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Home > Books > Badminton > Chapter IX: The Decadence of Archery
Chapter IX
The Decadence of Archery
By Colonel Walrond
Part 1 of 3

IT is difficult to fix the exact time when the decadence of the bow as a military weapon begins. Looking at it from the present point of view, the answer to such a question would be that the introduction of hand firearms was the death-blow to the use of archery in war, and to a certain extent this is so; but it was a long time before even the equality, much more the superiority, of weapons of fire was acknowledged by the English leaders of the period. Quite two hundred years elapsed after their introduction ere the bow was finally ousted from its position as the chief weapon of England.

102. War chariot, with archer, crossbowman, and hand-gun
98. Arrow-heads.
(From 'Vaturius de Re Militari,' 1483)

At first the bow held its own, and down to the end of the sixteenth century the contest was fairly equal. The authorities seem to have been equally divided as to the relative efficiency of the bow and the hand-gun, the two v capons being used side by side, and in much the same proportion, until the last ten years of the century, when the bow lost ground rapidly. The practice of archery being neglected made it more and more difficult to obtain skilled archers, and as their quality deteriorated, greater attention was paid to teaching the use of the hand-gun, so that by the early part of the seventeenth century the bow had nearly disappeared.

In these days it may at first seem strange that any doubt could have existed as to which was the more efficient weapon; but it must be remembered that the early hand firearms were very imperfect, the manufacture of gunpowder also being little understood. Even at the beginning of the present reign the musket could not be relied on to hit a man a hundred yards off, so that it really is not to be wondered at that the bow --looked upon by all Englishmen as pre-eminently their own weapon, backed up by the usual dislike to any change, and contending against a primitive and ill-made arm-- should for a long time have held its own. Economy and convenience were also in its favour, as it was cheaper, and could be effectively used by less highly trained men.

The hand-gun was in general use on the Continent much earlier than it was in England, and though efforts had been made by the French kings to encourage archers--important privileges being conferred upon them--the result was not satisfactory. Foreigners never took kindly to the bow; when, therefore, hand firearms were introduced, they adopted them eagerly as weapons that would neutralise our superior physical strength, the strong and weak man being equal with the hand-gun. Consequently we find, as early as 1476, 10,000 harquebuziers present at the battle of Morat,[1] and at the beginning of the reign of Henry VIII. the bow was fast disappearing among Continental troops.

103. Death of S. Sieur de Roussilon in the Forest of Buch
103. Death of S. Sieur de Roussilon in the Forest of Buch
(Royal MS. 16, F III, f. II. Fitfteenth century)

In England the practice of archery had been encouraged and enforced from a very early period by all possible means, various statutes having been enacted from the time of Edward I.,[2] compelling all males under a certain rank to shoot from the age of seven: obliging merchants trading with

countries from which bowstaves were imported to bring into England in the same ship with their goods for every ton of merchandise[3] four, and for each tun of Malmsey or Tyre wine,[4] ten bowstaves of good and sound wood: allowing bowstaves of 6 ft. 6 ins. in length to pass free of duty:[5] and ordering butts to be kept up. The first of the many Acts passed in Henry VIII.'s reign with respect to archery required every male (except ecclesiastics, judges, and people possessed of land of the value of 200 marks a year) over seven and under the age of sixty, to practice archery, the use of crossbows and hand-guns being forbidden.[6]

Hand-guns were first introduced into England about 1446. The earliest mention of them seems to be in the roll of purchases for Holy Island, in the county of Durham, and in that year there appears an entry of

Bought ii handgunnes de ere iiii s.
Do. Gonepowder iiii s.[7]

but from the words 'de ere' (or of brass), it seems doubtful if these were what we should call hand-guns more probably they were hand-cannons. In 1471, however, Edward IV. landed at Ravensburgh Castle in Yorkshire, having among his troops 300 Flemings armed with ' hange gunnes';[8] yet there are few signs of the English faith in archery being shaken during the reign of Henry VIII.

The first misgiving as to the efficiency of the bow against hand firearms seems to have occurred in 1511, for Lord Herbert of Cherbury, in speaking of the discussion in the Council as to going to war with France, makes the party opposed to war, after reciting our former victories against superior numbers, argue thus:--'Stands it with reason of war to expect the like success still? Especially since the use of arms is changed and for the bow, proper for men of our strength, the caliver begins to be generally received, which, besides that it is a more costly weapon, requires a long practice and may be managed by the weaker sort.'[9] And though written many years later, probably he had some authority for making the above statement.

In 1512 an expedition of 10,000 men was sent to Guyenne, half being archers who also carried halberds, which were placed on the ground while they shot. Of these, the same author says: 'So that, notwithstanding the use of caliver or handgunnes, I cannot but commend the wisdom of that time, it being certain that when he that carries the caliver goes unarmed,[10] the arrow will have the same effect within its distance that the bullet and can again for one shot return two. Besides, as they used the halbert with the bow, they could fall to execution on the enemy with great advantage.'[11] This expedition returned without doing much fighting, so we do not know if the halbert was successful in 'execution' or not.

