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Home > Books > Book of archery > Section IV: Welsh Archery
Section IV
Welsh Archery
Part 1 of 4

Nyd hyder ond bwa.
There is no dependence but on the bow.
Ancient Welsh Adage.

By yon castle wall, midst the breezes of morning,
   The genius of ambria strayed pensive and slow:
The oak wreath was wither'd her temples adorning,
   And the wind through its leaves sigh'd its murmur of woe.
She gazed on her mountains with filial devotion,
   She gazed on her Dee as he roll'd to the ocean,--
And Cambria! poor Cambria! she cried with emotion,
   Thou yet hast thy country, thy harp, and thy bow.

Sweep on, thou proud stream, with thy billows all hoary;
   As proudly my warriors have rush'd on the foe;
But feeble and faint is the sound of their glory,
   For time, like thy tide, has its ebb and its flow.
E'er now, while I watch thee, thy beauties are fading,
   The sands and the shallows thy course are invading,
Where the sail swept the surges, the sea bird is wading;
   And thus hath it fared with the land of the bow.
Bishop Heber[1]

IT is a remarkable, but hitherto, I believe, an unnoticed fact, that while Englishmen were Carrying the terror of their archery through all the principal kingdoms of Europe, proving themselves, as the old chronicle expresses it, "the best allies or the very Worst foes," they found, even at their own doors, some most formidable rivals in its practice,--I mean the Welsh. To the strength and skill with which they handled the bow, as much as to the inaccessible character of their native fastnesses, may be attributed the successful struggles by which their independence was long preserved.[2]

A knowledge of the bow appears to have existed in Britain from the remotest antiquity. In one of the Triads, mention is made of a mythological or fabulous person, called "Gwrnerth Ergydlym," or Powerful Sharpshot; who slew the largest bear that ever infested his country with a straw arrow. And in a composition of the 14th century, the author refers to a tradition of a character somewhat similar. Speaking of an improbable event, it is asked, "When will that be?" -- "When worthless Deikin[3] of Gwynedd is as good an archer as Mydr ap Mydvydd ('Aim, the son of Aimer'), who could shoot the wren through his claw, from Caenog, in the Vale of Clwyd, to Esgair Vervel, in Ireland."

The discovery of arrow heads of flint and metal in the ancient cairns and tumult, so abundantly scattered over the open downs of Britain, is better evidence that its aboriginal inhabitants were acquainted with these missiles. A considerable number has been lately added to the antiquarian collections of the British Museum. A still larger quantity exists at Stourhead, the seat of Sir Richard Colt Hoare, Bart. One regards these interesting relics with feelings of deep interest. Their construction is most ingenious, and the lapse of twenty centuries has made not the slightest change in their original form and appearance.

Indeed, the compositions of even the most ancient Welsh bards make frequent mention of bow and arrow. These allusions, however, are not sufficiently explicit to suggest any idea of the state of archery when they wrote. A poet of the sixth century, apparently advocating the arts of peace, says,

Better is the work of the sickle than of the bow.

Neither Caesar, nor any succeeding writer who has treated of British affairs, describes the ceremonies practiced by the aboriginal inhabitants, in their declarations of peace and war. During the reign of Howel Dha, the blast of a horn, and in a more improved state of the arts, that of a trumpet, borne by a herald throughout the land, summoned its warriors to the battle.[4] But a more ancient plan appears to have been adopted by the Welsh, equally distinguished by its efficacy, its elegance, and its simplicity. In no composition of prose or poetry is this specifically described; yet, traces of ancient but obsolete customs may frequently be discerned in the proverbs of a nation. These, though used in an indirect sense, and without any reference in the speaker's mind to the literal or original application, frequently allow that, as well as the cause of it, to appear. Thus Lewis or Glynn, alluding to a proclamation of says,

Bwa rhadded drwy troll Brydain.
A bow was sent throughout Britain.

And in some remote districts of North Wales, where the most primitive modes of thought and action still prevail, the inhabitants thus recommend the straight path to a stranger's choice.

Ewch ar hyd y bwa head.
Go along the bow of peace.

Here, by the use of an elegant and highly poetical metaphor, the path is compared to an unstrung bow. The natural inference to be drawn from the two proverbial expressions is, that different conditions of this weapon were symbolical of peace and war. If threatened by hostile aggression, a speedy messenger perambulated the country, bearing the bent bow, a signal no one dared to disregard. When peace again extended her olive branch, the joyous tidings were communicated by the same weapon, unstrung.


