Cornish wrestling (Omdowl Kernewek) is an ancient form of wrestling which was established in Cornwall and is colloquially known as “wrasslin” in the Cornish dialect. It is a tradition that survives to the present day.
The wrestlers in the Cornish style both wear tough jackets enabling them to gain better grip on their opponent. All holds are taken upon the other wrestler’s jacket, grabbing of the wrists or fingers is forbidden as well as any holding below the waist. Although all holds are to be taken upon the jacket, the flat of the hand is allowed to be used to push or deflect an opponent.
The objective of Cornish wrestling is to throw your opponent and make him land as flat as possible on his back. Three sticklers (referees) watch and control each bout whilst also recording down the score of points achieved in play. Four pins are located on the back of a wrestler, two at the back of each shoulder and two either side just above the buttocks. If a wrestler manages to throw his opponent flat onto his back, simultaneously scoring with all four pins they score four points in that single throw and this is called a “Back” at which the bout is then finished and the throwing wrestler is the winner. The sticklers will each raise their sticks when they perceive a Back has been achieved. If two sticklers raise their sticks but one does not, a back is still awarded.
The Cornish Wrestling Association was formed in 1923 to standardize the rules and to promote Cornish Wrestling throughout Cornwall and indeed Worldwide.
The history of Cornish Wrestling goes back so far it is lost in the midst of time. The first mention of Celtic Wrestling appears in the ancient book of Leinster, referring to the sport being included in the Tailteann Games which date back to at least 1829 BC. We know Wrestling was established in Cornwall before the Roman invasion and that the Cornish meetings on Halvager Moor were held during the dark-ages.
The Cornish contingent with Henry V at Agincourt (1415) marched under a banner depicting two Wrestlers “in a hitch”. The banner needed no words; the pictures of the wrestlers was enough to let anyone know the men of Cornwall were behind it.
During the famous meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I of France (on the Field of the Cloth of Gold) a team of wrestlers representing the English king defeated the champions of France. This contingent, which humbled the French team, consisted entirely of men from Cornwall. Godolphin the chief wrestler had received the Royal command direct to bring his men to uphold the king’s honour at Calais.
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.
Many times, Cornish Wrestlers have displayed their prowess before a royal audience. King Charles II believed that the Cornish were “masters in the art of wrestling” after attending a tournament at Bodmin while on his way to the Isles of Silly. It was during his reign that Tomas Hawken of Cubert threw Lyttleton Weynorth, who claimed to be the champion wrestler of “all England”.
Richard Carew, famous for his survey of Cornwall (1602) said that at about 1590 even their Breton neighbours did not match the Cornish in the art of Wrestling. Men from all walks of life took part in the sport. One of the best known wrestlers of the 17th century was Richard Stevens, the head master of Truro Grammar school; inventor Richard Trevithick was another. In the 18th and 19th centuries for which information is more readily available, we see records of tournaments that ran for a week to find the standing men to contest the semi-finals and finals on the Saturday and Sunday. With crowds of upwards of 10,000 for such finals or big name challenge matches, large sums of money often changed hands
Perhaps the most famous Cornish wrestler was the US President, statesman and soldier Theodore Roosevelt, whose training started when he was New York governor, where he was taught three times a week by Professor Mike J. Dwyer.