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Home > Books > Book of archery > Section X: Of the Shaft, Ancient and Modern
Section X
Of the Shaft, Ancient and Modern
Part 1 of 3

The Winchester and Taylor's goose[1] I see
Are all too heavy and too hot for me.
I will retain the honor, to emblaze
Of the grey goose, that on the green cloth graze.
Throughout the world the trumph of fame loud rings,
To spread the glory of the goose's wings.
The Huns, the Goths, the Vandals, and the Gauls,
With arrows made great Rome their several thralls;
Yea all the nations the whole world around,
The grey goose wing hath honored and renown'd.
Prayer of the Grey Goose Wing, 1627.

A shaft bath three principal parts, the stele, the feather, and the head; each of which must be severally spoken of.

TRES-BIEN, fair sir! your high behest shall be obeyed: it would ill become me to gainsay the commands of so venerable a Toxophilite. Yet, before I enter upon my description of these component parts of the arrow, permit us, friend Roger, to have a word respecting its ancient dimensions, on which you are most unaccountably silent. That so erudite a classic as yourself, fortified by the wisdom of past ages, should not have foreseen the dire consequences of thus casting the apple of discord among your descendants[2], is wholly incomprehensible. How much reason have we to regret you were not born with the gossiping propensities of amiable old Isaac Walton; with more bonhommie and less learning. A treatise on archery, written in the style and with the minuteness of detail which characterises the "Contemplative Angler," would at this day be purchased, as was a certain black letter tome now in safe keeping of the Roxburgh Club, with guineas in one scale, and your book in the other. We should then have been informed of a thousand facts and incidents, whose interest, not at all limited to the votaries of archery, would throw important light on the domestic habits of your contemporaries. We should have ascertained who was London 's Waring in the merry days of Queen Bess; whether the Kelsals of Lancashire had then the reputation of making the best bows in England, as they are said to have done a century later. You would have given us the dimensions of every shaft in your own quiver; nay, you would have done still better; privileged by your right of access to your royal mistress 's residence, you would have been a frequent visiter at the court of guard at Greenwich palace, and told us of the arrows borne by the tallest archer who lounged within its precincts.

At the cost of a morning's visit to the Tower, you might have inspected many thousand noble bows and goodly shafts, lying rotting[3] there; most of them, be it remembered, as old as the period, when, it is reported, the archers of our fifth Harry drew every man a yard.

And then, what delightful anecdotes of individual skill, recorded from your own personal experience; yet of these, the Toxophilus is barren as a Caermarthenshire heath. Not one allusion to the various drillings you necessarily witnessed among the Queen's yeomen; or the marvellous flight shots made by individuals in Finsbury and Tutthill fields; and lastly, not a single name recorded of all the London 'prentices "proper and tall," whose reputation for archery stood high among the graver citizens. By the rood! friend Roger, the truth seems to be, that with abundant materials you know not the art of making a pleasant book.

Mark now, how cheerfully old Walton enters into all the minutiae of his art. After his own delightful gossiping fashion, we learn that the best tackle of all kinds came in his day from Yorkshire. The length and strength of his favourite rod; the wood of which it was fashioned; how it was spliced and bound together with silk; its singular lightness and elasticity; are made as familiar to me as the merits and material of my own specimen of Kelly's[4] unrivalled handicraft. The tyers of the most killing flies, and the names of many an old friend, once skilful in the use of them, but, " now with God," are likewise chronicled with equal minuteness, by this simple-hearted piscatory enthusiast of nearly two centuries ago. Nor are we even left to guess the number and weight of bouts killed by a fisherman of that age, on what might be called an angler's red letter day: all is set forth to us with the most amusing, amiable garrulity. Details such as these would have been invaluable to the archer; yet we have them not; and excepting one story of an old bow, spoiled by being left strung all night, I do not recollect an anecdote in the whole work.

An amusing instance of the zeal with which the old English arrow's length is debated by men of the bow and quiver, once occurred to me, an excursion in the western counties. As I stood at an inn-door, to await the arrival of the stage-coach, a gentleman, observing some bows among my luggage, fell into conversation upon the topics they naturally suggested, but more particularly on the subject of the present chapter. I quickly perceived he was no tyro, and although our arrangements did not allow of any discussion whilst the carriage was in motion, at every occasional stoppage, the subject was commenced de novo in the posthouses.

"And so, Sir," observed my interlocutor, "you do not conceive I am exactly correct in believing that our English yeomen, those, for instance, who fought with the gallant Harry of Monmouth at Agincourt, drew every man his cloth yard shaft."

"There is no question, but that such arrows were in use among the archers of Agincourt and other ancient military expeditions: it is their universal adoption by the whole army, which I dispute."

