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Home > Books > Book of archery > Section VI: The Crossbow
Section VI
The Crossbow
Part 3 of 3

A correspondent of the Gentleman's Magazine[34], who furnishes the editor with a fac-simile of Henry VIII.'s autograph, states that the original signature is attached to a licence granted to one of his ancestors, to use and exercise his crossbow, notwithstanding any act or proclamation to the contrary.

That our parkers and woodsmen, as the English anciently -styled their gamekeepers, were permitted to carry this -proscribed instrument, will be fully evident from the subsequent narratives. It was applicable to the destruction of all game now killed with rifle and fowlingpiece; and Shakspeare has a highly graphic picture of two keepers, thus armed, lying in wait for the venison:--

Enter Skinklo and Humphrey, with crossbows in their hand.
   Skinklo. Under this thick-grown brake we'll shroud ourselves, For through this laund anon the deer will come; And in this covert will we take our stand, Culling the principal of all the deer.
   Humphrey. I'll stay above the hill, so both may shoot.
   Skinklo. That cannot be; the noise of thy crossbow Will scare the herd, and so my shot is lost. Here stand we both, and aim we at the best; And that the time shall not seem tedious, I'll tell thee what befel me on a time In this same place were now we mean to stand.

The piety, virtue, and learning of George Abbot, who filled the see of Canterbury during the reign of James I., shed a brilliant lustre on our ecclesiastical history. But while these are sufficiently familiar to most men, the remarkable incident which threw a cloud over the latter portion of his comparatively blameless career, is known to few.

In order to counteract the effects of a very painful disorder to which this archbishop had long been subject, his physicians prescribed active, even violent, exercises, and among these the chase. During one of his summer journeys through Hampshire, he sojourned for a few days at Bramshall, the seat of a dear friend and associate, the Lord Zouch. His constitution and habits of life being well known to the family, it was arranged that a grand stag-hunt should take place in the park soon after his arrival. One of the foresters, named Peter Hawkins, desirous to show his respect for a guest whom his master delighted to honour, was more than ordinarily zealous in his office on that day, and it being his duty to windlass up the deer towards the place where the archbishop's party had stationed themselves, he soon assembled a herd of between forty and fifty. Among them was a buck of a noble head, which this ill-fated man greatly exerted himself to separate from the rest, and drive within shot. Meanwhile each of the hunters sought out a convenient stand; and the archbishop, holding his crossbow bent, stationed himself within a few paces of a large oak, the leaves of which partially concealed him from view. As Hawkins continued in front of this tree, galloping in circles around the deer, he was twice warned by Lord Zouch to remain behind, the game being then near enough. Just as the archbishop levelled his weapon, with his finger on the trigger, the stag made a rush on one side to escape, seeing which, the poor keeper again spurred forwards; but the arrow had taken wing, and meeting with a small bough, glanced aside and struck him in the arm. "It was but a flesh wound, and a slight one," says the MS. which furnishes the substance of this anecdote; "yet being under the care of a heedless surgeon, the fellow died of it in the course of one hour." Externally, the injury might have appeared trivial, as here represented; but in reality, the steel head of the quarril must have divided one of the great arteries, and in consequence the man bled to death.

No domestic occurrence of that period excited more attention than the unhappy accident of Archbishop Abbot. His own conduct on this trying occasion is the highest encomium on his humanity and goodness of heart. The forester left behind him a widow and four children, upon each of whom he settled a comfortable annuity; and then, "being utterly incapable of consolation," observes his unknown biographer, he retired to an hospital at Guilford of his own foundation, and passed the remainder of his life in penitence and prayer.

