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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" He writes...

"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 it."

Parkyns and After

In 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 sport.

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.

In 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 1995

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 1968

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 play.

This article is copyright 2000 Ken Pfrenger and appears courtesy of the Journal of Western Martial Arts.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Wrestling, Thomas Parkyns, Abraham Cann, Polkinghorne, Cornish Wrestling, Devonshire Wrestling, close-hug

Read more articles by Ken Pfrenger

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