There was heard the sound of a coming foe,
There was sent through Britain a bended bow,
And a voice was poured from the free winds far,
As the land rose up at the sign of war.
    'Heard ye not the battle horn?
    Reaper, leave thy golden corn!
    Leave it to the birds of heaven,
    Swords must flash, and shields be riven!
    Leave it for the winds to shed,
    Arm, ere Britain's turf grow red.'
And the reaper armed like a freeman's son,
And the bended bow, and the voice pass'd on.
    'Hunter, leave the mountain chace,
    Take the falchion from its place;
    Let the wolf go free to-day,
    Leave him for a nobler prey!
    Let the deer ungall'd sweep by,
    Arm thee, --Britain's foes are nigh!
And the hunter armed ere his chace was done
And the bended bow, and the voice passed on.
     'Chieftain, quit the joyous feast!
     Stay not till the song hath ceased:
     Though the mead be foaming bright,
     Though the fires give ruddy light,
     Leave the hearth, and leave the hall--
     Arm thee, Britain's foes must fall.'
And the chieftain armed, and the horn was blown,
And the bended bow and the voice passed on.
     'Prince, thy father's deeds are told,
     In the bower, and in the hold!
     Where the goatherd's lay is sung,
     Where the minstrel's harp is strung!--
     Foes are on thy native sea!--
     Give our bards a tale of thee!'
And the prince came armed, like a kleader's son,
And the bended bow, and the voice passed on.
     'Mother, stay thou not thy boy!
     He must learn the battle's joy.
     Sister, bring the and spear,
     Give thy brother words of cheer!
     Maiden, bid thy lover part,
     Britain calls the strong of heart.'
And the bended bow, and the voice passed on;
And the bards made song for battle won.

Traces of this singular expedient may likewise be found among nations with whom the Welsh could never have had communication, unless, indeed, we assign them an oriental descent. Of this there is a remarkable instance in the history of the Seljukian princes.

Mohammed and David, the sons of Seljuk, king of Bokhara, by their ambitious and warlike character, had excited the jealousy of Mahmoud of Gazneh. Desirous of ascertaining indirectly the extent of his rivals' military resources, the sultan requested them to send to his court some confidential person with whom he might treat of an important affair. They despatched their uncle Ismael. Mahmoud inquired of this personage how many troops the Seljucides could furnish him, in case circumstances rendered an alliance expedient on his part. Ismael, who at that time held a bow and two arrows in his hand, replied, "Send one of these arrows into our camp, and 50,000 of your servants will mount on horseback; and if that number should not be sufficient, then send this other arrow to the horde of Balik, and you may reckon on 50,000 more." But," said the Gasnevede, dissembling his anxiety, "if I should stand in need of the whole force of your hundred tribes?" "Despatch my bow," firmly replied Ismael, striking the weapon with his shafts, "and as it is circulated round' the summons will be obeyed by 200,000 horse."[5]

The use of the bow as a declaration of hostility is common in many other parts of the East. When the king of Bisnagar designs to make war against any neighbouring prince, he issues from the capital in great state, surrounded by his nobles, with cavalry, infantry, and elephants, as if about to commence a distant march. Then, detaching himself from his attendants, he mounts a war horse, superbly caparisoned, and riding towards the hostile Country, discharges an arrow in the direction of its frontiers. Immediately a band of cavaliers, well mounted, scour the surrounding country with burning torches, to announce the days on which the inhabitants are required to repair to the royal city.[6]

In the customs of the most ancient nations we discover traces of the same expedient. When Cambyses had subdued Egypt, his ambition prompted him to the invasion of Ethiopia. Under presence of carrying presents to the king, spies were despatched thither to ascertain its strength and its resources. But the monarch quickly penetrated into their real character, and addressed them as follows:-- "If Cambyses were an honest man, he would desire no more than his own; nor endeavour to reduce a people under servitude, who have never done him any injury."

Then, taking a splendid bow, suspended at his right hand, upon a corner of the golden throne whereon he sat, he thus continued:-- "Give your master this weapon, and say the king of Ethiopia advises the monarch of Persia to make war against his country, when the Persians shall be able thus easily to bend so strong a bow; and, in the mean time, to thank the gods, that they never inspired the Ethiopians with a desire of extending their dominions beyond the boundaries of their native country." Saying this, he again unstrung the mighty weapon, apparently without an effort, and delivered it to the ambassadors.[7]

I need scarcely add, that the Persian desisted from his design of attempting the conquest of Ethiopia But let us return to the Welsh. Their ancient maxims of jurisprudence enumerate three weapons with which it was incumbent on every householder to be constantly provided, against foreign aggression and domestic plunderers. These are--a sword, a spear, and a bow with twelve arrows in a quiver.

