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Image for the news item 'The Gog Magog Olympics' on 9 Feb 2022

As we enjoy the spectacle of yet another Olympic Games, in this case the Winter variety, it is intriguing to note that almost exactly 400 years ago Cambridgeshire was preparing to host its very own ‘Olympics’. Scheduled for early July, 1620, the games were to be held in the Gog Magog hills, a few miles south east of Cambridge.

Similar events had been staged there occasionally in the previous half-century, usually at Whitsuntide, to the increasing vexation of the university authorities. On 28 May 1574 the vice-chancellor, John Whitgift, informed William Cecil, Lord High Treasurer of England, that for the past two years the Gog Magog gatherings had been an ‘occasion of moche disorder among the youthe of the universite’, a particular cause of concern being the illicit gaming that had gone on. Appalled by rumours that these ‘infamous’ games were to become an annual fixture, Whitgift entreated Cecil to revoke the licence which a ‘very lewed’ man, Richard Robinson, claimed gave him authority to hold the event.

Without waiting for Cecil’s response, on 29th May the vice-chancellor issued a university Order imposing financial penalties on any students spotted within half a mile of the games. The fines were to be paid by the miscreants’ tutors, who stood to have their goods distrained if they refused; a clever (if unpopular) stratagem aimed at enforcing collegiate cooperation. Whitgift also ordered that the Gog Magogs be patrolled by university proctors and bedells for the duration of the games; a kill-joy attitude, perhaps, but Cambridge undergraduates could be as young as fourteen or fifteen, and the games offered many unwholesome temptations. In the ensuing decades the authorities made repeated attempts to suppress the Gog Magog revels, but their allure was such that students continued to defy the prohibition on attendance.

Things finally came to a head in 1620, for the July gathering promised to be a particularly rowdy affair, lasting several weeks and including horse racing, bull and bear baiting, ‘loggattes, ninehoales, ryflinge, dicing & other such unlawefull sportes and games’. On learning of this, the vice-chancellor, Robert Scott, immediately rode out to the hills and hauled the event’s convenor, John Adamson, back to Cambridge, where he threatened him with instant imprisonment if the games were not called off. Adamson had no choice but to comply, whereupon the booths were dismantled, the company dispersed, and the ‘sportes and shows were utterlye disappoynted’. This seems to have been the nemesis of the Gog Magog gatherings, for they are not mentioned again in the university annals.

The cancellation of the games would have pleased Symonds D’Ewes, a rather priggish young student at St. John’s College, who had noted in his diary for July 1620 that the ‘vain and needless’ entertainments to be held at the Gog Magogs would include bowling, running, jumping, shooting and wrestling, ‘under the designation of the Olympic games’. This is the only contemporary reference to the games as ‘Olympic’, an adjective surely bestowed by Cambridge students, who would have been familiar with the Ancients. The better-known ‘Cotswold Games’, initiated by Robert Dover at some date after 1611, may well have been inspired by the Gog Magog gatherings, for Dover had been up at Cambridge in the 1590s. The Cotswold games were also called ‘Olympics’, certainly by 1630.

Emmanuel College’s puritan authorities naturally deplored the Gog Magog shindigs, and the students were strictly forbidden to go near them. Nevertheless, on 29th May 1592 two fellow commoners were formally admonished for ‘going to Hogmagog hills contrarie to the Masters commandement’. The lads in question, Dennis Hartridge and George Catesby, were also reprimanded for idleness and neglect of studies, ‘going a hunting’, being out of college after the gates were locked, abusing the young Earl of Rutland’s sizar, challenging him to a fight, and ‘divers other’ misdemeanors. How seriously these two delinquents regarded their verbal warnings is anyone’s guess, but at least they were never caught frequenting the Gog Magogs again.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

Images (L-R):

  • The admonition book censuring George Catesby (L) & Dennis Hartridge (R) for various misdemeanours, 29 May 1592
  • Frontispiece to a collection of poems extolling the merits of the Cotswold Games, published in 1636
  • Sir Symonds D’Ewes
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