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Home > Books > Book of archery > Section I: Juvenile Bowmen
Section I
Juvenile Bowmen
Part 1 of 6
Sir boy, now let us see your archery,
Look you draw home enough, and 'tis there straight.
Titus Andronious.

Ye children of Englande, for the honor of the same,
Take bowe and shafts in hande, learn shootinge to frame,
That ye another day may soe playe your parses,
As to serve your prince as well with handes as hearses.
    Sing up hearte, sing up hearte be never caste downe,
    But joye in Kinge Edward that weareth the crowne.
Archers' Chorus at Coronation of Edward the Sixth.

------Delightful task,
To teach the young idea how to shoot!

FOR ages anterior to the Conquest, the inhabitants of Britain held archery in little estimation, except as an appliance of sylvan sport, when her chieftains sought relief from the tedium of domestic tranquillity, by warring upon the antlered denizens of the waste. Besides a preference for other weapons, the sportsman, necessarily habituated to a bow of feeble range[2], grew mistrustful of its powers in more serious contests, those mightier huntings, where the game was man.

But "Norman William came," and on the blood-stained field of Hastings [3] our Saxon forefathers first learned to appreciate rightly the merit of yew bow and bearded clothyard shaft. A general disarming followed that event; but the haughty victor, with sound military policy, threw back these simple weapons to the vanquished of every grade. Whilst smarting under a sense of national degradation, the privilege to bear arms of any sort was regarded by the Saxon freeholder at as a most grateful boon. It formed the line of distinction between him and the weaponless serf[4], who, like the soil: and cattle he tilled and fed, was transferred to the highest bidder, whenever the demands of necessity or improvidence induced their owner to seek a market. The once neglected bow, therefore now became an object of more than ordinary affection, stimulated, perhaps, by jealous rivalry of the skill with which they saw it wielded in stranger hands. At home, whether in hall or cottage, it occupied the place of honour above the blazing hearth; abroad, it was borne like the modern fowling-piece by country gentlemen, whilst strolling over their estates, with a bolt for the pheasant whirring from the brake, and a broad arrow for the dun deer that sprang from the bracken around his path.[5] Indeed, from the prince down to his meanest subject, the love of archery was the ruling passion of every class of society. It is, I believe, not very generally known, that, previous to the Spanish Armada embarking for our shores, the Pope had despatched his emissaries into England to report upon the character and resources of its people. Their observations, which were committed to writing, still remain in MS. in the Vatican Library; and one of them affords a passage so illustrative of English habits, during the sixteenth century, that I shall present its substance to my readers. The author states, the weapon in which our ancestors then most excelled as the bow and arrow; and such delight took they in its exercise, that there was no rank or profession but pursued-it with enthusiasm. As the hopes of a country rest principally upon the velour of the rising generation, boys, from the age of ten years, were taught to draw the bow, and all possible means practised to make the love of it supersede every other juvenile diversion. The success attendant on this diligent application, he asserts, would be incredible to those who had not been witnesses of their proficiency. Of such as moderately skilled whether they took aim in an horizontal or other direction, there were few who could not lodge the arrow within a palm of their mark. In the more experienced, force was so united with dexterity, that they pierced not only corslets[6], but a complete suit of armour.[7] Other foreigners who visited the island at various early periods remark that Its populace, in town and country, followed archery to the neglect of almost every other recreation. Hentzner, a German traveller, says he saw the husbandmen going forth to their daily toil with bow and arrows, which they laid either on the plough, or in a corner of the field under cultivation.

But those great achievements which shed lustre upon our annals, making an Englishman's heart throb with triumph as he reads, belong to a much earlier period in the history of our archers. The nation, grown wise by that terrific lesson inflicted at Hastings, in a single generation had organised its bands of martial yeomen, whose exploits, to use the expressive phraseology of an old chronicler[8], "made all France afraid," at once the terror and the admiration of their foes. "Milice redoubtable," exclaimed a chivalrous old Gaul, on witnessing the good- humoured, ruddy, embrowned visages, muscular forms, and characteristic equipment, of a knot of tall English bowmen; "Milice redoubtable! la fleur des archiers du monde."[9] Yet as France experienced the evils of their scourging visitations more frequently than any other European country, terror rather than admiration predominated in the popular mind. Like the Italians when assailed by the fierce hordes of the north, they made their chapels and abbeys, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, resound with litanies and prayers to avert the calamitous descent of English bowmen upon their shores[10]. "These were the men," continues the old English writer above quoted, "amongst whom the kings of England in foughten battles, were wont to remain (who were their footmen), as the French kings did among their knights, the prince thereby showing where his chief strength did exist."[11] His statement receives confirmation from circumstances connected with the battle of Agincourt, that great triumph of English archery. Owing to the nature of the combats, in which the hero of the day was personally engaged, it is evident he quitted his mounted chivalry at the battle's commencement, to fight on foot among the ranks of his meanest soldiers.[12]