A commission of twelve bishops was appointed, by the special command of King James, to deliberate and report upon this untoward occurrence. They were required to say whether an act of homicide, however unintentional, committed by a minister of religion whilst engaged in field sports, was calculated to bring scandal on the church. The report, grounded on Scripture and the canon law, is distinguished for eloquence, learning, and deep research. Altogether, it is a most interesting document, fully establishing the clergy's right to hunt, hawk, shoot, and fish whenever the pursuit of these amusements interfere not with the performance of their sacred duties. From the original and unpublished MSS. formerly in the possession of Dr. Zachariah Gray, I extract a short passage by way of specimen:--

"Touching the death of Peter Hawkins, wounded in the park of Bramfield by a crossbow, July 24th, 1621,--" It is certain that, in foro conscientiæ, this case may not only deservedly produce a fear and trembling in him who was the accidental cause thereof, but justly make the tallest cedar of Lebanon to shake, in debating with his inward man what crime it is that hath provoked God to permit such a rare and unusual action to fall out by his hand; an action which maketh him for the time to be fabula vulgi, and giveth opportunity to the enemies of religion of all kinds to rejoice; which furnisheth a source to fill their books and libells within the realme, and perhaps beyond the seas, and that concerning his calling as well as his person, not only for the present, but also for future ages, besides grief to his friends, and some scandal to the weak, who do not rightly apprehend things, but raise questions which few men can resolve. To all which may be added, the interpretation of it to his Majesty, graciously or otherwise; and the forfeiture that in rigorous construction of law may be put upon him, although held for no great delinquent; beside the providing for a widow and four fatherless children; all which may well pierce a heart that is not senselesse, and day and night yield him matter enough for troubled meditations."

Those personal inconveniences he naturally anticipated; but they were very properly averted by an exercise of the royal prerogative. "And you may be sure," says Dr. Hackett, in his life of Archbishop Williams[35], "the King thought it more pardonable, because it was a hunting casualty; and was very humane to all those harms beyond prevention, which fell out in that sport wherein he greatly delighted. Therefore his Majesty resolved to give it him in a consolatory letter under his hand, that he would not add affliction to his sorrow, nor take one farthing from his chattels and moveables, which were confiscated by our civil penalties."

Alban Butler, in describing the festival of St. Jane Francis de Chautal, mentions a case very similar to this of Archbishop Abbot.- The Baron de Chautal, husband of the saint, was accustomed to follow the chase in a habit made of deer's hide, dressed with the hair on, the better to deceive and approach his game. On one occasion he had stationed himself within a thick tangled brake, to await the coming of the deer. His friend, who was hunting with him, actually mistook him for one, and levelling his crossbow, the arrow pierced him in the thigh. He survived the accident nine days. Whilst dying, he caused his pardon of the person by whom he had been shot to be recorded in the registers of the parish church, strictly forbidding any man to prosecute or bring him into danger.

A tradition extant in the West of England commemorates an extraordinary act of suicide perpetrated by means of the weapon under consideration. The victim inflicted the fatal wound, not with his own hand, but by the instrumentality of his servant.

Sir William Hankford, a gentleman of ancient family and competent fortune, in Devonshire, was Chief Justice of the King's Bench in the reign of Henry V. Much of his life had been afflicted by periodical attacks of nervous dejection,--a complaint of extremely rare occurrence, however, among Englishmen of that period. On returning from London, at the commencement of the holidays, just before his death, this malady appeared to influence him with all its force, aggravated, as it is supposed, by some disappointments he had endured at court. His family and domestics, shocked at the air of sorrowful anxiety visible in his countenance and deport. meet, vainly endeavoured to banish his distress by every art of social kindness, and to encourage that taste for rural pleasures, in the pursuit of which alone he appeared to derive satisfaction. One morning, whilst engaged hunting, he suddenly quitted the pack, and, galloping homewards, ordered a domestic to summon the park-keeper to his presence in the hall. It was with no small glee and satisfaction the ruddy old woodsman obeyed the call, not doubting but that, heartily tired of the chase, his master was desirous of varying the day's pastime by a flight at the heron or a mallard of the brook. He therefore cheerfully entered his presence, surrounded by a leash of docile spaniels, with the hooded falcon on his wrist. Sir William Hankford, however, assumed an air of stern severity, and pretending to have discovered during his morning's ride extensive deprecations upon the venison, rated this domestic soundly for neglect. The man, however, respectfully persisted that he never omitted his nightly rounds; and, moreover, that any decrease in the herds of deer was not apparent to him. These remonstrances appeared only to heighten the displeasure of his master, and he was dismissed with a peremptory order to go forth every night, having his crossbow ready charged, and shoot any person, unchallenged, whom he caught trespassing within the precincts of the park. The very next evening, the unhappy individual who had issued this command, stationed himself disguised at the edge of a thicket, where he was certain to encounter his armed domestic. The keeper drew near, his selfdevoted victim sprang forwards into the path: when, faithful to the instructions he had received, the man levelled his weapon, and Sir William Hankford lay weltering in blood ! The author of the "Worthies" makes allusion to this catastrophe, adding, that the stump of the oak near which it occurred had been shown to some eminent lawyers riding the western circuit in his time. He was buried in America church, and appeared on his tomb in a kneeling posture, with the two following lines inscribed upon a label issuing out of his mouth.

