The Exiles - Company of Medieval Martial Artists

A Brief History of Wrestling in England

A big thanks to Stephen for donating this interesting article. As part of his work in trying to ressurect English Wrestling Styles, he will be running some seminars later in the year. As soon as we know more we will let you know.

Wrestling is the oldest and purest of personal combat sports. Men have been trying their strength and unarmed skill since the beginning of time. Egyptian murals on the tombs of Beni Hasan, dating back to 3000 BC shows wrestlers in combat and we know that this sort of competition was part of the early Olympic games. In fact, it is said to have been introduced at the 18th Olympiad about 704 BC.
Wrestling has for a long time been part of the English sporting pattern; for instance it was customary in London to hold wrestling matches on Lammas Day.
With Cudgel Play, Quarterstaffs and Sword Play, wrestling was one of the main sporting activities at country fairs and revels right up to the 19th century.
It was through the introduction into England of the Greco-Roman style of wrestling that public interest in the sport declined. Despite its name, this style of wrestling has nothing to do with the classic style of wrestling. It is in fact, an import from France.
In this style of wrestling no holds are permitted below the waist and the wrestling could continue on the floor, the bouts could be of considerable duration often lasting for many hours. A tedious performance, even for enthusiastic spectators.
Traditionally wrestling has two main centers in England: in the West Country, where the Devonshire and Cornwall styles were developed, and in the Northern counties, the home of the Cumberland and Westmorland styles
Abraham Cann in the early 19th century was backed against any man in England for £500. Cann was a wrestler of the Devonshire style. He and others from his county, such as Jordan, were often objected to for 'showing the toe' - kicking. This was an acknowledged method, quite within the rules, in Devon but not in Cornwall, and there were many Cornishmen who would not 'go in' against a Devon opponent. The Devonshire style exponents justified their somewhat brutal methods by explaining that their style was more classic and that the Greeks themselves used to kick in their bouts.
The Eagle Tavern in the City Road, London has been immortalized in the children's song 'Pop Goes The Weasel', but this was not its only claim to fame. In the 1820s the public house was a wrestling centre. One writer of the period describes the differences between the men from Devon and Cornwall after visiting the Eagle:
The florid chubby- faced Devon man was all life in the ring, holding himself erect, and offering every advantage to his opponent. The sallow sharp-featured Cornwall man is all caution and resistance, finding himself in such a way, that his legs are inaccessible to his opponents, and waiting for the critical instant when he can spring in upon his impatient adversary.
Cornish style originates from the Celts and is always held in the open air, and in a ring. The umpires are known as sticklers and usually four or six of these officials are appointed.
The legs of the wrestlers are bare from the knees and they wear canvas jackets that may be used in the holds.
Traditionally the challenge takes a form of throwing a cap in the air, and whoever wants may pick it up.
The object is to throw one's opponent so that he lands with both hips and one shoulder, or two shoulders and one hip, squarely on the ground.
Illustrating Cornwall's close connection with wrestling was the banner of the Cornish troops in the Hundred Years War, which showed two wrestlers in action.
The other main division of traditional English wrestling is known as Cumberland and Westmorland style, a form of contest said to have been introduced by the Vikings.
Mr. H. A. Matthews of Haltwistle, Northumberland, recalled the village green wrestling he took part in as a small boy at the turn of the century. All the competitors' caps were thrown into the air and matches were made depending upon the way the caps fell - those falling next to each other being paired off regardless of weight.
The aim is the 'best of three falls' as it is in most matches of the 20th century. The loosening of the opponent's grasp also constitutes a fall, the combatants clasping hands behind each other's shoulders.
One of the giants of the Cumberland style of wrestling was George Steadman of Whitehaven, who wrestled and won at the Grassmere Games at the age of 51 years in 1896, having embarked on his wrestling career in 1862.
The Grassmere Games continue to this day attracting wrestlers from all over the world.
Kicking was a part of wrestling everywhere except in Cornwall. Shinning or Cutlegs was a recognized sport and even today schoolboys play a variation which is called stampers - as its name implies, it calls for stamping on each other's toes.
Lancashire style wrestling is a form of Catch as Catch Can, which allows considerable freedom of movement and is similar to the free style seen at the modern Olympics. It has a reputation of being particularly barbarous, although the rules specifically bar throttling or the breaking of limbs. There are few restrictions and wrestling continues when the contestants hit the ground.
The Badminton Library has a quote on the Lancashire style of wrestling which states:
A Lancashire wrestling match is an ugly sight: the fierce animal passions of the men which mark the struggles of maddened bulls, or wild beasts, the savage yelling of their partisans, the wrangling, and finally the clog business which settles all disputes and knotty points, are simply appalling.
It is not in dispute that wrestling was not only a sport in England it was also a very good form of unarmed combat. If you had lost your sword or singlestick you needed to defend yourself - wrestling was the answer.
Today England has also adopted Guile from India, Sombo from the Soviet Union, Kurash from Uzbekistan and Judo from Japan.
Sombo, Kurash and Judo are not unlike Cornish wrestling as a jacket is worn and the competitor tries to throw his opponents to the ground. In Sombo, wrestling can continue on the ground, but in the other two styles competitors must remain standing.
Guile is not unlike freestyle wrestling but has over 400 moves, which have to be learned before a man can be called a 'Pulwan' or expert.
England has a long tradition of wrestling but the folk styles of Devon, Cornwall, Lancashire and Cumberland and Westmorland are dying and are being replaced by more the more modern styles from Eastern Europe and Japan.
It is my wish that we keep the old folk styles of England alive and add the newer styles to the history of English wrestling.
If anyone is interested I am forming The English Folk style Wrestling Federation, membership is free and the intention is to keep the old styles alive.
It is my intention to hold tournaments in the summer, in the open air, on grass, in a ring and using the original rules.
Also once a year I will hold the English Folk style Wrestling Championships. The winner will receive the English Champions Belt
Lets be proud of our English heritage and keep it alive.


A great deal of information was taken from a book written by Brian Jewell.
'Heritage of the Past - Sports and Games'.