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Home > Books > Book of archery > Section IV: Welsh Archery
Section IV
Welsh Archery
Part 3 of 4

Bravo, y Paun Bach ! thou Mercutio of bowmen; worthy associate art thou of that splendid conception of Avon's bard: the same in reckless humour and daring courage; equal, too, in skilful use of your respective weapons. He with the glittering toledo, you with gallant grey goose-wing.

It is a very natural supposition, that the author of the above passage was one who had himself proved the sharpness of his arrows against the harness of our English knights. " Drawing blood out of a weathercock," is a bold and original idea; while the ineffectual protection which even the steel hauberk afforded against shafts so vigorously aimed, renders the allusion to a whisp of fern, &c., strikingly apposite.

The shot contemplated by this adroit bowman would naturally be a very distant one. How admirable is his enumeration of the requisites for such an exploit. His arrow must have the well-rounded nock, with the slender or low feathering, peculiar to a flight shaft; the hillock and the oak give firmness to his position; a "down wind" will assist the arrow's flight; and to avoid fighting with the sun in front, was one of the most important manoeuvres of our old English archers. Again, the arrow is to be strongly and far drawn; because, when well aimed, it is pulled even close up to the head.[38] - He looses sharply, since that is equally essential to success. By the lowness of its range, we judge of the extraordinary power of his bow; for the parabolic curve in which an arrow flies towards a distant object, is diminished in proportion to the force of the weapon whence it is discharged. Lastly, that no favourable influence might be wanting, the maiden of his affecttions must witness his dexterity; her smiles, at once its inspiration and its reward.

The termination of Gwgan's embassy may as well be added. On arriving at Lord Rhys castle, he found him in a furious temper, beating his servants and hanging his dogs. Gwgan knowing it was no time to appear, delayed his business until the following day; and then, in a long speech, still extant in MS., he let the noble descendant of Rhys ab Tewdwr know that his master had made him the bearer of a complimentary message; and if he were well received, he had commission from his prince to thank the Lord Rhys; if not, he had commission to act on the reverse. Struck by his boldness, Rhys asked him in what would his honourable reception consist. Gwgan replied, "In giving me a horse better than my own, to carry me home; in giving me five pounds in money, and a suit of clothes; in giving my servant who leads my horse by the bridle, a suit of clothes, and one pound." "Marry," cried the prince, "I will give thee the noblest steed of my stud, for the sake of thy royal master; and, above thy demand, I will double the sums, and treble the suits of apparel." So Gwgan returned home, having executed his commission to the mutual satisfaction of both princes. Some curious references to the household arrangements of our ancestors are scattered through the history of this embassy. He speaks of dinner beneath a canopy, to prevent the dust and cobwebs from falling upon the dishes, and of a screen for protecting his shins from the scorching embers of a green ash wood fire.

Before we bid adieu to Iolo Goch, it is but fair to justify our preference, by permitting a rival --one of the bards of England-- to stand upon his defence. We have a pleasing description of the old English archer in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. La voici!

The Squire's Yeoman.

A yeoman had he and servants no mo
At that time, for him list to riding so.
And he was clad in coat and hose of green;
A sheaf of peacock's arrows bright and keen
Under his belt he bare full thriftily;
Well could he dress his tackle yeomanlie.
His arrows drooped not with feathers low,
And in his hand he bare a mighty bow.
A nott head had he, with a brown visage;
Of wood-craft well couth he all the usage.
Upon his arm he ware a gay bracer,
And by his side a sword and bokeler;
And on that other side, a gay dagger
Harnised well, and sharp as point of spear;
A Christopher on his breast of silver shene,
A horn he bare, the baldric was of green.
A for'ster was he, soothlie as I guesse.

