The Exiles - Company of Medieval Martial Artists

Cornish Wrestling

By David Stone

Cornish wrestling originated, surprisingly enough in Cornwall, and is yet another regional variation of wrestling and should in no way be confused with Devonish, Lancaster or any of the other regional variations that exist in the UK.
There are NO ground techniques in Cornish Wrestling. In sport, holds can only be made on the jackets worn by the competitors. There are about 14 tradional techniques. Also, in sport, if a competitor places his hand or knee on the ground while executing a throw, the throw does not count, therefore all throws must be executed from a standing position. This is significant for the martial aspects of this style.
At the start of a match, the lapels of the jackets are twisted together and tucked under the left arm. the competitors then shake hands. This is the wrestlers' signal to each other that they are ready to start. As in Gouren the object is to "back" your opponent. In Cornish wrestling, "pins" refer to the shoulders and hips. A "back" is where three pins touch the ground directly after a throw. A fall where less than three pins touch, or when the "hitch" is broken must be wrestled over. A back ends the bout.
The throwing techniques operate on the "double twist" principle where an wrestler's leg or head is twisted in one direction, and the rest of their body is pulled, or pushed in the opposite direction. (Using the jacket of course.) The throws are not really comparable to the throws in any mainstream style of wrestling. (I, for one get infuriated when this style gets compared to judo, because judo it aint!)
As to the martial aspect: The manual of Cornish Wrestling, put out by the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies some years ago states: "...the thrower will genarally lose his balance and fall fractionally later than his opponent;" This is significant in a fighting situation. In sport, wrestlers endeaver to fall clear of their opponent to avoid injuring them, however, when someone crashes to the ground from a standing postion, with the full weight of their opponent on top of them, there is a strong possibility for injury.
Mr. Colin Roberts, a cornishman who teaches these techniques, was asked about this, he actually said that Cornish wrestling evolved the way it did because it was safer to land on your back, and minimsed the chance of injury. However, it is also significant to note that wrestlers are taught to grip tight to their opponent's jacket when thrown, and not put their arm down to soften the impact of a throw, b/c of the possibility of landing on the arm, not only with your own full weight, but also with the full weight of your opponent. Imagine trying to finish a fight with an arm broken in this manner.
The 14 Techniques of Cornish Wrestling
Before the techniques are described it should be explained that the wrestling always starts by getting into a "hitch". That is, each wrestler takes a firm hold on the other's jacket at left shoulder and right underarm. This is considered a "proper" hitch, however any grip taken on the jacket after shaking hands is deemed fair. That is why some exponents will explain "This is a throw best done before the proper grips are taken".
It is important to remember that Cornish wrestling is not just about the mastery of single techniques. The art is applying them, or combinations thereof while your opponent is doing his best to unbalance you. It is also important to remember that although there may only be about 14 or so techniques, there are many, many variations of them. (ie. there are several ways to do them. eg. the many varieties of sidestepping, footblocking and tripping would all be classified as a Heel or a Toe.) So considering all the variations and combinations, the wrestler has an infinite number of potential moves.
1. The Fore Hip is a move where the opponent's jacket is grasped and is rolled over the hip onto his back.
2. The Fore Crook is similar to the Grapvine. The right leg, say, is wound (or "crooked") around the opponent's left leg just above the ankle. Using your crooking leg, lift your opponent's leg to the rear and as high as possible to over balance him. A sharp pull on his jacket will send him to the ground.
3. The Back Crook starts from the same "crook" position of the previous move. This time the crooking leg is swept quickly forward. A push on the opponent's chest or shoulder will over balance him.
4. The Heel is a trip that can be executed from three positions:-
· From ground level
· At mid calf
· Behind the knee.
5. The Sprag is a defensive wrestling move used when a wrestler is picked up by an opponent. One or both legs are wound around the legs of the offensive wrestler to prevent him from throwing you.
The next two throws are considered "strong man" throws.
6. The Fore Heave involves placing say, your right hip directly against your opponent's right hip, and lifting him onto your hip. You have to grasp the jacket right near the hip, and swing his legs in an arc out in front of you and back behind your left side, dropping him onto his back.
7. The Under-heave involves changing your grip from the initial "hitch". You take you right hand off your opponent's left collar, pass it over his head from your left (his right) and grab the back of his jacket. If you are still with me, you take your left from under his right armpit, and grab his left lapel. From here, you lift him straight up, from his chest with the jacket. If his legs are lifted high enough, gravity does the rest.I am told that this throw is unique to Corno-Breton tradition, but I stand to be corrected.

(I have done these throws in practice many times, but are yet to use them in actual wrestling.)
8. The Toe is a foot block.
9. The Flying Mare. This throw is best done before proper grips have been taken. This is not a "shoulder throw" as found in other styles of wrestling, and therefore requires a little more explanation.The cornish jackets have short lapels that are held loosely closed by two horizontal cords. The Cornish Flying Mare is executed by actually grabbing these cords (top cord palm down and bottom cord palm up) turning and then throwing the opponent over the shoulder onto their back.
There were no unified rules governing the sport until 1923 so techniques would have varied from district to district in Cornwall. Although I am sure that the more conventional shoulder throw was probably used it is not actually listed as a hitch in the Cornish Wrestling Manual.
10. The Lock Arm is a move to immobilise one of your opponent's arms, to enable you to effect a throw. From the opening Hitch pass, for example, put your left arm under your opponent's right, reach across and grab the left lapel of his jacket, thus securing a "wing lock" type manoever. A toe, heel, crook or hip usually follows. This is best done before the proper grips have been made.
11. The Back Heave is where you grab your opponent and lift him slightly from the side. Pivot him on your hip so his legs are swung forward. Take your full weight on your far leg and sweep his legs forward with your closest leg. At the same time, pull back on his shoulders and drop him on his back. This is considered to be an offensive move.
12. The Knock Back is basically the same as the Back Heave, but is done when your opponent has stepped in front of you to Heel or Fore hip you. By pulling him backwards, while "knocking" his legs behind the knee joints, he can be thrown backwards. This is a defensive move.
13. The Pull Over Hip is kind of like a hip toss. You reach under the opponent's armpit, grip his jacket behind the shoulder, and trhow him over your hip.
14. The Back Step is another move to be done b4 the "proper" grip is taken. Putting your right leg between the opponent's feet, hook his left leg with your right foot. Keep your forearms parallell to the ground, and shove his chest as you kick your right leg back.
Another ingenious thing about Cornish wrestling is the ability of the technique to "flow" from one to the other. Eg. If your opponent refuses to go down to a Back Heel, you can try to turn your buttocks underneath him in a Fore Hip. If a Fore Crook fails, you can try to sweep the crooking leg forward into a Back Crook, or disengage your leg and Toe his supporting foot.
However, with a little imagination many variations and improvisations can be developed, so no one consider my discussion anywhere near exhaustive.
Please let's not let this aspect of Western Martial Arts heritage die.


Kendall, B; "The Art of Cornish Wrestling". Federation of Old Cornwall Societies. 1990
Unpublished (I think) lecture by Colin Roberts.