The victory of Flodden in 1513 was in a great measure due to the archers, as the Scots gave way to avoid the storm of arrows poured upon them, which enabled the other troops to charge and break their ranks, the Scottish king himself receiving an arrow wound; the Earl of Surrey--who commanded on this occasion---received, among other rewards, the right of hearing on the bend of his own arms a demi-lion of Scotland, pierced through the mouth with an arrow. Partly, perhaps, on account of the victory of Flodden, a fresh statute was passed in 1515 for enforcing the use of the bow, and increasing the qualification for using a crossbow or hand-gun to 300 marks a year,[12] subsequently raised to 100l[13]. In the same year, statutes were sent to Ireland providing that all merchants coming from England into Ireland should with every twenty pounds 'worth of wares' bring a specified quantity of long-bows and arrows to be sold to the king's subjects. It is stated that archers should be the 'principal strength of footmen in time of necessity,' and that in default of long-bows divers of the king's subjects apply themselves to Irish archery, as using Irish bows (which were shorter than the English long-bow) and Irish spears, 'which induceth to Irish disposition.'[14]

At the Field of Cloth of Gold each king had a guard of sixty archers on horseback, and it is significant of the estimation in which English archers were held that, in the treaties made in the early part of the reign of Henry VIII., he-always undertakes to provide a specified number of archers: thus, in the treaty of August 1514, he agrees, under certain contingencies, to provide 10,000 archers.

In 1537 the patent of the Honourable Artillery Company was granted, making Sir Cristopher Morres, Kt., and others, overseers of 'the science of artyllary that ys to vyt, for long bowes, cross bowes, and handgunnes.' Among other privileges, it provides that they shall not be responsible for anyone accidentally shot while they are practicing, if the archer before shooting has called out 'faste,' a word still in use at meetings to restrain ardent shooters from crossing over too soon.[15] Further patents were granted to the Artillery Company by James I. in 1605, and Charles I. in 16,33, and in these patents power was given to replace the Finsbury Fields in the state they were in in the reign of Henry VIII., the owners having put up fences, &c., which interfered with the archers' marks. It may be mentioned here that the right to practice archery was not confined to the fields near London alone, as in 1583 there is a petition to the Council from the inhabitants of Sittingbourne, Kent, who complain that N. Fynche, of Faversham, and S. Pardage, of Sittingbourne, obstruct them from practicing archery in the Baforde field.[16]

104 Irish Archer, 1521
104. Irish Archer, 1521
(From 'Drawings by A. Dürer' by Dr. F. Lippmann)

An act passed in 1541 proves the value placed at this time on the long-bow.[17] It provides that everyone over seven and under sixty (except ecclesiastics or judges) shall practice with the bow: that parents and masters shall teach their children and servants to shoot, and shall have for all males over seven and under seventeen a bow and two arrows, and for those above e that age a bow and four arrows, under a penalty of 6s. 8d.; all male servants, over seventeen and under sixty, who neglected to provide themselves with a bow and four arrows were to be fined 6s. 8d.; no one under twenty-four was allowed to shoot at a standing mark, except for rovers, and then they were to change places at each shot, under a penalty of fourpence a shot; while all above the age of twenty-four were forbidden to shoot at less than eleven score yards, under a penalty of 6s. 8d. Butts were to be put up and maintained in every parish, so that shooting might take place on holy days, and al other times. No one under seventeen was to use a yew bow, unless his father or mother possessed lands of the annual value of 10l., or he himself had goods to the value of 40 marks. Bowyers were to make four common bows of 'elme, wyche, basil, ashe,' or other wood for every one of yew; or, if near London, two such bows for every one of yew. Bows were to cost from sixpence to a shilling, and no yew bow more than 4s. 4d., under a penalty of 20s. Bowyers were also always to have a specified number of bows ready, and were liable to fine in default. Aliens were not allowed to practice archery, or export bows and arrows, under pain of forfeiture, and in default of paying such fine as might be imposed upon them, imprisonment.

105. Group, from 'The Encampment of the English Forces near Portsmouth,' 1545
105. Group, from 'The Encampment of the English Forces near Portsmouth,' 1545
(From 'Monumenta Vetusta')

That the former statutes on the subject were neglected, and some such statute as the foregoing was required, appears evident from a contemporary writer, who, after praising the bow, says: 'O what cause of reproach shall the decay of archers be to us now living? Yet what irreparable damage, either to us or other, in whose time need of similar defence shall happen, which decay, though we already perceive, fear and lament, and for restoring thereof cease not to make ordinances, good laws and statutes: yet who effectually putteth his hand to continual execution of the same laws and provisions? or beholding them daily broken, winketh not at the offenders.'[18] Subsequent writers also frequently lament the decay of archery.

At the battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547, bows were used on both sides, and the English archers contributed much to the victory.

In the year 1557 an Act was passed repeating the Statute of Winchester (13 Ed. I), and fixing the number of different arms that should be provided by persons possessed of various incomes and property; with other arms owners of estates of 1,000l. a year or upwards were to have thirty long bows and thirty sheaves of arrows, the number gradually decreasing till owners of goods to the amount of 20l. are reached, who were to have one long-bow and one sheaf of arrows. Hacquebuts, in addition, were to be provided by owners of 200l. and upwards; and the best evidence of the estimation in which the long-bow was still held, showing that at this time the two were considered of equal value, is that it was expressly provided that no one should be obliged to have or provide the former weapon at all, as long as one long-bow and one sheaf of arrows was kept in place of each hacquebut required by the Act.[19]

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