Miserere mei, Deus, secundum misericordiam tuam.
Beati qui custodiant judicium, et facerent justitiam omni tempore.

"No charitable reader," well observes the pious and discreet Fuller, commenting on this act of self-destruction, "will condemn his memory, who, while living, was habited with all requisites for a person of his place."

To kill poachers upon the spot without ceremony, appears to have been a general practice during the feudal ages: thus, the Veel MS., before quoted, states that William Wicock, servant to Thomas, second Lord of Berkeley, having caught William Goyle netting hares in his master's wood, killed him with an arrow." And Walter How, an under-keeper to the same, slew one Clift stealing deer, with a forker[36] out of his crossebowe.

The Inca Garcilasco de Vega preserves the particulars of a singular duel between an Indian and a follower of De Soto, the one armed with the long, the other with the crossbow. In all probability similar conflicts were not unfrequent during our own ancient military expeditions to the Continent, though historians have omitted to record them.

Whilst the Indians were in complete rout, after the siege of Alambano, a warrior, suddenly detaching himself from the fugitives, walked down to the water-side, armed with bow and quiver. There he shouted to his foes, intimating, by signs and a few words of broken Spanish, that he challenged any crossbowman among the Christians to approach and try a shot with him from shore to shore. Hearing this, Juan de Salinas, an Asturian hidalgo, who, with some of his comrades, had screened himself from the arrows within a small clump of trees, quickly stepped forth, and stationed himself opposite the Indian, armed with his crossbow. Here we have an almost solitary instance where the followers of De Soto respected the lofty chivalrous spirit which certainly animated these Floridan warriors; for when one of Juan's companions shouted that he should stay until he brought him the protection of his shield, the brave Salinas peremptorily refused to take any advantage of his naked foe; whilst the Indian, therefore, was selecting an arrow from his quiver, he also carefully placed one upon his arbalist. Both levelled and discharged their weapons at the same moment; but our hidalgo proved himself the better marksman, and his quarril buried itself in the Indian's bosom. The dying warrior was received in the arms of his countrymen, who quickly bore him from the scene of action; but he fell not wholly unrevenged, for his arrow passed through the nape of the Spaniard's neck. Fearful lest irritation might ensue from drawing it out precipitately, he hastened back to his comrades with the shaft crossed in the wound. None of the other Indians attempted to molest him in his departure, as the challenge had been avowedly man to man. On another occasion, the Spanish commander directed his troops to attempt the passage of a lake or morass, bordered by a thick forest, on the further side of which the savages were observed to be collecting in great force. Each trooper, therefore, took a crossbowman behind him upon the crupper, that an imposing force might be assembled more quickly, to protect the landingplace, and seize upon the only passage into the interior; but as the soldiers were yet in the middle of the water, a storm of arrows descended upon them, while the most hideous yells issued from all sides.

