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Home > Books > Badminton > Chapter IX: The Decadence of Archery
Chapter IX
The Decadence of Archery
Part 2 of 3

In 1557 Giovanni Michiel, in his report on England to the Venetian Senate, says:--

But, above all, their proper and natural weapons are the bow and arrows, of which so great is the number, giving to the general use made of them by all sorts of persons without distinction of grade, age, or profession, that it exceeds all belief This does not proceed from choice, but also from the obligation imposed generally on all heads of families to provide each individual of his household with them, including all the boys when they come to the age of nine years--all for the sake not only of suppressing every other exercise, but with all diligence to increase this one, in which the English place all their strength and all their hope, they to say the truth being most expert archers, so that they would not yield to any other people more trained and experienced than they are; and such is their opinion of archery and their esteem for it, that they prefer it to all sorts of arms and to harquebuses, in which they trust less, feeling more sure of their bows and arrows --contrary, however, to the judgment of the captains and soldiers of other nations. They draw the bow with such force and dexterity at the same time, that some are said to pierce corslets and bodyarmour, and there are few among them, even those that are moderately practiced, who will not undertake at a convenient distance, either aiming point blank or in the air (as they generally do that the arrow may fly further), to hit within an inch and a half of the mark.[20]

The above extract is given at length, as it may fairly be considered an impartial opinion of English archery at the time.

106. Group, from 'The departure of Henry VIII from Calais, 1544.'
106. Group, from 'The departure of Henry VIII from Calais, 1544.'
(From 'Pictures at Cowdray,' 'Monumenta Vetusta')

In the reign of Elizabeth, out of every hundred men twenty were archers, forty harquebuziers, the rest being armed with halberds or bills and pikes.[21] Numerous instances occur of the use of archers, and mention of archery matters is frequent. For example, in 1560, 3,500 bowstaves were purchased for 850l. three years later, 500 bows and 1,000 sheaves of arrows are sent to Newhaven[22]; instructions to levy archers for the defence of the Borders are common.[23] In Ireland in the expedition against Shan O'Neil bows were used with much effect on both sides. Shan O'Neil himself, writing in 1565 to the Cardinals of Lorraine and Guise, tells us of a curious archery feat; for he says: 'When I was in England I saw your noble brother, the Marquis d'Elboeulf, transfix two stags with a single arrow.'[24] In 1569 the efficiency of archers on horseback seems to have deteriorated, as the Earl of Sussex, writing from York, says: 'of the horse sixty-five all archers and therefore unserviceable.' Next year he says: 'it had been better that most of the shot had been good archers than so ill furnished arquebuziers.'[25] In 1567 endeavours were made to form corps of harquebuziers in the coast towns from Plymouth to Newcastle and in order to further this the harquebuziers were to have the rather doubtful privilege of ' liberty to shoot at various fowls with respect of time and place, and without hail shot'; but also the more substantial ones of being free of the towns; free from all town rates, tenths, fifteenths, and subsidies, from all musters except their own, and to receive four pounds a year, for which they were to provide a good substantial harquebuze with a compass of such bore that every three shots may weigh one ounce, flask, touch-box, sword and dagger, jerkin and hood.[26] The encouragement of archery was, however, not neglected, as in 1571 an Act was passed[27] which recites that one of the causes of the decay of archery is the excessive price of bowstaves, and orders that the 12 Edward IV. shall be enforced, directing half the penalty for default to be paid to informers, the failure of the Act being ascribed to the fact that formerly the whole of the penalty went to the Crown. The merchants of the Steelyard remonstrated against this, setting forth the difficulty of procuring bowstaves;[28] and possibly the interesting report quoted in a former chapter (p. 124) as to the countries from which bowstaves were imported was ordered in consequence, as well as a return of the number of bowstaves imported into England in 1772, from which it appears that there were brought from 'Embden' 1,950 staves, from 'Suningborge' 1,975, from 'Danske' 3,060, from 'Hambroughe' 2,000, and a large number (not named) from 'Dorte,' which were brought down the Rhine, 'and the bowestaves which are brought from thence are the beste stuffe and have the name of Cullyne (Cologne ?) staves.'[29]

