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Home > Books > The British Archer > Anecdotes of Archery
Part I: Anecdotes of Archery
Part 1 of 4

The bow is frequently mentioned in Holy Writ. In the sacred volume, we find that Isaac called his son Esau, and said, "Now therefore take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me some venison ; and make me savoury meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat, that my soul may bless thee before I die." [14]

Jonathan, the son of Saul, was a skilful Archer, but it appears that the bow had been neglected amongst the armies of Israel, for in the fatal battle near mount Gilboa, between Saul and the Philistines, we read ; " The battle went sore against Saul, and the archers hit him, and he was sore wounded of the archers."[15]

In the succeeding chapter, we are told that David gave orders for the children of Judah to be taught the use of the bow.

We find the bow mentioned occasionally by Homer. The Poet speaking of Pandarus aiming an arrow at Menelaus, the action is thus described:[16]

"Now with full force the yielding horn he bends,
Drawn to an arch, and joins the doubling ends;
Close to the breast he strains the nerve below,
Till the barb'd point approach the circling bow;
Th' impatient weapon wizzes on the wing,
Sounds the tough horn, and twangs the quivering string."

The Locrians were a body of troops in the Grecian army, who occasionally used both the bow and the sling.[17]

"The Locrian squadrons, nor the jav'lin wield,
Nor bear the helm, nor lift the moony shield;
But skill'd from far the flying shaft to wing,
Or whirl the sounding pebble from the sling.—
Dext'rous with these they aim a certain wound,
Or fell the distant warrior to the ground.";

The suitors of Penelope, having in vain attempted to bend the bow of Ulysses, (that hero being present disguised like a beggar,) he with much difficulty obtains leave to try his skill.

"___________________One hand aloft display'd,
The bending horns, and one the string essay'd.
From his essaying hand the string let fly,
Twang'd short and sharp, like the shrill swallow's cry.
A general horror ran through all the race,
Sunk was each heart, and pale was every face.—
When fierce the hero o'er the threshold strode;
Stript of his rags, he blaz'd out like a god.
Full in their face the lifted bow he bore,
And quiver'd deaths, a formidable store :
Before his feet the rattling shower he threw,
And thus terrific, to the suitor crew;
One vent'rous game this hand has won to day,
Another, Princess! yet remains to play;
Another mark our arrow must attain,
Phoebus! assist; nor be the labour vain.
Swift as the word the parting arrow sings,
And bears thy fate, Antinous, on its wings :
Wretch that he was, of unprophetic soul!
High in his hands he rear'd the golden bowl.
Even then to drain it, lengthened out his breath ;
Changed to the deep, the bitter draught of death:
For fate who fear'd amidst a feastful band!
And fate to numbers, by a single hand!
Full thro' his throat Ulysses' weapon past,
And pierced the neck, He falls, and breathes his last"

Eneas, in celebrating the anniversary of his Father's funeral, amongst other sports and exercises, introduces archery.

"Forthwith Eneas to the sports invites
All who with feathered shafts would try their skill;
And names the prizes. With his ample hand
He from Serestus' ship a mast erects;

And on it by a rope suspended ties
A swift-wing'd dove, at which they all should aim
Their arrows: They assemble; and the lots
Shuffl'd into a brazen casque are thrown.
With fav'ring shouts Hippocoon first appears.
Offspring of Hyrtacus: Then Mnestheus next,
So lately victor in the Naval strife;
And crown'd with olive green, Eurytion third.

*    *    *    *    *   *

Then all with manly strength
Bend their tough yeugh; each with his utmost force,
All from their quivers draw their shafts: and first
Shot from the twanging nerve, Hippocoon's flies
Along the sky, beats the thin liquid air
And on the body of the mast adverse
Stands fix'd: the mast and frighted bird at once
Tremble, and all the cirque with shouts resounds.
Next eager Mnestheus with his bended bow
Stands ready, and his eyes and arrow aim'd
Direct to heav'n; yet could not reach the dove,
Herself, unfortunate, but cut the knots,
And hempen ligaments in which she hung
Ty'd by the feet upon the lofty mast,
She flies into the winds and dusky clouds.
Eurytion then impatient, and long since
Holding his ready bow and fitted shaft,
Invokes his brother, and in open air,
Seeing the dove now shake her sounding wings,
Transfixes her amidst the clouds: the bird
Falls dead, and leaves her life among the stars!"

