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Home > Books > Book of archery > Section VIII: Of Yew Trees, Yew Bows, &c, &c
Section VIII
Of Yew Trees, Yew Bows, &c, &c
Part 2 of 3

Previous to dismissing the subject of Dendrology, I will indulge in a remark or two upon another interesting tree. If the yew be so essential to the complete equipment of the English bowman, the lordly oak likewise shines conspicuous in real and fictitious records of his art; and the assembly of archers under their" trysting tree,"[9] is frequently alluded to by the early poets and ballad writers. Thither the bands of outlaws, who roamed through the vast forests by which England was formerly overrun, came together through secret approaches known only to themselves; and there, after sharing the booty, they feasted upon the king's deer, slaughtered with their arrows. Secure from pursuit in these impenetrable fastnesses, these outlawed Saxons sallied forth in the broad day, plundering indiscriminately the travelling merchant, the lordly bishop, and the belted earl. Even the lion-hearted king Richard fared no better than his subjects. Travelling, on one occasion, under the disguise of a churchman, he encountered a party of these marauders, who after obliging him to "stand and deliver," bore him off to feast upon his own venison, and witness a display of their archery beneath the oaks of merry Sherwood.

The king came to Nottingham,
    With knyghtes in great arraye,
For to take that gentle knight,
    And Robin Hood, if he may.

All the pass of Lancashire,
    He went both farre and scare,
Till he came to Plompton park
    He fayled many of his deare.

Where our kynge was wont to see
    Herdes many a one;
He coud not fynde one dere
    That bare ony good horne.

The kynge was wonder wroth with all,
    And swore by the trynyte,
I wolde I had Robyn Hode,
    With eyen I myght hym see;

And he that wolde smyte of the knyghtes head,
    And brynge it to me,
He shall have the knyghtes londes,
    Syr Rycharde at the Le;

I give it him with my charter,
    And sele it with my honde,
To have and horde for ever more,
    In all mery Englonde.

Half a yere dwelled our comfy kinge,
    In Nottingham, and well more,
Coude he not here of Robyn Hode,
    In what countré that he were;--

But alway went good Robyn,
    By halke and eke by hill;
And alway slewe the kinges dere,
    And wilt them at his will.

Than bespake a proud forestère,
    That stode by our kinges kné,
If ye will se good Robyn,
    Ye must do after me;

Take five of the best knightes
    That be in your lede,
And walk downe by yon Abbay
    And gete you monkes wede.

*     *     *     *     *

Full hastly our kinge was dight,
    So were his knightes five,
Everich of them in monkes wede,
    And hasted them thither blithe.

Our kinge was grete above his core,
    A brode hat on his crowne;
Right as he were abbot like,
    They rode up into the towne.

Stiff bates our kinge had on,
    Forsooth as I you say,
He rode singinge to grene wode,
     The convent was clothed in graye.

There they met with good Robyn,
     Stondinge on the waye,
And so dide many a bolde archere.
    For sooth as I you say,

Robyn toke the kinges horse,
    Hastely in that stide,
And said, Sir Abbot, by your leve,
    A while ye must abide.

We be yeomen of this foreste,
     Under the grene wode tre,
We live by our kinges dere,
    Other shyft have not we;

And ye have chirches and rentes both,
    And gold full grate plenté;
Give us some of your spendinge
    For saynt Charité.

Then bespake our cumly kinge,
     Anone then said he,
I brought no more to grene wode,
     But forty pounce with me;

Robyn toke the forty pounce,
    And parted it in two partye;
Halfendell he gave his merry men,
    And bad them mery to be.

Full curteysly Robyn gan say,
    Syr, have this for your spendinge;--
We shall mete another day,
    Gramercy, than said our kinge.

Robyn toke a full grete home,
    And loud he gan blowe;
Seven score of wight younge men,
    Came redy on a rowe.

All, they kneeled on their knee,
    Full faire before Robyn.
The kinge said himselfe untyll,
    And swore by saint Austyn,

Here is a wonder semely sight,
    Me thinketh, by Godde his pyne;
His men are more at his biddinge,
    Then my men be at myne.

Full hastly was their dyner dyght,
    And thereto are they gone,
They served our kinge with al their might,
    Both Robyn and Lytell Johan.

Anone before our kinge was set
    The fatte venyson,
The good whyte brede, the good red wyne,
    And thereto the fyne ale browne,

Make good chere, said Robyn'
    Abbot, for charyté:
And for this same tidinge,
    Blyssed mote thou be, &c. &c.