The Laws of howel dha, or the Good, were framed in the tenth century. He fixes the price of a bow at one penny; of an arrow, at a farthing. It is therefore evident that the ancient Britons manufactured the apparatus of archery at home. If procured from England' they could not have been sold at so low a price; for, there, even the most ordinary bow never cost less than eightpence. It must be remarked, however, that we have no means of deciding whether the penny was of silver or brass; nor is it clear that the farthing was a fourth part of the penny. The former is a Saxon, the latter, a Welsh word. However, we may acquire some idea of the relative value of these articles, from the following general list of prices current in that age:--

A spear, 4d. a broad axe, 4d. a filly fourteen days old, 4d.; ditto, three years- old, 6d.; a calf, till All Saints, 4d.; a chicken, 1/4 d.; a water bottle, 1/4 d.; a spindle, 1/4d.; a pair of fetters for cows' legs when milked, 1/4 d.; a hayrake, 1/4 d.; a wooden shovel, 1/4 d.; a fork, 1/4 d.;

Archery was included among the four-and-twenty Welsh games, and in hunting they adhered to the following regulations. No one was permitted to shoot at a beast under chase, or whilst reposing[8], on pain of forfeiting his bow and arrow to the lord of the soil. He might shoot at and kill the game, if he could, while the dogs were after it, but was not allowed to shoot among the dogs.[9] These laws must be of considerable antiquity, the bear and wild boar being enumerated among the animals of chace. That the bow was used with considerable adroitness by the ancient Welsh sportsmen is evident from the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis. In his Itinerary, he says that Einion, Lord of Gwrthrynion, being out hunting, one of his attendants killed, with an arrow, a hind as she was springing off, which proved to be fatter on the haunches and every other part than a stag--

Quidam ex suds arcum tenens [qy. tendern?] carvam exsilientem sagitta perforavit.

Like their English neighbours, the Welsh archers relied on foreign importation for a supply of superior bow-wood. It is worthy of remark that Flanders, celebrated at the present day for producing all the apparatus of archers in great perfection, should have enjoyed similar repute nearly two centuries and a half ago. The following anecdote, extant in the Welsh language, is given in support of this assertion. Rhys Wyn, a gentleman advanced in years, came with William Cynwal on a visit to Edmund Prys, archdeacon of Merioneth[10], they found him engaged in archery, shooting thirty yards, or point blank distance. After the usual salutations, Rhys Wyn spoke thus: "Had I a bow weak enough, old as I am, you should not shoot alone. Then William said he had a bow that would reach thirty yards, which Rhys could draw with his little finger. And the latter replied, "With your permission, I will request this man (the archdeacon) to compose a poem, soliciting the loan of it." Cynwal assented, on condition that he himself should name the subject of these verses, because his bow was the gift of William Clwtch, who brought it from Antwerp, However, Rhys Wyn, finding William did not send the subject in time, solicited the archdeacon to compose the verses upon any subject he might choose; and the answer of William by letter was, that the bow had been lent to Master Thomas Prys, but when returned, it should be sent, or else he would purchase the best bow to be found in Chester.[11]

I may observe, en passant, that we have here one of a thousand instances which might be adduced to show the extreme fondness entertained for poetic composition by the Welsh. The birth of a child, or its departure from the world; the marriage of a friend; a successful hunting match; the ordinary occurrences of domestic life; an interchange of courtesy, were celebrated, or replied to, by a copy of verses. In this talent for unpremeditated composition they were in nowise inferior to the Italian improvisator). Gynddelw, the Homer of Welsh bards--and right well is he entitled to the distinction--addresses one of these complimentary effusions the son of Madog ap Meredudd Llywelyn. It seems the chieftain, desirous of testifying his respect, had sent in the whole carcass of a stag which his hounds chanced to kill before the poet's threshold. In like manner, he pours forth his acknowledgments--

In never-dying verse--

to Blaid, or the Wolf, another munificent patron, who had gratified his martial tastes by the present of a glittering sword,--

The ice-brook's temper.