Among the Welsh, a robust and hardy race of mountaineers, instances of strong and distant archery were doubtless common enough, though a solitary example only occurs to me at the present moment. It relates to one of those private feuds which, both in Wales and England, retarded the progress of civilisation during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and which, like the lex talionis of the Arabs, demanded blood for blood. Robin ab Gruffydd Goch lived at the Graianllyn. At that time, Rhys ab Gruffydd Goch was slain at Tal y Sarn. Then went Robin, and Howel his brother, across the ferry; and having scaled Conway Castle, they entered, seized the constable, and cut off his head on the garreglas (grey rock), in front of the town. Llewelyn of Nannau, had shot across the river Conway, at a man from the upper side of the town--the parson of Disserth,--and had killed him. This was accounted one of the longest shots by which a person was ever slain; and, on that account, Robin ap Gruffydd Goch took his revenge.[39]

The Conway is one of the few Welsh rivers I have never seen; but an individual in the camp of Henry III., A.D. 1243, describes it, under the castle, as a small arm of the sea. This river separated the English from the spot where the Welshman lay encamped. He adds that, at full tide, its breadth was about a bow-shot. Doubtless, what passed for good shooting at Conway, must have been so in reality. No place in Europe witnessed finer displays of archery; for there the best troops of England, headed by the English kings, had often encountered the Welsh, also fighting under their Prince's banner. I have recently seen another account of this transaction. It is there said that Llewellyn of Nannau shot from Carnarvon Castle, and that the man at whom he aimed was standing upwards of eight hundred yards off. The archer's elevated position renders this account as by no means improbable, for Robin Hood is traditionally reported to have cast an arrow a mile at one flight, from the battlements of Whitby Abbey.[40]

From numerous facts recorded by their native historians, we learn that, renowned as was the skill of the English archers, they stood in considerable dread of the Welsh bow. In the Welsh chronicle of Caradoe of Llancarvan, written in the Welsh language, it is said that, about the year 1120, Henry II. undertook an expedition into Wales. He was opposed by Meredith ap Blethyn, and his nephews, Einon, Madoc, and Morgan, sons of Cadwgan ap Blethyn. And as the king approached the confines of Powys, Meredith despatched a few young archers to a woody pass to meet him, that they might with their arrows annoy his army. When the king arrived at the pass, it happened that the young men were there to meet him, and they opposed the king and his army with much tumult, discharging their arrows among the troops. After killing many and wounding others, one of these youths drew his bow and loosed an arrow amongst the host; and it lighted upon the strong part of the king's armour, opposite his heart, without his knowing the person who struck him; and the arrow did not injure the king, on account of the excellence of his harness, for he was breast-plated[41]; and the arrow glanced against his armour. But nevertheless the king became exceedingly terrified, being seized with as great a dread as if he had been pierced through. And he ordered his army to encamp, and demanded who had the boldness to assault him 60 daringly. It was told him, some young men belonging to Meredith ap Blethyn. Then sent he messengers requesting they would come to him on truce. And they came. And he asked who sent them there; and they said, it was Meredith, &c. Then sware Henry, "By the death of our Lord," his usual profane oath, that the arrow came not from a Welsh, but an English bow. He perhaps considered

Nor helm nor hauberk's twisted mail,

to be any protection against the former; and, like Falstaff, regarding discretion as the better part of velour, made peace with the Welsh prince, and immediately returned to England. Meredith agreed to pay him ten thousand head of cattle, but this tribute appears to have been merely nominal, to saye the king's credit with his own subjects.[42]

During the expedition of Henry II. into Wales, a Norman baron, named Hubert de St. Clare, constable of Colchester, distinguished himself by an act of heroic self-devotion to that monarch. Whilst the English army were attempting to force the passage of a bridge, the king was aimed at by a Welsh archer, who recognised him among the assailants. The arrow must inevitably have transfixed him, had not this valiant knight sprung forward, and received it in his own bosom, of which wound he instantly died.

In reference to the first of these anecdotes, it is reasonable to presume Henry and his body guards to be protected by the best armour of that age. The same remark will apply to a baron so wealthy and powerful as Hubert de St. Clare. Such, then, was the extraordinary vigour with which these Welshmen plied their bows.

The "yew bow," -- "the bow of red yew[43]," with the characteristics of drawing and loosing, are sufficiently explicit of the kind of archery in use among these sons of Cambria's death-clad hills. It was therefore the long-bow, not the arbalist, to which the chronicler and the bard refer. Indeed, wherever mention of the cross-bow occurs, it is spoken of contemptuously, as a weapon peculiar to the Flemings and French. There is a striking illustration of this national difference the poems of our old friend David ap Gwilym. A wealthier and more fortunate rival, whom the poet contemptuously styles "Hunchback," had succeeded in winning from him the affections of his Morvyth.[44] Alluding to the departure of this person, with three hundred men, to join Edward III. in France, previous to the battle of Cressy[45], he calls upon the arbrysiwr, that is, the arbalister, or cross-bowman, to despatch him with his albras, "that short stirrup stick:"[46]

And thou, cross-bowman true and good,
Thou shooter with the faultless wood,
Send me an arrow through his brain,
(Who of his fate will ere complain!)
Then from thy quiver, take and aim
A second arrow through his frame;
Well will the varlet's corpse be known
By the stiff beard so scantly sown;
Haste with thy stirrup fashioned bow,
To lay the hideous varlet low!