Within the still extensive, and once royal forest of Wentwood[10], on the left hand side of the road that leads from Llanvoir castle, is a little detached clump of trees springing from an undulating surface of bright green velvet turf. Two of these woodland patriarchs, remarkable beyond their fellows for magnitude and antiquity, have long been familiar to the neighbouring rustics by the appellation of "Foresters' Oaks." You will easily recognise by their form, for the growth and storms of centuries have given a most giant-like, fantastic air to the limbs of the first; and above the finely arched summit of the second, a huge blasted leafless bough, resembling the antlers of some colossal stag, shoots up from a mass of brilliant foliage, so dense that, like another Boscobel oak, it might securely shelter a fugitive monarch within its impenetrable recesses. Even at the present day, I believe a meeting of the forest tenants sometimes assembles there.[11] There, also, the woodmen of Worcester's great marquis were wont to halt, and ease their shoulders of the red deer venison which once roamed within the chase of Wentwood. Other scenes, too, of a more sombre character have occasionally been enacted there. Brief examination and a speedy fate awaited the luckless Saxon, who loving a buck's haunch more than he feared the penalties of forest law, was detected under any suspicious circumstance, set forth in cabalistic verse:--

Dog draw,
     Stable stand,
Back berond,
     Bloody hand.[12]

Their trysting oak afforded a ready gallows:[13] his own bowstring the halter by which they strangled him like a hound. Beneath the branches of these stately trees, also, the oath of fidelity was administered to candidates for the forester's vocation in the following quaint doggerel:--

    You shall true liegeman be
    To the king's majestic;
Unto the beasts of the forest you shall not misdo,
Nor to any thing that cloth belong thereto.
The offences of others you shall not conceal,
But to the utmost of your power you shall them reveal
    Unto the officers of the forest,
    And to them that may see them redress'd.
    All these things you shall see done,
    So help you God at his holy doom.

Among the extraordinary oaks found in Monmouthshire and South Wales, is that between Old and New Radnor, measuring twenty-seven feet in girth. Another remarkable tree extends its branches over a large fish pool near St.Arvan's, on the Piercefield estate. At Newcastle, a village some distance from Monmouth, a huge oak upwards of nine yards in circumference, stands on the left side of the road. Its pendant matted branches have a most fantastic appearance; and when one of the largest was recently severed by a storm of wind, it yielded full fifteen cart loads of fire wood.

Here terminates my stock of knowledge respecting the birth, parentage, and education of yew tree and oak. I will next con over a chapter, de arcubus, of bows.

Previously to the battles of Cressy and Agincourt, so famed in the annals of archery, and for centuries afterwards, our countrymen were accustomed to no other sort of bow than that now styled self, or formed of a single piece. When summoned on domestic military service, the archers, those living upon Crown lands excepted, came armed into the field; but, if engaged on foreign expeditions, the necessary equipments were provided at the public cost. A comparatively small number of their bows then consisted of English yew, its grain being often so knotty and defective that no part could be relied on, except the portion of the heart protected by its exterior stratum of sapwood. Yet, the entire butt of a clean tree, inside as well as outside, is available for self-bows, provided the staves are not sawn, but cleft from the plank, and in that case only; and a passage in Ascham will decide that such was the ancient practice. "The best color of a bow," says he, "is when the back and belly in working are much alike; for, oftentimes in wearing, it proves like virgin wax or gold."[14] In bows cut from the outside of yew, those parts can never resemble each other; the heart of the tree, which forms "the belly," being red or reddish brown; while the outside stratum, through which the sap flows, and which forms the back, is perfectly white.

England alone, being unable to supply the prodigious demand of its ancient armaments, imported great numbers of bow staves, and the government hit upon a clever expedient for rendering them as inexpensive as possible. Since all timber possesses a harder texture and finer grain when grown in a warm climate, than when reared in one less genial[15], the Lombard merchants were compelled to deliver a certain quantity of foreign yew with every cask of Greek and Italian wine admitted into the London custom-house. Edward IV., with whom this law originated, fixed the number of bow staves at four; Richard III., his successor, increased them to ten for each butt.[16] The merchants, or supercargoes, therefore bribed the country people to fell and convey to the ports where they traded a number of yew trees ready lopped and trimmed. From these he selected as many as, by a rough guess, seemed equal to the wine on board, and made them useful as dunnage among the casks, like large bamboo canes in the hold of a modern East Indiaman.