During five centuries and a half subsequent to the Conquest, every male inhabitant of the island was engaged in the practice of this noble recreation. England, therefore, at all times possessed a national militia, ready for the field at an hour's warning and hence sprang the large bodies of efficient troops, which in an almost incredibly short time were seen marching under the blood stained banners of the Red and White Rose. That the result of a single engagement, like Townton or St. Albans[13], should have proved the temporary annihilation of both factions, will excite no surprise when we reflect they came to the field armed with, and equally skilled in, the same weapon. That when thus destroyed, their armies should be re-organised so rapidly, that, like the teeth sown by Cadmus, they appeared to have sprung out of the ground, is also natural, because wherever there were men, there were disciplined soldiers. In the equally sanguinary, but more justifyable struggles for national freedom, which stain the pages of our annals at various other periods, the bow played its part.

On the very first summons, in accordance with the prevailing martial spirit,

Up rose the land at the sound of war.

The ploughman left his team motionless in the furrow, the woodman abandoned his axe, the artisan his loom, the brawny smith his iron to cool upon the anvil, and snatching up the ever ready bow and shaft, hastened to the place of tryst. They met there then, not an ill-armed, undisciplined rabble, but as men

With hearts resolved, and hands prepared,
The blessings they enjoy'd to guard;

every one sufficiently master of his weapon to riddle a steel corslet at five score paces, and act with terrific effect a against masses of cavalry, while the majority could bring down the falcon

Hovering in her pride of place;

or with a broad arrow, strong and unerring as rifle shot, transfix the wild deer in its fleetest course. Such men could be neither oppressed nor enslaved.[14]

Thus it is that the perusal of our national annals awaken' ill the minds of youth and eld, a thousand glowing, grateful recollections of "England's famous archerie."The romantic, perhaps not less veracious legends of the ballad maker, appeal to our sympathies under a different, and even more seductive, form. All our ideas of the blythe vocation of the forester,--

Merrie and free,

lord of dale and down, who maketh his couch beneath the woodland bough,--are associated with bow and shafts, the village green, and crowds of jovial rustics congregated at summer's eve around its archer butts. Thence, by a natural, pleasing transit tion, we pass to the records of that bold Saxon outlaw, whose still cherished memory exhibits some faint traces of an animosity, once universal, amongst the native English, towards all of Norman race. Our venerable Bishop Latimer has recorded an amusing instance of this popular enthusiasm. During one of his pastoral journeys, he arrived towards evening at a small town near London, and gave notice of his intention to preach on the morrow, that being a holiday. "When I came there," he says, "the church door was fast locked. I tarried an hour or more, and at last the key was found, and one of the parishioners came to me, and says, --'Syr, this is a busy day with us; we cannot hear you: it is Robin Hoode's daye; the parish are gone abroad to gather for Robin Hoode.' "The good bishop had clothed himself in pontificalibus; but he was obliged to unfrock, and go forwards on his way, leaving the place to the archers, who, beneath an avenue of old oak trees, were rehearsing the parts of Robin Hood, Little John, and all the band. The placid meekness which formed one distinguished characteristic of the most illustrious of England's martyrs need not be enlarged upon here. Yet this unceremonious preference of an outlaw's bow to the pastoral crook entirely overset the bishop's equanimity. He therefore rates the offenders soundly; but, owing to the changes which time has made in colloquial expressions, his reproof reminds us of the grumblings of some offended overgrown schoolboy; at once quaint and ludicrous. Yet, had the pursuits of these May-day revellers been "in season," could they have failed of sympathy with one, who informs us elsewhere, in a sermon, that his father "taught him to shoot like a true Englishman; and bought him bows bigger and bigger as he increased in years; and of whom the author of the MS. defence of Archbishop Abbot[15] writes thus:-- "Non fuerat quisquam, qui in generosum equum salire, aut tractare elegantior potuit ?"--No one could vault upon a high-mettled steed, or launch his arrows at the mark, with a more noble and becoming grace.

Perhaps there lives not throughout the whole realm of merry England a single educated youth who has not dreamed through the pages of that little volume, elegantly entitled "The Garland," which contains a poetic chronicle of the exploits of Sherwood's famous Robber Chief. Stout of heart and ready of hand, we see him reign lord paramount over its finest glades, in defiance of lion-hearted Richard, and his still more inveterate enemy, the "Sheriffe of Nottingham," to boot. With a manly dexterity, which few could rival in that age of stalwart archery, he launches the grey goose wing,

To cleave the willow wand;
or
Hit the mark a hundred rod,
And cause a hart to die.

