Olympic, and its various spellings in Early Modern literature, to stand for a guarantee of quality, virtue and of seriousness rather than to replicate what had happened in the Ancient Greek Games. But what do we know about Robert Dover and why he hosted these events? Now they are revived as part of the ‘Merrie England’ industry, particularly in the context of the so-called Cultural Olympiad related to the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games. But they had a much sharper political focus.
Robert Dover seems to have been a Norfolk-born barrister of Gray's Inn. In the period between his birth (given by some authors as 1575 and others as 1582) and 1612 there are a few known facts about Dover that can be corroborated. Born at Great Ellingham, Norfolk, son of John Dover of the lesser gentry, a Robert Dover was admitted to Queens’ College Cambridge as a sizar at thirteen in 1595 and matriculated the same year, but did not take a degree (if the dating is correct he would have avoided taking an oath compulsory at fourteen which may have been against his Catholic beliefs). A Robert Dover had also been placed by his father as a servant to a priest at Wisbech Castle and, in 1599, was among those examined by Lord Burghley's Commissioners seeking out recusants in Norfolk. Since the parish registers for Great Ellingham did not begin until 1630 it is difficult to be sure. The possible link with Catholicism, it has been suggested, was the common ground between Dover and Endymion Porter, his later employer and patron.
It is generally given that Robert was one of four and followed his elder brother Richard and elder sister Anne (a barrister and married to a lawyer respectively) as the land and houses around Saintbury and Evesham, sold or seized by Henry VIII, became subject to resale, settlement and other subsequent legal proceedings. The surviving legal documents are useful for tracing Dover as neither his marriage certificate nor the birth certificates of his daughters seem to have survived. In June 1611 he assigned a lease for a house called Pinckes and it is thought that he moved to Saintbury from Chipping Camden that year with wife Sibella, baby daughters Abigail and Sibella and eight-year-old stepson Thomas Sanford. Stepson John was baptized in 1614; son Robert was born and died in 1616.
The Cotswold Games: A Portable Castle and Homer
In 1631 the nephew of the king, Prince Rupert, graced the games with Endymion Porter – indicating the height of fashion for the gentry, some of whom had travelled over sixty miles to attend. That the aristocracy and the common person could attend the same sporting event could be Dover's single biggest innovation and often used as a case for making the games themselves more significant than other rural festivities or Whitsun Ales.
The royal association was perhaps all the more significant because the Dovers were clearly an aspirational clan, whatever their religious beliefs. In spite of holding several leases, Robert Dover owned no land or property, though this did not prevent him from signing his name as a gentleman. An indication of how he saw himself is illustrated by the construction of ‘Dover's Castle’ for the duration of the games. Built of wood, it was reconstructed each year to be sufficiently sturdy to house ‘light guns’ fired to begin events and to make announcements. From 1622 until 1640 Dover became Endymion Porter's legal agent and the latter reportedly provided Dover with the ‘Kings old cloaths, with a Hat and Feather and Ruff, purposely to grace him and consequently the Solemnity’. As master of ceremonies Dover would conduct his games dressed elaborately and alternating between a white horse and the ‘Famous and admirable Portable Fabicke of Dover Castle, her Ordinance and Artillery.’
Dover's innovations to the earlier Cotswold Games included Olympic references, such as a wandering, harp-playing figure dressed as Homer. Not Homer J. Simpson of course, but the assumed author of the two epic poems, the Illiad and The Odyssey. The games and sports included card games and chess held in tents, coursing, handling the pike, horse racing, hunting the hare, leaping, shin-kicking, singlestick fighting, tumbling, foot races and wrestling. Women and girls, men and boys were involved, as the engraving of events suggests.
Why was holding a sporting event so political at this time?
Many Puritans believed holdings such events as Whitsun football matches and Country Games to be, firstly, of pagan origin, and secondly a distraction during church holidays and on Sundays. King James, who enjoyed sport, issued The Book of Sports in May 1618 to say that once people had observed their religious duties on a Sunday, and during holidays, they had a right to respectable leisure. This may be why Dover called his events Olympic, to emphasise their reputable decency. But Puritanism grew after James’ death in 1625, and although The Book of Sports was reaffirmed in 1633 by Charles I to defended the right of respectable leisure after worship, increasing tensions between the king and the Puritans saw the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642 so the Games were ended. By hosting them Dover was emphasising his Royalist sympathies, and they were revived again after Charles II came to the throne but degenerated into rather rowdy and somewhat dangerous events, and were eventually stopped in 1851 by an Act of Parliament.
In 1951 the Festival of Britain saw them revived again, for a respectable twentieth century audience. As the modern International Olympic Committee version of the Olympic Games had begun in 1896, in Greece, and had been held in London in 1908 and 1948, this new festival of sport, made its older namesake more significant. As reported in an article a few years ago on what the public considers to be the Best of British, in the Daily Express, ‘Our favourite things include all the nostalgic symbols of a bygone Britain. … Although we knock it, Britain is still great. Get out and enjoy it.’ Good advice perhaps for 2020, considering all that has happened! When you are next in the Cotswolds look out for Dover’s Hill and imagine what a spectacle it would have been.
Posts written by Jean or Joanna.