Foreign service, and the abatement of prejudices consequent upon it, seem to have reconciled the natives of this country to the use of the cross-bow. When Edward I. invaded Scotland to take possession of its crown, there was about his person a Welsh servant named Lewin, the most expert crossbow man in the whole army, of whose fidelity he entertained a very high opinion. On one important occasion the king wrote letters to his council at home, to advertise them of his proceedings, and delivered the packet to Lewin, commanding him to proceed to London with all possible despatch, for he knew him to be a very speedy messenger. The possession of a liberal sum, given him to bear his charges, proved too strong a temptation for one who had never been remarkable for his sobriety; he therefore betook himself to a tavern, and riotously consumed the money in play and good cheer, until the night was far spent.

At day-dawn the following morning, he affected to prepare for his errand; but pretended an unwillingness to depart until he had once more "wrought some displeasure" to the Scots with his weapon. He therefore bribed a companion to take a target[47] and bear it before him to the castle walls, whilst he followed with his cross-bow.

On reaching the gates, he called loudly to the warders on the walls to let down a cord and draw him up, for he had important communications to make to their captain, cc touching the secrets of the King of England." The guards complied with his request; and on being introduced to the commanding officer, who was at breakfast, he addressed him thus:-- "Behold, sir, here ye may peruse the King of England's papers; and now appoint me to some corner of the wall, and you shall straightway see whether I can handle a cross-bow, or not, to defend it against your adversaries,"--at the same time offering a box in which the letters were contained.

When all present, except the captain, eagerly desired to see its contents, he interposed, and, like a man of honour, declared the box should remain untouched. Then going to a high tower, he called aloud to the companions of the traitorous messenger, desiring them to inform the King of England that one of his servants had fled to the castle with an intention to betray his despatches, intimating, at the same time, a desire to deliver up him and the letters. Intelligence was accordingly conveyed to Lord John Spencer, who immediately sent a guard up to the walls, from which Lewin was let down and marched off to the English camp.

"As soon as the King understood this," says Hollinshed, "he much commended the honest respect of the captain; and whereas he had caused engines to be raised to annoy them within, he commanded the same to cease; and withal, upon their captain's suit, granted them liberty to send unto John Baliol, to give him to understand in what sort they stood. As touching the Welshman, he was drawn and hanged upon a high gallows prepared for him on purpose, as he well deserved."[48] It must be recollected that the Welshmen in Edward the First's army were, many of them, serving against their will, and the nation in general had not become reconciled to his government.

Before we entirely lose sight of the archery of North Wales, let us take a glance at Nannau Park[49], for the sake of an ancient tradition preserved among its family archives.

Within the precincts of that domain once stood a venerable oak of vast dimensions, and entirely hollow, called, by the superstitious peasantry of a wild mountainous district, Ceubren yr Ellyll, or,

The goblin's hollow tree.

Its girth, as far as I can recollect, measured upwards of twenty-seven feet; while its prodigious antiquity appears from the fact, that a lapse of four centuries made no change in its appearance. During the wars of the Roses it was a huge decayed trunk, nearly in the same condition as when prostrated by the tempest only a few years since. Scattered over the turf, at some distance from the spot where grew this forest patriarch, are the ruins of a once considerable mansion, blackened and scorched by fire. Their appearance plainly indicates the manner of its fall; a history of that conflagration being, in fact, a history of the Nannau oak.

Howel Sele was of gigantic stature, and enjoyed the reputation of being the strongest and most skilful bowman, where excellence in archery was an accomplishment possessed by very many. Rarely was he seen to launch a second arrow at the same object; the twang of his bowstring sounded as the knell of his victims, whether in war or in the chase.

Sele was a strenuous partisan of the House of Lancaster in England; his cousin, the celebrated Owen Glendower, had as zealously espoused the cause of the rightful heir of the deposed Richard. This will sufficiently account for a mortal feud which raged between these powerful chieftains and near kinsmen.