In 1572 also the statutes for keeping in repair the butts were enforced with increased activity, and many entries are to be found in the accounts of various parishes under this head, extending well into the seventeenth century. As a rule, these entries simply refer to putting up and repairing the butts, hauling timber, earth, &c.; but occasionally village ambition takes a flight, and such an entry as this is found: ' 1576. Item making a Turk for shots, boards nails and making xviiid. item the paynter xiid.'[30] In 1577 Mr. Highfield, in a note to Lord Burleigh, strongly advocates the use of archers, both on foot and on horsehack.[31]

In 1588 the general muster took place to repel the Armada, and 'An abstract of the Certificates returned from ye Lieutenants of the able and furnished men in the several counties . . . and how they were soarted (sic) with weapons,'[32] gives us information as to the number of men armed with bows and hand-guns respectively at that time in the different counties. The various sorts of hand-guns, namely calivers, muskets, and harquebuzes, being added together for comparison, it appears that, of the 6,000 trained men supplied by London, none were armed with bows, and of the untrained 4,000 800 only were archers. Of the counties, Huntingdon, Somerset, Wilts, and Cambridge also furnished no men armed with bows. Generally the proportion is from one-fifth to one-half; but in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire bows predominated. With respect to the untrained men, as a rule the proportion of archers is larger than among the trained; but the abstract is not perfect, for in some instances particulars are wanting, in others they are illegible, and several counties are omitted.

It is now time to notice an interesting controversy that took place as to the relative efficacy of the various hand firearms and the bow. Possibly portions of it have been lost, but several books and manuscripts remain which give us a very fair idea of the points for and against both weapons. There is a curious similarity in this discussion to that which arose many years ago about flint and percussion arms, and more recently on the substitution of breechloaders for muzzleloaders-- on the one side a rooted objection to any change, and on the other a perhaps too zealous advocacy of the new weapon.

The principal disputants were Sir John Smythe,[33] who had served in the Low Countries under Alva; Humphrey Barwick,[34] who describes himself as 'Gentleman, Soudier, Captaine et encor plus aultre'; Sir Roger Williams,[35] a distinguished officer who defended Sluys; and Mathew Sutcliffe.[36] It is evident that many soldiers and sailors who had seen the effect of hand firearms in the hands of well-trained men abroad did not hold a high opinion of the value of the bow. As early as 1565 J. Montgomery writes:--

I am the boulder to write so much for that I myself have seen the experience thereof upon the seas at sundrie encountres with some of the French Shippes wishinge to God the said harquebuze and currier were as well used occupied and had in practice, some good number of them, here in ower countrie of Ingland amongst ower Inglishe nacion as ower Inglishe bowes bee, and as in Spaigne, Fraunce and other places they are: which would be a merveylous good strength for tile realme, fearful to the inimie withoute and profitable to us within.[37]

Styward also says, writing in 1584, 'and although archers bee not as heretofore they have beene, yet it is good to showe you that having archers you must place them as afterwards to you is mentioned bowes placed behind calibers.'[38] Sir John Smythe, who asserts the superiority of archers under nearly all circumstances, both on foot and on horseback, gives instances of their successful use and enumerates the disadvantages of hand fire-arms. His reasons are too long to quote at length. Briefly those against hand guns arc as follows: That it is impossible to aim accurately except point-blank;[39] that the bullets being smaller than the bore fly wide of the mark; that unless the powder is well made and perfectly dry the piece fouls quickly, the point-blank range being reduced; that if the match is not well made and twisted it will not burn; that unless the muzzles are kept up the bullets drop out; that harquebuziers and musketeers do not load their pieces properly, constantly omitting to put wadding between the powder and bullet and over the bullet, the result being that the powder is not properly consumed in the barrel; that in wet weather and when foul the pieces will not go off at all; that the wind blows the powder out of the pans; that harquebuziers cannot defend themselves against cavalry, or shoot in more than two ranks; and that the weapons are cumbersome and heavy. He only admits two imperfections in the bow, i.e. that it or the string may break; but these accidents seldom happen, and if the string does break every archer can and should have another ready to put on at once. The advantages of the bow are that archers may stand eight or ten deep (in the formation known by the cheerful name of a 'hearse'), and discharge their arrows over one another's heads with effect; that the bows being always strung archers can shoot much more rapidly than harquebuziers, who have to load, giving at least four shots. for one; that flights of arrows have a terrifying effect both on men and horses; and that the latter become unmanageable by reason of the arrows remaining in the wounds.