About the period when Stowe composed his Survey of London, the London bowmakers presented a memorial to the Privy Council, complaining that these foreigners had discontinued their supply of yew. The rejoinder of the merchants was curious. They stated that the Turks being in possession of the Levant countries, whence they formerly obtained it, they no longer durst show their beards within fifty leagues of their old haunts; and to this cause, and the consequent adoption of firearms, we may attribute the decay of military archery towards the end of the seventeenth century, none of the tropical woods, at present worked up into bows, being then known. When, therefore, the foreign supply ceased, the bowyers in most parts of the country found it impracticable to meet even the limited demand arising from archery used as a recreation only; and, seeing their occupation thus rapidly on the decline, they bethought themselves of a modified construction of the Lapland and Oriental bow. They accordingly glued a thin slip of ash, elm, hickory, or other very tough wood upon yew taken from the brittle plank; and by thus forming an artificial back to save the bow, it was in less danger of breaking when drawn up. By the success of this experiment, the heart of trees previously condemned for firewood was brought into use, and the Backed Bow, so well known to the votaries of modern archery, quickly became a ruling favourite with shooters of every degree. It is remarkable this improvement should have been first adopted in Lancashire, where the yew tree never grew plentifully, while the distance of that county from the metropolis must have rendered a foreign supply uncertain and difficult.[17]

Had archery retained its ancient warlike reputation, after the date of this improvement, it is probable bows on the new principle would have been adopted in the army, as well as at the butts. In a clever little tract, of the sixteenth century, elsewhere more fully noticed, the author directs a squadron of mounted archers to be thus equipped: "Let their bows be of good yeugh, long, and well nocked and backed." Still, such a bow seems not well adapted for military service; since a few hours' rain, or a night's lodging on the damp ground, would be very likely to put it hors de combat, by softening the glue, and causing the back and belly to part company.

But, after all, English bowyers cannot claim the merit of having first availed themselves of this imitation of the Lapland and Tartar bow: it has been well known to the French and Flemings for nearly three centuries. In the twenty first article of the rules and regulations agreed to by the master gunmakers and bowyers of Paris, A. D. 1575, it is declared that the members of this craft shall make and sell bows formed of several pieces, which were to be carefully fitted together, and glued with good glue well and sufficiently.[18]

Notwithstanding the little communication subsisting between distant nations at the beginning of the sixteenth century, it can easily be shown, that our countrymen were familiar with the construction of many sorts of foreign bows and arrows. In the catalogue of rarities, preserved in the museum of the celebrated John Tradescant, at South Lambeth, are mentioned, "Bowes, 12; arrows, 20; quivers, 12; from India, China, Canada, Virginia, Guinea, Turkey and Persia."[19] In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the attendants of a knight are represented bearing after him his warlike accoutrements, among which we have the Oriental bow.

And eke upon these steeds great and white,
    There satten folk of which some bare his shield,
The third bare with him two bows Turkeis,
    Another his speare up in his hondes held;
Of brent gold was the case and the harneis.[20]

So, in the Romance of the Rose, Love is said to have "deux arcs Turquois."[21]

While Sir John Shirley resided in Persia as ambassador from the British Court, he received a splendid present from the Shah. There were sword blades of Damascus steel, China bowls, and pelisses of costly silks and furs; but, like a true English soldier, nothing pleased him so much as "nine beautiful bows, and an equal number of quivers filled with arrows," which he brought home to England.[22] "Of the South American bowes and arrowes," says Huighen Van Linschoten, "there needeth no great description, because so many of them are brought into these countries.[23] It is unnecessary to cite additional authorities, for the purpose of showing that Englishmen in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were familiar with the construction of foreign implements of archery.

Hazel, elm, ash, and wych bows, are enumerated in our old statutes, to be sold at a very low rate.[24] A law of Queen Elizabeth enumerates auburne and arbour: the former possibly means La Cytise, or Laburnum, a species of dark brown wood, preferred to yew by the Swiss archers, although they have plenty of the latter. Matthiolus mentions that tree as being used for making the best kind of bows; but Mr. Waring, who made some unsatisfactory experiments on fir, also tried the laburnum, but with no better success.[25] Perhaps the auburne and arbour are synonymous; if not, the latter may be walnut tree, also much used on the Continent, and which certainly makes no despicable weapon. By the Indians of North America it is highly esteemed. "The toughest wood in that country," says an old writer, "is the walnut tree; and therefore made use of for hoops and bowes, there being no yews there growing. In England, they make the bowes of wild hazel, ash, and elm, the best of outlandish yew; but the Indians make them of walnut."[26] For butt practice, and other sportive exercises, these "heavy sluggs," as Barnes styles them, do well enough, but except on emergencies, such as a levy en masse, they were rarely used in war. Admiral Frobisher, speaking of the archery of the people of the Jesso Isles, says their bows were of aulne--the alder tree. This species of wood grows plentifully on the margin of most English rivers and brooks; but its qualities are as yet unknown to the bowyers. In the preface to "Gesta Dei per Francos," the excellency of a wood called nassus, growing in the island of Corsica, is greatly enlarged upon. A certificate of Decayes of Castle, Towne, and Citadell of Carlisle, by Walter Strickland, 1569, enumerates seventy bows of elm not serviceable;[27] but such entries do not often occur.