And in the following lines addressed by Gwffudd ap Tudor, a bard of the thirteenth century, to one Howell, thanking him for a handsome bow, the reader will see a further illustration of this remarkable propensity. It appears in its original dress, because assuredly doomed to suffer in my hands by translation. The Saxon must rest satisfied that it has poetic merit; while the vast body of archers, with which the Principality, north and south, abounds, are fully competent to form their own opinion:--

Erfid newid nwyf arfer cler a'm clwyf,
Efyniaid i'm rhwyf ydd wyf eidda,
A rhwydd wawd erfyn aroed un flwyddyn
A warawd toppyn felyn fwla;
Arwyddion rhoddi a wna haeloni,
Caledis cronni, crynu a wna;
Eraill a roddai arwydd, rhwydd fydd rhai,
Ped fai a'i dyrrai mor i derra
Eryr, gwyr gwarani arwyr moliant,
Ardunniant ffuiant ytty ffynna;
Edrydd gweinydd gwawd adneu cerdd dafawd,
Arawd o'm meithwawd ytt ni metha,
Er mwyn mirein son morwynawl ddynion,
A son llatheion a'i llettya;
Er mwyn llif ddwyn llaith, gwawr geinllawr gynllaith,
Gwawd obeith gweniaith a'm gweinydda;
Er lliw lluch Ianawr, er nef llef a llawr
Er mwyn gwawr Faelawr nam gofala,
Er cof dof dy frwys ban loywlan lin lwys;
Canwyll Bowys lwys a'm dilyssa,
Fy rhwyf a'm rheufedd o'roi'r gair gommedd;
Rhiannedd Gwynedd a'th ogana,
Celi a droses wrthyd fy neges,
Culwydd a'th roddes lies nyw llaesa,
Colofn Prystallum, coel finian Awrtun,
Catgun cain eiddun ail cunedda,
Calan ddydd pan ddel celenig ddigel.
Howel aer drafel ni wer drofa,
Cydwedd buelin cadedig hadin,
Cyfryn car iessin newn côr assa;
Cirried nawdd ged nudd car prudd far preidd fudd,
Can nidd Gruffudd na'th rudd na'th ra,
Cader ar curbost cadarn lawfarn lost,
Cad'r ffrost da fuost eithr dy fwa;
Cynnal gwyrirdeb, ac enu, ac wyneb,
Er neb rhyw atteb na'm rhy oetta,
Dos gennad teithfad tuthfa poen dethrol pond ddoethosti etwa:
Duw a rhydd i ddedwrydd dda,
Diau mi biau 'r bua.[12]

Chester, to which reference is made in the anecdote of Rhys Wyn, anciently formed a portion of North Wales. No part of the Principality was then so famed for the excellence of its bowyers, or the number and frequency of its bow meetings. Among the Sloane MSS. is preserved a collection of Moralities enacted by the "Bowyers, Fletchers, and Stringers," of that ancient town, about three centuries ago. Archery also held a place among the festivities which ensued on the election of its civic officers, and a very ancient document[13] gives the following description of what the writer quaintly styles "A Sheriff's Breakfast."

"There is an ancient custom in the city of Chester, the origin of which is now unknown. On Easter Monday, every year, commonly called Black Monday, the two sheriffs of the city do shoot for a breakfast of calf's head and bacon; commonly called the sheriffs' breakfast. This is the manner of it. The day previous, the drum soundeth through the city, with a proclamation for all gentlemen, yeomen, and good fellows, that will come with their bowes and arrowes, to take part with one sheriff or the other; and upon Monday morning, on the Roodday, the mayor, shreeves, aldermen, and other gentlemen being there, the one sheriff chooseth one, and the other sheriff chooseth another' and so of all the archers; then one sheriff he shooteth, and the other sheriff he shooteth; the mark being twelve score yards distant. Thus they proceed, until three shots be won. Then all the winner's side go up together first, with arrowes in their hands; and all the loser's, with bowes in their hands, together to the Common Hall of the city. There the mayor, aldermen, gentlemen, and the rest take part of the said breakfast in loving manner. This is yearly done, it being a commendable exercise, a good recreation, and friendly assembly. Another curious regulation once existed in this ancient city. Every man who chanced to be married there on a Shrove Tuesday was required to deliver to the Drapers' Company, in the presence of the mayor, a silver arrow, valued five shillings or upwards, instead of the football of silk and velvet, which they had been accustomed to present time out of mind, according to the ancient customs of Chester. The arrow was given by the authorities as a prize for the encouragement of shooting with the longbow."[14]

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