Robert Dover (1581/21652), by unknown artist, 1636 [Dover figure in front centre]
Dover, Robert (1581/21652), organizer of the Cotswold Olimpick games, was born in Great Ellingham, Norfolk, the second son of John Dover, gentleman. He went to Queens' College, Cambridge, as a sizar, matriculating on 15 June 1595, but left without taking a degree. In 1599, at the age of seventeen, he was examined at Wisbech Castle as a gentleman's son, sent by his father to serve one of the priests held captive there. On 27 February 1605 he was admitted to Gray's Inn and was called to the bar probably six years later. On 23 May 1623 he was further called to be of the Grand Company of Ancients of Gray's Inn. By 1611 he had followed his sister Anne and his brother Richard to the Vale of Evesham, Worcestershire, settling initially at Saintbury, Gloucestershire. Some time before he had married Sibilla Sanford (d. 1653), daughter of William Cole, dean of Lincoln and at one time president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and widow of John Sanford, a Bristol merchant. They had four children, Abigail (b. 1611), Sibella (b. 1612), John (16141696), and Robert (b. 1616), who died soon after his birth.
Dover lived and undertook legal work in the Cotswolds or the Vale of Evesham for almost the rest of his life, residing at Saintbury and Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire, and from 1628 at Childswickham, Worcestershire. In 1612 he became involved in organizing the games held on the hillside above Chipping Campden which subsequently became known as Robert Dover's Cotswold Olimpick games. Although many of his contemporaries considered that Dover had founded the games, it seems more likely that he became involved with a traditional Cotswold Whit festivity and revitalized it with his own distinctive form of entertainment. Dover's games were held on the Thursday and Friday of Whitsun week near the site of the stone that marked Kiftsgate hundred. Shakespeare may have attended them.
The most detailed contemporary accounts of the games are to be found in Annalia Dubrensia: upon the yeerely celebration of Mr. Robert Dover's Olimpick games upon the Cotswold Hills, published in London on 11 January 1636 by Matthew Walbancke. This work included thirty-three poems by such recognized poets as Michael Drayton, Ben Jonson, Thomas Randolph, Shackerley Marmion, Owen Feltham, William Basse, Sir John Mennes, and Thomas Heywood, with a response from Robert Dover. Many of the contributors had clearly attended the games, and all were enthusiastic about Dover's character, referring to him as jovial, generous, mirth-making, heroic, and noble-minded. He had a reputation for being fair in legal dealings, trying to settle differences out of court. The frontispiece depicted the games in progress, with Robert Dover as master of ceremonies. He is portrayed as an impressive figure, dressed ceremonially in clothes, including hat, feather, and ruff, which originally belonged to James I, from whom he had authority to organize the event. The games offered activities for all levels of societyhorse-racing, coursing, backswords, wrestling, jumping, tumbling, spurning the bar, throwing the sledge-hammer, and pike exerciseswith dancing for ladies as well as feasting in tents on the hillside. A castle was erected from which guns were fired to introduce events. Competitors and spectators came from more than 60 miles around, and prizes included Dover's yellow favours which as many as 500 gained in any year.
Dover was probably supported initially by Sir Baptist Hicks, the city merchant who was building the almshouses and the market hall in Chipping Campden, and he later certainly had the support of Endymion Porter, groom of the bedchamber to Charles I, who acquired the royal clothes and whose home was nearby at Aston-sub-Edge. Prince Rupert attended the games in 1636. For many the games conveyed the ideals of the original Greek Olympic games; Michael Drayton's poem in particular, written by 1630, made detailed comparisons. In addition Dover, in referring to his sports as honest and harmless, criticized puritan views of games and showed his support for the Book of Sports, first published by James I in 1618 and reissued by Charles I in 1633.
The games overseen by Dover continued until 1644 when they were cancelled by William Bartholomew, vicar of St James's, Chipping Campden. He remained at Childswickham until 1650, serving as steward for the court of Wickhamford, and then went to live with his son, John, at Barton on the Heath, Warwickshire. He died there, at Shirley Farm, and was buried at St Lawrence's Church, Barton, on 24 July 1652; his wife died fifteen months later. Dover's games were revived after the Restoration and continued annually, their location becoming known as Dover's Hill. They were described by William Somervile (Somerville) in his poem Hobbinol, first drafted as The Wicker Chair in 1708. They were the setting for a humorous scene in Richard Graves's The Spiritual Quixote (1775), first drafted by 1758. Posters for the 1812 and 1849 games, where they continue to be described as Olimpick, advertise horse-racing, wrestling, backsword fighting, jingling, dancing, leaping, and running in sacks. They continued until 1852 when they were brought to an end, largely owing to the pressure exerted by Canon G. D. Bourne, JP and rector of Weston, and his supporters, who were concerned about the rowdyism the games brought to the area. The parish of Weston-sub-Edge was enclosed, and Dover's Hill became private property, to be bought by the National Trust in 1928. The games were revived for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and have been an annual event on Dover's Hill since 1966 on the Friday after the spring bank holiday. Initially known as Dover's meeting or the Dover's Hill games, the competition once more became the Olympicks in the 1970s and, in the following decade, was recognized by the British Olympic Association for its contribution to Britain's Olympic heritage.
F. D. A. Burns
parish register, Childswickham, Glos. RO · parish register, Saintbury, Glos. RO · Venn, Alum. Cant. · CSP dom., 15981601 · J. Foster, The register of admissions to Grays Inn, 15211889, together with the register of marriages in Gray's Inn chapel, 16951754 (privately printed, London, 1889), 110 · Wood, Ath. Oxon., new edn, 4.222 · M. Walbancke, ed., Annalia Dubrensia: upon the yeerely celebration of Mr Robert Dovers Olimpick Games upon Cotswold-hills (1636) · W. Somervile, Hobbinol, or, The rural games (1740) · R. Graves, The spiritual Quixote, ed. C. Tracy (1967) · F. Burns, Heigh for Cotswold! A history of Robert Dover's Olimpick games (1981) · C. Whitfield, Robert Dover and the Cotswold games (1962) · E. A. B. Barnard, Old days in and around Evesham, Evesham Journal Notes and Queries, 12.687695 · parish register, Barton on the Heath, Warks. CRO, 24 July 1652 [burial] · F. Burns, Robert Dover's Cotswold Olimpick games: the use of the term Olimpick, Olympic Review (1985), 210, 23036 · C. J. Bearman, The ending of the Cotswold games, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 114 (1996), 13141 · parish register, Barton on the Heath, Warks. CRO, 5 Nov 1653 [burial of Sibilla Dover] · M. Polley, The British Olympics: Britain's Olympic heritage, 16122012 (2011)
line engraving, 1636 (after woodcut for Annalia Dubrensia, 1636), BL, NPG; repro. in J. Caulfield, Portraits, memoirs, and characters of remarkable persons from the reign of Edward the Third, to the revolution, 1 (1794) [also repro. in Polley, 25] [see illus.]