In selecting a bow, whether backed or self, the modern archer has little occasion to exercise critical acumen, except in deciding upon the power he chooses it shall possess. Mr. Waring of Bedford Square, the only London maker of whom I have any experience, furnishes us with bows so excellent in material, proportion, and finish, that the juvenile may safely forego his own choice, and leave to him the care of equipping him suitably. If altogether unacquainted with archery, begin with a self-bow; and when familiar with its use, try your hand with one that is backed; but the former will safely admit of liberties, which would prove fatal to its more elegant and complicated rival. Still, should the latter's showy appearance induce a preference, avail yourself of some veteran archer's instructions; for the principle on which these backed bows are made admits not of their being trifled with.

Ascham speaks as if he were acquainted with the self-bow only, at least he makes no allusion to any other kind. As it is probable not one archer in five score possesses, or has ever seen, the "Toxophilus," I will present the reader with a specimen of his style, making a comment or two as we proceed.

"The Ethiopians had bows of palm trees, but we have no experience of them."

Not in your time, friend Roger, but our experience of such matters has been somewhat enlarged since those glorious days, when you dunned our Royal Bess into the mysteries of "propria qua, Maribus," and "As in presenti." Mr. Waring will furnish a very good looking serviceable bow of this same palm, or "Cocoswood,"--its more modern and fashionable name. But let us get on with the text.

"The Indians had their bows of great strength, which were of reed. In Alexander's life, it says those bows were of so great strength that no harness[28] or buckler, though ever so strong, could stand a shaft from them. The length of the bow was as high as the user."

I have had many bows of this kind in my own possession, but none were of the prodigious strength mentioned by Ascham. What he calls a reed is the male bamboo; and a species growing upon the mountains of Thibet, from its superior closeness of grain, is well adapted for bows. They form them of two exterior pieces, the inner sides of which, after being well smoothed and fitted, are united together by many strong bands. The Lama Gyap, who spent the greater part of his time in the amusement of archery, put one of these cane bows into the hands of Mr. Turner, envoy from the Indian government to Thibet. The Englishman, however, was unable to stir the string, when taking it himself, he shot the arrow against a mark upon the opposite hill, a distance, according to Mr. Turner, of between five and six hundred yards. Such bows might riddle the armour of Alexander's co-mates although the arrows shot were only light hollow reeds; indeed, the rapidity and force with which a shaft of this description will strike an object is truly astonishing. Zenophon corroborates the account here given by Ascham, and says, in reference to the Carducians, another nation of bowmen, that they drove their arrows with prodigious force, piercing through the shields and corslets of his men; and as these arrows were extremely large, the Greeks used them for javelins. The long reed arrows of the Indians of another hemisphere appear to have worked effects equally destructive upon the Spaniards in their attempts to subdue the Floridas; and Garcilasco de Vega describes an encounter between two cavaliers of that nation completely armed and a single naked Indian warrior.

One morning, whilst the troops were halting to refresh themselves, two Indians, splendidly accoutred, after the fashion of their country, approached to within three hundred paces of the camp. They there commenced parading up and down beneath a large walnut tree, one on one side, and the other on the other, in order to guard against any sudden surprise. When the Spanish general was informed of this, he ordered all the soldiers to their quarters, calling the Indians "fools and madmen, only worthy of contempt." In obedience to this command, they were allowed to continue unmolested, until the return of a detachment of horse, who had been all day abroad on a foraging party. Perceiving the Indians near their quarters, they inquired of their comrades who they were, and learned the orders of the general. All obeyed except Juan Paez, who fiercely exclaimed, "Since these barbarians are fools and madmen, it is proper that a greater fool should chastise their folly ;" and spurred towards the tree. The Indian stationed on the side by which the cavalier was approaching, advanced boldly to meet him, whilst his companion retired still further beneath the branches, thus intimating that the combat was to be man to man. In the mean time, Paez had galloped to within a short distance, when the Indian discharged an arrow so adroitly, that it pierced the fleshy part of his adversary's arm, penetrating through both sides of a coat of mail[29], and remaining crossed in the wound, so that the bridle reins dropped from his hand, and he remained powerless over horse and weapon. His companions immediately galloped after the Indians, who fled hastily on seeing themselves pursued by so many enemies; but the Spaniards came up with them ere they could reach the forest, and, unmindful of the gallantry which is said to be characteristic of their nation in all matters connected with the laws of chivalry, they lanced them to death.

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