Societies of Modern Archers
Part 2 of 6
"What, here!" exclaims our astonished countryman; "among granite flags, macadamised roads, ranges of dingy houses, and a human tide rushing by, as if each individual composing it bore the cares of three kingdoms upon his shoulders!"
"Even so, good sir;--these now usurp the green sunny lawns where Britain's prince charmed all hearts by his affability, and all eyes by the grace with which he drew the bow, as he excelled in every other noble accomplishment."
I have already compared the ardour with which, towards the close of the last century, Englishmen resumed the ancient national weapon to the Shakspeare mania prevalent about the same period. A similar rage for possessing even the most trivial relic analogous to the objects of their respective idolatry possessed the votaries of each. The Tower of London, the castles of Windsor, Edinburgh, Dover,--every fortalice and gothic mansion in the three kingdoms,--were ransacked, in the expectation of discovering some remnants of old English archery. The search was in general but ill rewarded; though, whenever any thing did come to light, it was treasured up with eager fondness, or disposed of at a price ridiculously exorbitant.
My own feelings with respect to this subject are ardent enough; yet is it possible to avoid laughing, when one reflects on the overwhelming rage which possessed that honest toxophilite, who discovered the domestics of a certain Scottish mansion in the act of cooking their master's haggis with a parcel of bows long secreted there! My readers will compare it to the indignation excited in the dramatic world, when Warburton's cookmaid confessed to having devoted the rarest specimens of his early English plays to a similar use. In both cases, it might be quite as well that the respective offenders had challenged every archer and playgoer summoned upon the jury, had either of these exploits periled life or liberty.
In imitation of the Stratford jubilee, instituted by Garrick in honour of Avon's Bard, the Toxophilites contemplated a similar festival in memory of the celebrated author of the "Toxophilus." Why they never carried their plan into execution, I am unable to state exactly; I believe some difficulty was experienced in ascertaining the date and place of his nativity. Perhaps they would yet like to know that he was born at Kirkley Whiske, an obscure village of Richmondshire, in the North Riding of York, about the year 1511, being the son of John Ascham of the same place, an independent freeholder, much esteemed by his contemporaries for probity and good sense, to which honourable endowments he owed his situation as steward to the Lord Scrope of Bolton House.
At an early age his son Roger became page to Sir Henry Wingfielde, in whose family he acquired that love of archery which adhered to him through life. He afterwards married Mrs. Margaret Howe, a lady of family and fortune, ancestress to the present noble family of that name. Ascham's constitution, naturally weak, had been long overstrained by study, the ill effects of which, as he tells us, he laboured to counteract by daily exercise at the shooting-butts. At length, about the close of the year 1568, having sat up very late, according to custom, in order to finish a poem intended for presentation to the Queen, he was attacked with a violent fit of the ague, which proved mortal.
The following passage in Abraham Darcie's "Annals of England" will likewise be perused with interest, as containing some curious information respecting Ascham's private habits. "The last day but one of this present year (1568), pardon me this short digression for the memorie's sake of an honest and virtuous man, who being borne in the countie of Yorke, and brought up at Cambridge, was the first of our nation that refined the Greek and Latin tongues, and the puritie of the style, with singular commendation of his eloquence. He was some time reader to Queen Elizabeth, and her secretarie for the Latin tongue; and yet, notwithstanding he was given to play and cockfighting, he both lived and died not very rich, leaving behind him two elegant books, as monuments of his rare wit and understanding; one of which was styled "Toxophilus, or schole of shootinge," and the other, "Scholarca" From a letter not found, as I believe, in any published edition of his works, it appears that he owed his church preferment to the former of these treatises. "I once wrote," says he, "a little book of Shewtinge, which King Henry, her (Queen Elizabeth's) noble father, did so well like and allow, that he gave me a living for it." Henry's love and knowledge of archery have been already described elsewhere.
The author of the "Seasons" likewise, another man of genius, appears to have handled his shafts as adroitly as he did the angling-rod. Who that is acquainted with that exquisite passage, beginning--
"Just in the dubious point, where with the pool
Is mix'd the trembling stream; or where it boils
Around the stone, or from the hollow bank
Reverted plays in undulating flow,
There throw, nice-judging, the delusive fly;
And as you lead it round with artful curve,
With eye attentive mark the springing game.
