Early Cornish Wrestling
By Ken Pfrenger
Editor's Note: Martial Artists most often look to Asia
as the source of many fighting systems but forget that in Europe many
weapon and empty hand systems also flourished. Although many differences
exist, European fighting traditions employed techniques similar to those
found in both Japanese judo and jujutsu, as well as those in modern Western
boxing and wrestling.
Origins and Early History
Very few western martial traditions have a verifiable unbroken line of
practice from Medieval times. The same can be said for Asian martial traditions
as well. The
indigenous wrestling of England's West Country and of the Cornish people
themselves has a history that extends before Medieval times and possibly
back into ancient times as well.
According to Cornish legends, around the year 1000 B.C. Corinaeus, the
first chief of Cornwall, defeated the giant named Gog Magog by throwing
him into the sea from Plymoth Hoe. Up until the Renaissance, figures were
caved into the sod of Plymoth Hoe depicting this wrestling scene. Of course,
this is only a legend, and hardly a scholarly bit of evidence to suggest
a date for the origin of Cornish wrestling. However, it does show the
importance of wrestling to the Cornish people by being included in the
story of the founding of their homeland.
A more concrete bit of evidence exists for an early date for wrestling
traditions in Cornwall and that is the founding of the Celtic region now
known as Brittany. During the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., many indigenous
Britons from the areas now known as Cornwall and Devonshire migrated to
Cornouaille, in present day Brittany. It is believed that they brought
the sports of wrestling and hurling with them. From an early time until
now, both these sports have remained staples of Breton sportive traditions.
Wrestling was also a traditional combat sport in other Celtic areas at
this early time, as well. In many of the Irish texts written from the
8th to 12th centuries, wrestling between combatants before armed combat
is mentioned several times. It is also known that Irish wrestlers traveled
to Cornwall to compete in the late Middle Ages. Irish collar-and-elbow
wrestling as practiced in the 19th century greatly resembled the wrestling
in Cornwall and the Breton wrestling(gouren). This suggests an almost
pan-Celtic style of wrestling that may have had its origin in a time when
the Celtic peoples dispersed themselves over the British Isles.
This all said, it is important to note that the earliest true evidence
for wrestling in Cornwall comes from a carved roof boss dated c. 1300
A.D., which depicts two wrestlers gripping each other in the modern Cornish
manner. A similar carving can be found on the Market Cross at Kells in
Ireland dated c. 800 A.D.
The first written evidence for wrestling in the West Country comes from
a 1590 poem entitled "Polyolbion" by Michael Drayton, concerning
the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. It states that the Cornish men who accompanied
Henry V into battle had a standard that depicted two wrestlers. A replica
of just such a banner is usually flown at wrestling events in modern Cornwall.
In 1520, there is an account of a tournament between the Cornish wrestlers
of Henry VIII of England and the Breton wrestlers of Francis I King of
France being held at Calais in France. The Cornish wrestlers won the day,
but king Henry VIII was thrown with a flying mare during a challenge match
with the French king. There are several other references made to Cornish
wrestling in the 16th century, but most of them do not get into any specifics.
In the 17th century, Sir Richard Carew wrote of Cornish wrestling and
its close relative, Devonshire wrestling in his "Survey of Cornwall"
"Wrastling is as full of manliness, more delightful and less dangerous
(than hurling).... for you shall hardly find an assembly of boyes in
Devon and Cornwall, where the most untowardly amongst them will not
as readily give you a muster of this exercise as you are prone to require
Parkyns and After
1713, a man by the name of Sir Thomas Parkyns wrote the first manual entirely
devoted to wrestling in the English language, "The Inn-Play or Cornish-Hugg
Wrestler." Parkyns' Close-Hugg style differs greatly from the modern
sport of Cornish wrestling. It is much more combative in nature, yet it
does contain some of the same throws such as the flying mare and cross-buttock.
