Wrestling in Cornwall: The history behind the Duchy’s national sport

Cornish Wrestling

Cornish Wrestling - Credit: Archant

Wrestling is Cornwall’s national sport - but it’s not just any old wrestling

“Gwary Whek Yu Gwary Tek” (Good play is fair play) is the motto of the Cornish Wrestling Association and part of the oath that every wrestler must take before engaging in a contest. The tournament season starts in earnest in June and in the words of the wrestlers themselves: “Wrestling is our national sport in Cornwall, a direct living link with our ancestors handed down through an un-broken chain, from father to son, brother to brother and friend to friend for over 3,000 years.”

There are sites known to have been used for wrestling during the first millennium such as the circle marked on Halgaver Moor near Bodmin. Cornish wrestlers appeared at Agincourt marching under their banner depicting two wrestlers “in a hitch” and Henry VIII s Team of Cornish Wrestlers soundly defeated the French champions at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Perhaps this is why Henry VIII insisted on his title as Duke of Cornwall as well as Prince of Wales and King of England!

A key feature of Cornish wrestling is the use of jackets and the rule that all grips must be taken on the jacket. There are a series of grips and throws recognised in Cornish wrestling and points are awarded according to how the opponent is thrown on to their back. Three “sticklers” keep a note of the points scored by the wrestlers and deduct points for any fouls. The final score agreed by the sticklers decides the winner of the contest. Traditionally Cornish wrestling took place on grass with a ring marked out in sand or sawdust but modern use of mats give some flexibility to where and when contests can be held.

Although it is a style of wrestling unique to Cornwall it has deep Celtic roots and is sufficiently similar to the Breton style for wrestlers to compete with a slight change of rules. These contests normally take the form of two bouts, one with the Cornish rules and one with the Breton. One of my proudest moments as a Cornish piper has been to lead the procession of Cornish and Breton wrestlers before the Celtic championship match at Wadebridge a few years ago.

Cornish Wrestling is one of the treasures of Cornwall’s heritage. If you are off to the Royal Cornwall Show this June then they have displays running every day in the Country Side Area with a commentary explaining the history and the moves of Cornish Wrestling. If you fancy giving it a try or just want to watch you are also very welcome to go along to their training night at the St Columba Centre, St Columb every Friday at 7pm. Cornish Culture is not a spectator sport, get involved!

For tournament dates and further info: cornishwrestling.co.uk