Sanguinary brawls were of daily occurrence amongst such of the retainers as had not accompanied their respective lords to the English camp. For the general peace, and in the hope of eventually detaching Howel from the Lancastrian interest, the venerable abbot of Cemmes attempted a reconciliation. It is said their interview took place before the altar; but, unawed by the sanctity of the place, these haughty rivals, instead of extending the right hand of fellowship, broke forth into loud and angry recrimination. Daggers were unsheathed, and the sacred edifice seemed on the point of being polluted with blood. At that instant the abbot rushed forwards, and extending towards them the sacred symbol of the cross, vehemently denounced their conduct as an unatoneable insult to the Holy Mother Church.

The terrors of excommunication acted upon their excited passions as oil when poured upon the raging waters. The glittering weapons dropped from their grasp, and in an instant hands were united in apparent friendship which, a moment previous, had thirsted for each other's blood.

It was then proposed by Howel Sele that Glendower should visit him on the morrow at his house of Nannau, and partake of its hospitality. The festivities of the day commenced with a grand hunting match, to which the cousins came, attended by a numerous body of their respective vassals. The park was then, and I believe continues, well stocked with deer; small' indeed, but remarkable for the fine flavour of their venison. As soon as the hounds were uncoupled, and whilst the two chieftains stood within a short distance of each other, Owen Glendower espied a stag. Calling to Howel, he pointed out the animal which now came bounding towards them, with a request that he would exhibit a specimen of his archery. The latter immediately placed an arrow on his bowstring, and elevated his arms as if to shoot in the proposed direction, but wheeling round suddenly, he launched it full at his cousin's breast. The shaft rebounded, and fell broken to the ground, for Owen, suspicious of treachery, wore that day a breastplate of treble proof beneath his hunting garb.

In an instant all was tumult and confusion. The perfidy of this attempt roused the latent passions of Glendower, and, drawing his sword, he rushed towards his adversary. Sele, equally furious, at being baffled in his revenge, and aware he must now conquer, or die a felon's death, cast away his bow, and, calling loudly on his followers to maintain the combat, stood resolutely on his guard. They fought long and desperately. At length the men of Nannau, originally inferior to their assailants, being considerably thinned by the sword, attempted, with their chief, to take refuge in the house. They succeeded in gaining it, but the defences were too weak to afford them protection; and when Owen caused his men to kindle a large fire against the gates, they quickly fell to the ground. The infuriated victors put all within to the sword, except Howel Sele himself, the treacherous author of this catastrophe. Disarmed, and covered with many a ghastly evidence' of the desperation with which he had maintained the conflict, he was led forth and placed under a guard, whilst his adversaries busied themselves in the work of destruction, by firing his house in four quarters. Glendower remained until its entire demolition was certain. He then marched off, bearing with him his vanquished kinsman.

From that day, until the lapse of about thirty years, Sele's fate was wrapped in mystery. His friends and partisans vainly endeavoured to tempt the captor with offers of a splendid ransom, but the inexorable Glendower deigned not even a reply to their solicitations. Whether, therefore, his cousin had fallen beneath his dagger, or still lingered within the dungeons of some one of his numerous strongholds, none could tell. Accident at length unfolded the mystery.

An old forester, one of Howel's retainers, had been hunting within the domain of his absent lord, and in passing near the great oak, he observed a heron perched among its branches. The flesh of this bird, at present neglected, was anciently esteemed the chief delicacy, even of a monarch's table; its feathers, also, enjoyed some reputation among the arrow-makers. The man, therefore, levelled his cross-bow, and the heron fell transfixed into the hollow trunk. Willing to recover both, he climbed the tree, and descended after them. All within was dark; and while groping about at the bottom, his hands came in contact with many strange uncouth substances; with one of these, which he imagined to be a large shell, and the objects of his search, the forester reascended. But how great was his consternation when, on bringing his prize in contact with the light, he discovered in his grasp the upper half of a human skull!