Straight, as above the surface of the flood
They wanton rise, or urged by hunger leap,
Then fix, with gentle twitch, the barbed hook,"--
will deny his adroitness with the latter? And were there no decisive evidence of Thomson's reputation as an archer, we are justified in upholding it, from the pains taken by Mr. Chalmers, and some other of the original Toxophilites, to find out every particular respecting his early life. How far they were successful, I know not; but if the following trivial anecdote be thought worthy of a place in their records, they are also exceedingly welcome to it. About the year 1725 the poet kept an academy on Kew Green, and twice or thrice a week a few of his elder scholars were invited to the palace, as playmates for the Prince of Wales. One of them, named Littlejohn, being a great favourite with his Royal Highness, he once observed to him-- "Littlejohn, when I am king, you shall be our bow-bearer in chief, and have Sherwood Forest." The promise was given with all the sincerity of ingenuous childhood. It were interesting to know if Mr. Littlejohn survived, and saw his royal friend the monarch of three kingdoms. I would have petitioned for the head rangership at all events.
That magnificent spectacle, the Grand Meeting of Archers, which took place on Blackheath, May 29th, 1792, owed its origin to the Royal Toxophilites. The weather was most propitious, and the novelty of the scene drew together an incredible concourse of spectators. At noon the archers, clothed in Kendall green, met at their respective tents, which were pitched in a line fronting the south. Immediately opposite these, fourteen pair of targets ranged from north to south: a distance of one hundred yards intervened between each; and they appeared in the following order when reckoned downwards from the front of the tents:--
Surrey Bowmen; two sets of targets.
St. George's Bowmen.
Royal Kentish Bowmen; two sets of targets.
The Toxophilite Society.
Archers' Division of the Artillery Company.
Woodmen of Arden.
Robin Hood's Bowmen; two sets of targets.
Woodmen of Hornsey.
Bowmen of Chevy Chase.
The following programme of the day's amusements was published by authority of the stewards:--
At eleven o'clock, the leaders of the targets are to arrange the archers to shoot at their respective marks, and to set down their names.
No greater number than TEN to shoot at any one pair of targets.
Two arrows to be shot at each end.
Two target papers to be kept at each target.
At twelve, the shooters to form a line in front of the tents, in the order of shooting. The signal for forming the line, to be a march of the music, playing the whole length of the tents. The line being formed, the command, to face to the right and march, to be given by three strokes of the kettle-drums.
The different societies will then proceed to their respective targets, and begin shooting when the music ceases. The leader of each target to advance ten paces when his party have done shooting, and proceed to the opposite target, on hearing the bands, which will continue playing until the shooting recommences.
At three, refreshments to be taken into the tents.
The signal to go into the tents will be, by the music halting in the centre of the ground, until the arrows are collected; when each society will fall into its own station. The line will then be formed, and the archers are to march back to their respective tents, the same signal being used as for the march to the targets.
At half-past three, the re-opening of the targets will be announced, by a repetition of the signals before used.
At six, the shooting will cease, by the same signal as before used for going to refresh; the whole line to halt in front of the tents, while the stewards collect the target papers; the archers are then to be dismissed, and to proceed to dinner. Tickets to be collected at the door of the dining-room, and the societies to be seated according to seniority, the stewards making the arrangements.
These, we must allow, were eminently conducive to promote the good order and success which distinguished this laudable effort to revive the masculine robust exercises of our ancestors. The scene was a truly magnificent one. In beautiful contrast with the gay greensward, appeared numerous snow white tents, above which floated banners and other emblematical devices of the different societies; but the view of fourteen pair of targets, occupying an unbroken line full half a mile long, I can well imagine to have been by far the most elegant portion of the spectacle; with their gorgeous colours, and the idea of perfect repose they suggest to the gazer's mind. Busy groups of bowmen in their finest garb; tens of thousands of spectators attired in all that beautiful costume which the inhabitants of the metropolis never fail to exhibit on a gala day; bursts of martial music floating through the air,--must have formed a scene equally novel and picturesque.