"Let us hear your reasons: but first allow me to remind you of a passage in Paulus Jovius, a traveller who visited this country about the middle of the sixteenth century, and whose opinion as a foreigner and eye-witness is certainly deserving attention. 'Eas minimo digito crassiores[5],' he repeated in a triumphant tone, chastened, however, by innate good breeding; at the same time grasping the little finger of his left hand, with the thumb and fore finger of the right, in illustration of his author. Then again suiting the action to the word, he touched his elbow and middle finger alternately, as he went on; 'Bicubitales que[6], et hamato præfixas ferro, ingentibus ligneis arcubus intorquent.'"

"True, Sir: I well remember the spirited picture which historian has sketched of the arms and discipline of our tall English bowmen. That there were tens of thousands of arrows in the gallant band to which you have just alluded, I readily allow. But there were a still larger proportion, the dimensions of which no ways exceeded those sold by our modern fletchers. My enthusiasm for all that relates to a favourite hobby, led me at an early age, to the scene of that extraordinary victory. Whilst traversing the field of Agincourt, a peasant brought me the head of an arrow, unquestionably English, and specially adapted for piercing armour; indeed, there can be no doubt it belonged to that 'iron sleet of arrowy shower,' which rained destruction upon the steel clad chivalry of France. The ferule by which the head was originally attached to the wood, is still very perfect; but its diameter proves the shaft could not have measured more than eight and twenty, or at the furthest, thirty inches. I have repeatedly compared it with--."

"Shorten that 'ere off leader's bearing rein a hole or two;" with "Now if you please, gennelmen;" here broke from the hoarse voice of our red-faced, bottle-nosed Jehu, as he received his whip from the horsekeeper, and gathered up the ribands in his left hand. A naval captain on the quarter deck of his and a stage coachman on his box, are held to be equally omnipotent. Silently, therefore, we resumed our respective places; and our disputation,

Like the story of the bear and fiddle,
Begun, but broke off in the middle,

immortalised by Hudibras, was doomed to the procrastination of another stage. I could not but be gratified with the pertinacity of argument displayed by my opponent. His wish was evidently father to the thought; and that originated in anxiety to uphold the honour of the English long bow. At length we arrived where our further progress in the same vehicle was to cease; when advancing towards me in the coach office, he resumed the conversation; but like many similar conversations, it only tended to illustrate a venerable adage--

He that's convinced against his will,
Is of the same opinion still.

Thus we parted; my short-lived acquaintance laughingly observing as he bade me good bye, that, in the words of the Spectator, "a good deal might be yet said on both sides."

Of the nature of our concluding desultory arguments, and whether they were couched in poetry or prose, the reader will be informed, since their substance is detailed in the remaining pages of the present chapter.

That the arrow was of remarkable length, even so late as the age of Queen Elizabeth, may be inferred from a passage in the Discourse on Weapons. "Our English bows, arrows, and archers do exceed and excel all other bows used by foreign nations, not only in thickness and strength, but also in the length and size of the arrows."

It is sufficient for my purpose that their dimensions generally were thought worthy of notice by Sir J. Smith, although he errs in the latter part of his assertion. I have here by me an iron wood Guiana bow, nearly eight feet high, though disproportionately slender, and the arrows imported with it, which are about five feet long.

In the reign of Edward the Third, the woollen manufacture, from the exquisite fineness of our native fleeces[7], had already become an important branch of the national industry. To foster, encourage, and regulate this, in common with other branches of commerce, an act was passed called the Statute of the Staple, declaratory that there shall be but one weight, measure, and yard throughout the realm.

Among the Cotton collection of MSS.[8] is a very ancient act of parliament, in which the following sentence occurs:-- "Tres pedes faciunt ulnam." Three feet make an elf. Though this is neither the Flemish nor the English measure laid down by Cocker, it establishes its identity with the clothiers' yard at one most glorious period in the history of ancient archery, and on no other supposition can we reconcile the indiscriminate use of "yard and ell" by historians and poets when speaking of the arrow. The Flemish measure of twenty-seven inches was too inconsiderable to have elicited any extravagant praise. The modern English ell of forty-five inches no one could manage with effect, except such men as Earl Strongbow, whose arms, as tradition reports, reached to his knee-joints.

Thus have we arrived at something like a satisfactory conclusion respecting what constituted the integral parts of these two ancient English measures. I will next endeavour to show in what respect my fellow traveller and his ancient friend Paulus Jovius, had rightly considered the question at issue.

Draw me a clothier's yard,

exclaims poor old crazed Lear, when raving on the attitude and equipments of his bowmen. Another authority, still more ancient than Shakspeare or the Latin historian, gives similar dimensions to the English shaft, when describing, in a highly popular and pathetic ballad, how the gallant Percy was avenged.