Barwick, who is the uncompromising enemy of the bow' joins issue on all these points. He admits that the objections against the harquebuze are true when it is used by ignorant or careless men, and that then 'it is more hurtful than commodious,' but in the hands of a skilful soldier 'it is a most deadly and terrible weapon.' Wet, he says, is just as bad for the long bow as for the harquebuze, as archers in camp, being unable to keep their bows and arrows dry, the horns and feathers come off. He asserts that it is easier to aim with a harquebuze than with a bow; that good archers are scarce and bad ones do not draw their arrows to the head, but being afraid of harquebuziers stoop, and loose them off half drawn, so that they fly with no force. As to the only drawback to archers being the possible breaking of the bow or string, he says:

Yet I take it that there are divers other lettes the which I have seen divers Archers complain of. Fyrste that he could get no warme meate, nor his three meales every dale as his custome was to have at home, neyther his bodye to lye warme at night, whereby his jointes were not in temper, so that being sodainely called upon as the service cloth often fal out: he is like a man that hath thePalsy, anthe Palsy,d so benommed that before he get eyther to the fire or to a warme bedde, he can drawe no bowe at all.

With respect to rapidity of fire at close he states, harquebuziers can load with two or three bullets; and that though he heard a certain Captain Brode say at Berwick to the Earl of Bedford that harquebuziers could only discharge ten shots an hour, he would undertake to fire forty in the same time. Finally, to test the relative efficacy of the two weapons, he offers to arm himself in pistol proof, and to allow the best archers to shoot ten arrows at him at six-score yards, 'and if I be therewith wounded I an, content to take my mends in my own handes'; while, as a test on the other side, he proposes to set up a complete suit of armour at the same distance, and shoot twice at it with a musket or harquebuze, when the relative value of the weapons would soon be seen.

Sir John Smythe's answer was never printed,[40] but survives in MS.[41] In it he gives numerous instances of the execution done by archers with their arrows; he denies that they do not pull their arrows to the head, or that they are afraid of harquebuziers. He repeats the many objections to hand firearms, asserts that not one musket in three hundred is free from imperfections, owing to the unskilfulness of the artificers, but admits that they can be used with advantage in 'bulwarks, ramparts, cavaliers, or mounts of a fortress,' as harquebuziers can there keep their weapons, powder, &c., in the greatest state of perfection, and 'can shoote from a steadie reste without exposing themselves muche.' He admits that it may be possible for them to fire more than ten shots in an hour, but sarcastically remarks that in that case they would hit nothing; for as it is, not one bullet in 300 hits, and a very small proportion of them are fatal; as to shooting more than one bullet at a time, he says archers can, on emergency, also discharge two or three arrows at once. The proposed test he rejects as absurd.

Sir R. Williams considers 500 musketeers of more use than 1,500 archers, for out of 5,000 bowmen he says it is difficult to find 1,500 who can 'shoote strong shootes '; while if they are in the field three or four months, out of 5,000 not 500 will make anie strong shootes.' He says 'few or none do anie great hurte 12 or 14 score off' ; and altogether he regards 'bowmen the worst shot used in these daies.' Sutcliffe thinks they may be of use in the field, but in fortresses he prefers harquebuziers. On the whole, the balance of opinions is decidedly against the bow, yet in 1613 and 1616[42] it again found advocates, for much the same reasons as those advanced in its favour by Sir John Smythe.

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