Amongst those who especially distinguished themselves by gallant attention to their fair visiters, I will not omit to name the Royal Artillery Archers, whose tent was lined throughout with green silk; and Robin Hood's Bowmen, for they had provided in theirs a temporary flooring of boards. Their uniform also attracted universal attention, as being the most elegant and appropriate in the whole field. The honours of the day fell thick upon this society; since, out of the four prizes, they became entitled to three, two being won by Anderson, Esq., as captain of numbers, and lieutenant of the target; the third fell to the lot of R. Glenn, Esq., as lieutenant of numbers. The captain of the target was a Woodman of Arden.
Among the nobility present, Lord Aylesford distinguished himself by some very close shooting; indeed the exploits of the day, taken as a whole, stand high in the annals of modern archery. The captain of numbers above mentioned, placed thirty-three arrows in the target; and the second in command, twenty-four. On every former occasion, the highest number had never exceeded twenty-one. It is remarkable that Mr. Adnerson, who bore away the most considerable prize, should have been a Fleming; and though but of middling stature, shot with a Flemish long bow of six feet three inches. This gentleman appears to have been an incomparable archer, at that period esteemed among the best in England, and the feats of dexterity recorded of him, justify the distinction. In September, 1795, shooting with the Woodmen of Arden, he gained a captaincy of numbers. During the same month and year, he was challenged by a gentleman in the Isle of Thanet for the best of three days' sport at target-shooting. On the numbers being cast up, the result appeared as follows. First day: Anderson, 415; Gibson, 372. Second day, which proved excessively stormy: Anderson, 479; Gibson, 341. Third day: Anderson, 496; Gibson, 407. Anderson had much of the right spirit in him. He never declined a challenge, and rarely failed of a triumph. In the choice of his bows he was somewhat recherché, as became an archer who could handle them so well. Take the following memorandum extracted from the Bankes' MSS., in proof of this:--
March 15th, 1794. At the Custom-house to-day, I saw several bows, which, having been entered too low, were seized and sold. Mr. Anderson, a famous archer, went to look at them. He said he had been abroad on purpose to purchase one of the lot, for which he would give twenty guineas. Four of them (that Mr. Anderson valued so much was one,) sold for 16l.understand he bought the lot, and also another parcel of bows. There were no arrows, only wood for them.
March 15th, 1794. Mr. Waring told me he did not buy the bows, as the price was too high. That he never sold one for more than 21. 2s. There was wood for arrows, at the Custom- house, which he bought. 'The bows,' he said, 'did not appear to him better than usual, only they were well seasoned.'
Let us resume the history of the Toxophilites. When Clerkenwell church was being rebuilt, they manifested their respect for Sir W. Wood, an old marshal of the Finsbury Archers, by expending a considerable sum in the re-embellishment and removal of his monument, from the outside of the old to the interior of the new building. His tombstone bears the following quaint and characteristic inscription:--
Pennant makes the following witty allusion to the poetical merits of this epitaph, in his account of London. "Now we are on the outside of the church, let me, in this revival of archery, direct the attention of the brethren and sisters of the bow, to the epitaph of Sir William Wood, a celebrated archer, who died in 1691, et. 82. May their longevity equal his! but when they have made their last shot, I hope that the royal british bowmen have provided an abler bard to celebrate their skill than fell to the lot of poor William Wood."
This, it is imagined, alludes to some wretched doggerel prefixed to his "Bowman's Glory," and commencing thus: --
"Brave archery, what rapture shall I raise
In giving thee thy merit and due praise!
Divine thou art, as from the gods begot
Apollo with an arrow Python shot;
And Cupid, the fair Venus' son, we know,
Is always figured with his shafts and bow;" &c. &c.
These are the only verses, if verses they may be called, in Wood's book. Its chief contents are: "Patents of King Henry VIII., James and Charles I., concerning Archerie;" and descriptions of several shows, processions, and shootings, from the year 1583 to 1681. Maitland, in his 'History of London,' asserts that the honour of knighthood was conferred as a compliment by his brethren, for his dexterity in shooting. But it is more likely to have been conferred on him royally, as the titles of Duke of Shoreditch, Marquis of Clerkenwell, &c., were on some of his predecessors. The current tradition is, that Charles II. seeing an arrow remarkably well shot, inquired who the archer was, and immediately knighted him. However this may be, it is very evident he was held in high esteem by his cotemporaries; for when Queen Catharine, queen consort to Charles II., presented to the Finsbury Archers that splendid silver badge now in possession of the Toxophilite Society, it was unanimously confided to his keeping. Afterwards, the oldest members of the fraternity undertook the charge of this ornament in succession, together with its case, and a pair of arrows, prizes won by them.