At the close of life, influenced by that chivalrous bravery which had formed its guiding star, he forbids retaliation upon the treacherous woman who drained the life's blood from his heart.

I never hurt fair maid in all my time,
Nor at my end will I now.[16]

And, finally, how natural and impressive appears the ruling passion, strong in death, exhibited in this expiring forester's attachment to the trusty yew which had extricated him from a hundred dangers, and the green woodlands and sunny hills where he had run his race.

Give me my bent bow in my hand,
    And a broad arrow I'll let flee;
And where that arrow lighteth,
    There shall my grave digged be.

Deep and lasting are the impressions produced by this sort of reading. They outlive the results of graver studies, and to them we may attribute much of the daily increasing fondness for archery which prevails among our English youth.[17] The obvious practical advantages resulting from the pursuit of an elegant amusement have of course lent their aid to the Good Cause, for such, my fellow-countrymen, you will esteem it, so long as it seems desirable to enlarge the number of our home-bred exercises, tending, in these days of foreign estrangement, to revive the dear domestic hospitalities, once so characteristic of English rural life. Could we promote among the gentlemen,--and on the present occasion it is most important to add, the ladies of England,--an enthusiasm for recreations especially congenial to the beautiful domains which surround their ancestral homes, our object would be attained, and archery reign triumphant; since who amongst us is ignorant of the alliance claimed by Britain's time-honoured pastime with lawn and woodland glade, heath-clad hill, and ancient trysting oak?

Amidst such congenial scenes, as I rambled near the source of "Towy's foaming flood," the present chapter suggested itself Thus to address all primary instructions to the juveniles of either sex; to appear ambitious only of "teaching the young idea how to shoot," cancels the impertinence of an attempt to lecture full-grown ladies and gentlemen into a knowledge of our right prince-like pastime.

Remember, then, boys, that in youth only we readily acquire every accomplishment, and for none is early initiation more requisite than for archery. All nations famed for their adroitness with the bow seem to have been aware of this. The Goths, like the ancient Persians, esteemed an inviolable attachment to truth, and skilful shooting, to be the most desirable attainments a young man could possess. They suspended implements of archery over a male infant's cradle, at once to indicate its sex, and the profession to which, thereafter, it was to be devoted. Traces of a somewhat similar custom are also discernible in the East. "When a son is born in a family," says a Chinese proverb, "the bow and quiver are hung up at the gate."[18] Other remarkable usages, connected with this almost universal weapon, prevail in St. Vincent and Tobago, the only islands of the West Indies whence the aboriginal inhabitants have not been extirpated. The Rev. Thomas Davies, of Llanelly, in South Wales, about the year 1606, wrote an amusing account of the Caribbees. He thus explains, by reference to archery, an extraordinary receding of the forehead observable in the male inhabitants of that race. "As soon," says he, "as the children are born, the mothers make their foreheads flat, and press them so, that there is a descent backwards; for besides that this form is accounted one of the principal pieces of beauty amongst them, they affirm it facilitates their shooting up to the top of a tree, standing at the foot, whereat they are extremely expert, as being brought up to it from their childhood. At a hundred paces, they will hardly fail striking a half-crown piece.[19] Among every celebrated nation of archers a fondness for the bow has been imbibed as it were with the mother's milk; and the little rogues readily exercise themselves in shooting from the moment they are able to clutch a bow and arrows.

An intelligent writer[20], who passed much of his time in studying Scandinavian habits and customs, asserts that he had seen boys of eleven and twelve years, "so cunning in shooting, that, at the option of a spectator they unerringly struck the head, breast, or feet, of the smallest birds, with an arrow." He adds, "So will old men that have their sight." Saxo, the Danish historian, cites a monstrous example of skill in these senile archers. He asserts that he knew an old man whose crossbow had such a huge nut[21], that he could set ten arrows to the string, and these being shot vigorously against the enemy, made as many wounds in his body.

Many Scandinavian youths became archers by profession, and subsisted altogether on the produce of their bows. The large black bear, with which northern Europe is infested, was the special object of their pursuit. In autumn, the animal feeds on a species of ripe red fruit, growing in clusters, like grapes. To procure this, the bear either ascends the trees, which he can do with the agility of a cat, or, standing on his two hind legs, pulls down the branches within his reach. The cunning hunter, who lies concealed behind a tree or fragment of rock, now pierces his distended body with a broad-headed arrow, and maddened by pain, the enraged animal immediately rushes upon a rude image of a man, purposely placed to attract his attention. Whilst engaged in tearing and rending it, a second arrow, discharged by the hunter from his hiding-place, generally laid the shaggy monster prostrate in death.

Many boys also gained their entire support by shooting crows in the fields. They reserved the backs only, strung upon a small osier twig; and on exhibiting these to the elders of their village, they received a small gratuity in money, with arrows, in proportion to the number of birds.

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