It seems to not only deal with the sportive aspects of the style, but
also with self defense as well. Defenses against lapel chokes and several
other attacks are included, as well as a section about which of the Close-Hugg
moves to use while boxing.
There is also a small section on how to deal with a contentious man,
which shows the old bartender favorite of grabbing a person by the collar
and back of their pants to escort them to the door.
Parkyns makes small mention of "out-play," which concentrated
on the tripping and kicking aspects of the sport, which he considered
inferior to the "in-play" of the Cornish style in the manual,
which relied on the upper body. There is only a small mention of the jacket,
which is used in the modern style of Cornish wrestling and Devonshire.
Interestingly, the account by Carew in the 17th century does not mention
the jacket, but mentions a girdle that is used for grips. Parkyns does
not mention this girdle. The girdle perhaps gives rise to a connection
between the Cornish style and another indigenous British style known as
side-hold, in which a harness is worn for grips. By the 19th century,
the use of the jacket was standard, and a great rivalry had grown between
the wrestlers of Cornwall and Devonshire. The two groups basically practiced
the same form of wrestling, but seemed specialize in different areas of
The Cornish men concentrated on the "in-play" or "close
hug," while the Devonshire wrestlers concentrated on "out-play."
Obviously, both styles of wrestling contained the elements of the "in-play"
and "out-play" but held a preference for one or a prejudice
to the other. The style of the Devonshire men was thought of as brutal
by the Cornish spectators due to the fact that Devonshire matches often
turned into punishing shin kicking contests. Often shoes were worn in
the Devonshire style to add more damage to the kicking techniques, while
the Cornish wrestlers stayed barefooted or wore wool socks.
1826, a huge challenge match took place between the Cornish Champion Polkinghorne
and the Devonshire Champion, Abraham Cann. Cann was permitted to wear
one shoe and was said to have kicked mightily on that day. It is unclear
who won that match, with the judges calling it a draw and the spectators
from the various camps claiming victory for their sides. However, the
style of Devonshire seemed to be losing steam by this time. Within a century,
it was all but forgotten, while the Cornish style today hangs on by a
slender thread. However, the art is kept alive today by a growing interest
in western martial traditions and through continued practice by dedicated
Cornish wrestlers at fairs and tournaments.
Currently the modern sport matches are held on a field with a referee
or "stickler," taking control of the action. The goal is a fall
in which three points of the thrown wrestler's body touches the ground.
Modern Cornish wrestling retains many of the older techniques of the Close
Hugg of Parkyns, yet has many techniques that have evolved into the sport.
Various cross-buttock throws as well as trips and lifts are used to bring
the opponent to the ground. It is often mistakenly compared to a Cornish
version of the Japanese art of Judo.
The Inn-Play or Cornish Hugg Wrestler by Sir Thomas Parkyns, London 1727
The Socio-Genesis of Cornish Wrestling by Michael Tripp, a dissertation
submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
MSc in the sociology of sport and sports management, University of Leicester
Notes on Early English and American Wrestling History by Tom Conroy in
Hoplos Vol. 3 Number 4 1981
A Pictorial History of Wrestling by Graeme Kent, Spring Books, Middlesex
Article, Wrestling from The Cornish Magazine 1848
Article from The Saturday Review, April 19, 1884
About The Author:
Ken Pfrenger is a hopologist from Northeast Ohio with has a background
in teaching Muay Thai, Jeet Kune Do concepts, and the Filipino Martial
Arts. Several years ago, his focus changed from the Asian arts to the
Western martial traditions of Europe and the United States. He has devoted
most of his time researching the martial traditions of the various Celtic
cultures, from Irish Collar and Elbow wrestling and stick play to Cornish
Close Hugg wrestling. He is one of the founding members of CMARS(Celtic
Martial Arts Research Society) and is currently working on a training
manual for those who have a further interest in the Irish style of stick
This article is copyright 2000 Ken Pfrenger and appears courtesy of the
of Western Martial Arts.