The case just alluded to, is by no means the least interesting object among these archery trophies. It resembles a cupboard with folding doors, having on the inside of each a portrait of the old knight in his official costume; the countenance indicates great intelligence and good humour; in his hand the marshal's staff, and the silver badge upon his breast. He is represented with mustachios' a fine flowing beard, and wears a handsome dark velvet hat, surmounted by a rich plume, whilst the lower part of his dress, which is equally picturesque, resembles what Vandycke gives to many of his family pictures.
Sir William Wood
appears beneath the first portrait; and--
an expression he often used--beneath the second.
For years previous to the establishment of the Toxophilites, there were very few Finsbury Archers remaining, Mr. Constable being the oldest. He became a Toxophilite, and presented these valuable relics to his new associates, in whose possession they have since continued.
The gift of an annual prize by his Majesty entitled the members of this society to make the addition to their original title usual with bodies patronised by the monarch; so they are at present known as the royal toxophilites. In various challenges from contemporary societies, to which their reputation has subjected them, I know of but one instance where they have not come off triumphant. On the 5th of August, 1834, a match took place between eleven of the West Berks Archery Club, and the same number of Toxophilites; the former being victorious by a small number of hits. At the great meeting of British Archers before described, they had the honour of carrying away the gold medal; and when the second meeting on Dulwich Common, gave a prize to be shot for by five selected members of any society, who were to excel in number of hits during the whole days' shooting, the challenge was accepted by the Toxophilites, and they came off victorious by a majority of one hundred and ninety shots. In September, 1792, when a select. party shot a match of archery in the Flemish- style, at Mr. Anderson's grounds, near Highgate, Dr. Howarth, of the Toxophilites, received a medal given for the greatest number of prizes. The elder Mr. Waring, already known as the founder of the society, has been seen to put twenty successive arrows, shooting two at each end, into a four-foot target, at the distance of one hundred yards. In the space of one minute, he has likewise shot twelve arrows into a mark two feet square, at forty-six yards. Mr. Crunden, now the father of the Toxophilites, aiming the same number of arrows at a sheet of paper eight inches square, put in ten successive shots at thirty yards. On another occasion, he drove fifty-two arrows out of a hundred into a four-foot target, distant one hundred yards. And, lastly, two other Toxophilites, Messrs. Froward and Green, claps each two arrows, at the same end, into a six inch square paper, six score yards off. This is admirable shooting, from which we may estimate the degree of excellence to which those archers would have arrived, had they undergone the severe drillings familiar to their forefathers. One meets occasionally with gamekeepers who, by early practice with the fowling-piece, not only succeed in killing every thing which runs or flies, but flatten their lead ten times successively against a halfpenny thrown into the air. Among gentlemen, how many are there who, at the distance of sixteen paces, can snuff a candle, and hit a wafer, with a pistol ball, or split it upon the edge of a table knife. Exactly the same degree of adroitness would certainly be the result of a proportionate devotion of our time to the exercise of archery.
Reasoning from my own tastes, I do not think the reader will be displeased at these little digressions. I will therefore cite an instance or two of what is done by nations who undergo a course of discipline similar to that of the old English bowmen, and whose acquirements are of course exceedingly parallel. In a curious French work, entitled Voyages au Nord, the author speaking of the archery of the Samoiedes remarks that they shot excellently well with the bow. Two of these savages, brought to Moscow by order of the Czar, being commanded to exhibit a specimen of their art, aimed their arrows with such extraordinary dexterity as to excite the admiration of the spectators, one of them placed a very small dernier against the trunk of a tree, and retiring to such a distance that the mark was scarcely visible, he repeatedly struck it with his arrow. Dumont, an early French traveller, tells an anecdote respecting the accuracy of aim exhibited by the Turkish archers of Constantinople. He observes that there are two ancient columns in that city, known as the Burnt and the Historical Columns. Adjoining these, he saw a large court appointed for the use of such as chose to exercise themselves, in archery. The master of the sport presented him with a bow, and he had the pleasure of shooting some arrows at the mark. It was fastened against a wall, and contained several lesser marks, gradually decreasing, so that the last was not bigger than a Dutch skilling; yet he saw many persons hit it at every shot, though they stood one hundred paces off.