The tale quickly circulated: numbers crowded to the place; and when the tree was again searched, the gigantic skeleton of a man came forth, which, from its position, appeared to have been entombed in this living grave head downwards. Conjecture pointed them out as the remains of Howel Sele,--a suspicion confirmed shortly afterwards by the confession of one of Glendower's vassals, present at that fatal hunting-match. Exasperated by the threats and defiance of his prisoner, the wrathful Owen commanded a halt, and drawing his dagger, buried it to the hilt in Howel's side; then with his own hands dragged the body to the tree, and tumbled it headlong into its hollow trunk. Long before this discovery Owen Glendower had paid nature's debt; but his vast feudal influence placed him beyond the power of the law, had he been living. The revelation of his guilt, therefore, only served to perpetuate the mortal feud which raged between these two families previous to Howel's death.[50]

Among the archers of South Wales, none enjoyed a higher reputation than the men of Gwentland.[51] As the vicinity of a fine river makes the skilful angler, so one might naturally attribute some portion of this predilection for the bow to the great abundance of fine yew scattered over many districts of Monmouthshire. But my hypothesis, somewhat plausible, is at once overturned by the pages of Giraldus Cambrensis, who tells us they made no use of this tree, and as he flourished at a very early period, and describes what he actually witnessed, his authority is altogether unquestionable. Though a monk, he well knew the difference between a yew and an elm bow; indeed, judging from his language, I conceive he could handle either to good purpose. "The bows of the Welsh," he observes, "are not made of horn, or white wood, or yew, but of wych elm plants; they appear neither handsome nor polished, but, on the contrary, rude and mis-shapen. Yet are they stiff and strong; not so well calculated to cast far, as to give a weighty blow in close fight.[52] By the bye, what could Warrington have dreamt of, when he translated ulmellis sylvestris, "slight twigs joined and twisted together."? Who ever heard of this expedient for manufacturing a bow?

The Welsh historian has recorded several extraordinary instances of powerful shooting, attributed to the men of Gwent. During the siege of Abergavenny Castle, a party of Welsh archers perceived two Norman soldiers running towards a tower, situated some distance off; they were immediately assailed by a storm of arrows. He does not tell us whether they were killed, but merely observes that some of the arrows penetrated through the oak doors of a gateway, four fingers in thickness. The heads of these missiles were subsequently driven out and carefully preserved, to perpetuate the memory of such extraordinary force in shooting with the bow.

He next gives an anecdote told by William de Breusa, a Norman knight, one of the followers of Fitzhammond in his conquest of South Wales. A Welsh archer aimed at one of De Breusa's horsemen, who wore armour, under which was also his buff coat. The arrow, besides piercing through his hip, stuck also in the saddle, and mortally wounded' the horse on which he rode. In the same battle, another cavalier, also protected by strong armour, had his hip nailed to the saddle by a Welsh arrow. Then, as the soldier drew his bridle, in order to wheel round, a second shaft penetrating his other hip, firmly fastened him to the saddle on both sides. Giraldus adds, "What more could be expected from a balista?"

This occurrence, though sufficiently remarkable, is by no means unlikely. The Inca Garcilasco de Vega records an accident, somewhat similar, which happened to a Spanish trooper. In marching towards the banks of the river Chircagua, the Spaniards had again a considerable number of their comrades wounded. Of these, the principal was the cavalier St. George, who, as he rode through a rivulet, received the arrow of a concealed Indian, which was shot with uncommon force. After breaking through his mailed coat, it penetrated his right thigh and the pommel of the saddle, until it wounded his horse. The terrified animal, maddened by pain, dashed out of the stream, and, bounding away, endeavoured, by violent and repeated plunges? to free himself from the arrow and his rider. St. George's comrades hastened to his succour, and perceiving that he was nailed to the saddle, they led him to his allotted quarters, as the army was encamping by the water side. Lifting him gently from his seat, they cut the shaft between the saddle and the wounded limb; and, on stripping the horse, there arose an exclamation of astonishment from all present, to find that a weapon, apparently so insignificant as a reed tipped with a point of hard wood, should have been able not only to penetrate so many substances, but to inflict a serious wound upon the rider and his horse.

The popularity enjoyed by Harry of Monmouth, among his Welsh subjects, owing to the circumstance of his being born in the principality,[53] induced numbers of the South Wales archers to join the expedition to France. Among the most distinguished of these were Roger Vaughan of Bedwardine; Watkin Lloyd of the lordship of Brecknock; and the renowned David Llewellyn, better known by the soubriquet of David Gam, or "Squirt-eyed David."[54] He also was a gentleman-of good estate, descended from Einon Sais, or Einon the Saxon[55], whose property lay in the parishes of Garthbrengy and Llandew, Breconshire.[56]

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