An English archer then perceived
  The noble earl was slain.
He had a bow bent in his hand,
  Made of a trusty tree;
An arrow of a cloth yard long,
  Unto the head drew he.
Against Sir Hugh Montgomery,
  Aright the shaft was set;
The grey goose wing that was thereon,
  In his heart's blood was wet.

In Drayton's picturesque sketches of the Sherwood Rovers it is said,

All made of Spanish yew, their bows were wondrous strong,
They not an arrow drew, but 't was a cloth yard long;

and " The Lyttel Geste " of Robin Hode also describes the equipments of a hundred tall yeomen, attendants on Sir Richard of the Lea, when journeying to redeem his patrimony from St. Mary's Abbot, to the same effect.

He purveyed him a hundred bowes,
The stringes were well y dighte;
   An hundred sheafe of arrowes goode,
   The heads burnyshed full bryghte.

And every arrowe an elle longe,
   With peacock well y dighte;
Innocked all with white silver,
   It was a seemly syghte.

So far we are indebted to "the irritabile genus vatum," for unravelling this Gordian knot; let us next apply ourselves to the ancient chroniclers in prose. It is remarked by Clement Edmonds, "that in the reign of Henry the Fifth, the English bowmen did shoot an arrow of a yard long besides the head." "To give you some taste of the skill of the Cornish archers' sufficiency," says Carew, "for long shooting, their shaft was a cloth yard; their pricks twenty-four score: for strength, they would pierce any ordinary armour." Mr. Kempe, a frequent correspondent of the Gentleman's Magazine on various interesting subjects, thus speaks of the arrow's length, in a letter addressed to that periodical. Quoting Hall, he observes that "at the battle of Blackheath, fought in the year 1496, the Cornish archers of the rebel party, who defended the high road at Deptford Bridge, by which the main body of the King's army was to pass to the assault, shot arrows in length a full yard. I have a memorandum by me," he continues, "that I saw, in 1825, at the ancient mansion of Cothele, upon the Cornish side of the Tamar, some arrows which I conceived to be old English, three feet two inches in length; and it is a rather remarkable coincidence with the chronicler above mentioned, that these long arrows should be extant in Cornwall. The heads were not barbed, they were solid pyramidal pieces of steel.[9] The shafts, made of beech or some light wood, had no feathers, and the nocks were not guarded with horn." There is no doubt but Mr. Kempe is perfectly correct. Only one kind of foreign arrows will at all answer this description,--I mean those brought from Chinese Tartary, which so closely resemble the old English arrow in their general appearance that I was once deceived in them myself But that any such should be found in an ancient mansion on the banks of the Tamar, seems so improbable that I unhesitatingly subscribe to this writer's opinion.

We now come to the most conclusive testimony of all, in favour of the ell and cloth yard shaft. It is an extract from a MS. in the Cotton collection, headed, "Affairs from the Public Records,--ninth year of the reign of Edward the Third."

"The king commanded the mayor and sheriffs of the county to purvey three hundred good and sufficient bows, with strings proportionable to them; and also four chests[10] of arrows of the length of one elf, made of good well seasoned wood; the heads of the said arrows to be duly sharpened, and the flukes or barbs of a large size, &c. &c.

It is unnecessary to adduce any further evidence to support the "bicubitalesque," of Paulus Jovius. The truth of his assertion has, no doubt, long ere this, been apparent to the reader's mind. Those, however, who do battle for the inviolability--if I may so express myself--of the cloth yard arrow, and assert that our present measure of twenty-seven inches is a modern innovation, the result of modern degeneracy, err in the other extreme. Like the prejudiced travellers, described in the fable,

They all are right and all are wrong;

It requires but a very brief argument to prove them so; a crowd of witnesses being at hand, to show that the arrow's length varied continually, and was confined to no arbitrary standard.

The reader who feels his curiosity at all interested in the question is referred to 5th of Edward IV., chapter 4. He will there find "every Englishman, and Irishman dwelling with Englishmen, and speaking English, being between sixteen and sixty years of age, is commanded to provide himself with an English bow of his own length, and one fistmele at least, between the nocks, with twelve shafts of the length of three quarters of the standard. Old fashioned phrases like fistmele, are better understood in the country than elsewhere. It is a pure Saxon word, meaning the measure of the clenched hand with the thumb extended. You would smile to witness how accurately the old woodmen, "in leathern guise," ascertain the dimensions of a fallen tree, unassisted by the carpenter's, or any other rule except this fistmele of his forefathers. He cuts a hazel rod from the copse, and commencing at one end, grasps it six times with his alternate hands, cuts off the remainder, and lo! a very accurate three foot measure.

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