At that instant, the horse of Alvarez Fernandez fell dead under him, and many more were mortally wounded; whilst the remainder, maddened also with pain, plunged and reared in the water, which reached beyond their saddle girths. The footsoldiers were quickly dismounted; and as the wheeling and plunging of the horses exposed their riders' shoulders to the enemy, not one had escaped arrow wounds. And now the savages, observing their helpless condition in the water, raised the warhoop, and rushed forwards to despatch them, shouting victory to their comrades. It was a scene of the wildest confusion. Up to their armpits in the current were seen the Christians engaged in mortal struggle with their tawny adversaries; horses galloping masterless along the shore; and hordes of natives crowding to the combat. Recovered at length from their first terror, the nearest Spaniards crossed over an Indian bridge of logs, and hastened to the succour of their companions. It was then a large body of warriors met them, led by a chief perfectly naked, armed with a formidable bow, and having his head decorated with lofty plumes. He marched about twenty paces in advance of his men, and was evidently manoeuvring to gain the protection of a large tree, behind which he could securely gall the Spaniards with his arching. A soldier, named Gonzalo Silvestre, seeing this, hailed his comrade, one Anton Galvon, a crossbowman, who, though unhorsed and wounded, had, soldier-like, kept possession of his weapon. Preceded by Silvestre, holding before him a quilted surcoat, used by the Spaniards as body armour, which he found floating in the water, he managed to reach the tree before his Indian adversary. Enraged at being thus defeated, the latter in an instant let fly; three arrows with an unerring aim, and they had certainly proved fatal, but for the garment still used by Silvestre as a shield; which being wet, effectually deadened the force.

When the practiced eye of Galvon perceived the savage was within crossbow range, he levelled his weapon and lodged its quarrel in his adversary's heart. The dying Indian staggered only a few paces, ere he exclaimed to his followers, "The traitors have slain me." With mournful cries they received him as he fell, and passing his body from one to another, conveyed it from the fatal field.

Vitachuco, a Floridan cacique, had fallen into the hands of the Spaniards, by whom he was detained a prisoner. Many of his people shared his captivity, some of them having been taken at the same time, others came voluntarily to undergo the fate, and minister to the wants of their beloved chief. With these he entered into a plot to attack the Spaniards about the time of their mid-day meal, slay as many of them as possible, and then escape into the surrounding woods. Sticks and stones, but chiefly some culinary utensils of their captors, were the only weapons these savages could lay their hands on; nevertheless they wielded them with terrible energy; numbers of the Christians had their limbs broken; or were burnt, bruised, and scalded beyond a chance of recovery. One man had nearly the whole of his teeth knocked out; his head was terribly cut; and his assailant was in the act of giving him the coup de grace, as some comrades arrived to his rescue. Snatching up a spear, which accidentally lay against the wall, the Indian then took to his heels, and ran up a hand-ladder into a loft, the door of which opened upon a sort of basse court. Thither the Spaniards eagerly pursued him; but it was not possible to ascend, as he occupied the top of the landing-place, and with the lance threatened destruction to any who should molest him. At this juncture, a relation of the general, named Diego de Soto[37], entered the court-yard, bearing his crossbow. Though fully aware of the power of this weapon to wound or kill him from afar, the savage unshrinkingly maintained his post: death in some shape or another he foresaw was inevitable; he therefore only sought not to fall unrevenged. As was usual in case of present danger, the Spaniard had come with crossbow ready bent, and an arrow upon the groove. Whilst resting the butt upon his shoulder[38], preparatory to shooting, the savage collected all his force, and discharged the lance with prodigious violence. Its steel head-grazed De Soto's shoulder; and the reverberating shaft, as it penetrated the ground, about) half length behind, struck him upon his knees. But at the same instant his adversary fell to the earth, transfixed by the quarril, which had entered his left breast.

I shall conclude this chapter with an anecdote not wholly dissimilar to the last, except that the Spaniard encountered an adversary differing somewhat in species from the Floridan warrior.

"A bowman of our company," says the author of "Decades of the Ocean[39];" "bent his crossbow against an old ape with a long tail, bigger than a baboon. This ape made as though she would wait for the arrow; but as soon as she saw it directed by shutting one eye, casting down a stone upon the archer, she shrewdly bruised his face, and brake his teeth out of his head. Yet the monkey was punished for her strange stratagem; for at what time the stone fell down upon the archer, the quarril ascended into the ape, and they eat her for a dainty dish. In truth, so great hunger oppressed them, that they had eaten toads, or any other worse meat."

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