After Cambyses had conquered Egypt, he turned his attention to the invasion of Ethiopia, and accordingly sent some spies into that country; under pretence of carrying presents to the king; but he ordered them to enquire privately into the strength and condition of the kingdom.—When they arrived at court, and had made their presents, the king of Ethiopia said to them; "It was not from any consideration of my friendship, that the king of Persia sent you to me with these presents; neither have you spoken the truth, but are come into my kingdom as Spies.—If Cambyses were an honest man, he would desire no more than his own, and not endeavour to reduce a people under servitude, who have never done him any injury. However, give him this bow from me, and let him know, that the king of Ethiopia advises the king of Persia to make war against the Ethiopians, when the Persians shall be able thus easily to draw so strong a bow, and in the meanwhile, to thank the Gods, that they never inspired the Ethiopians with a desire of extending their dominions beyond their own country." Saying this, he unbent the bow, and delivered it to the Ambassador.

The armies of Alexander the Great, were composed chiefly of archers.

The Bowmen of Athens performed wonders in many battles, but particularly under Demosthenes, when they defeated the Lacedemonians near the city of Pylos.— Plato mentions, that one thousand archers were appointed for the standing guard of the city of Athens. This celebrated philosopher was an advocate for archery, and recommended that masters should be employed by the state to teach the Athenian youth the use of the bow.

The Cretans were taught archery at seven years of age; and so expert were this people, that the neighbouring monarchs were desirous of having a band of Cretan archers in their armies.[18]

"The arrows of Gortynia, says Claudian,
"Aimed from a trusty bow, are sure to wound,
"Nor ever miss the destined mark."

The victories obtained by the Parthians over the Romans, were chiefly ascribed to their superiority in the use of their bows. With these they pursued Marchus Antoninus over the hills of Media and Armenia, conquered the noble Valerian, and slew the apostate Julian.

Historians frequently mention the torments endured by those who had been wounded by arrows.

"Touching the galling of the enemy," says Clem. Edmonds "there cannot be a better description, than that which Plutarch (Plut. Crassus) maketh of the overthrow of the Romans, by the Parthian Archers. The Roman soldiers' hands were nailed to their targets, and heir feet to the ground,or otherwise were sorewounded in their bodies, and died of a cruel lingering death, crying out for the very anguish and pain they felt, and turning and tormenting themselves upon the ground, they break the arrows sticking in them. Again, striving by force to pluck out the barbed heads, that had pierced far into their bodies through their veins and sinews, they opened their wounds wider, and so cast themselves away."[19]

The page of history points out the fact, that the Romans in the zenith of their power and dominion, though conquerors of Europe, Africa, and the East, could yet make no impression on the monarchy of the Arsacides, but were, for ages, defeated in all their attempts by the Parthian archers.

Xenophon bears testimony to the prodigious force of the bow. In his account of the retreat of the ten thousand Greeks, who sorely felt the effects of the arrows of the Carducians, he relates : " Here fell a brave man, Cleonymus, a Lacedemonian, who was wounded in the side by an arrow, that made its way both through his shield and buff coat." Again he says; "Here fell Basius, an Arcadian, whose head was quite shot through by an arrow.'' And Plutarch affirms, that this strong shooting continued among the descendants of the Carducians, till the time of Crassus, whose soldiers were slaughtered by their arrows, in vast numbers," as no part of their armour could withstand the force of them."

The Alans, Huns, and Dacii, who finally overthrew the empire of the west, were remarkable for archery.

The Arabian tribes, emerging from their confined and desert territory, established the vast power of the Caliphs by means of the bow. After them, the Turks overthrew the eastern empire by the same weapon.

Archery was cultivated by many private individuals of the Roman state.

The Circus was often the scene where feats of archery were exhibited, and even emperors themselves were actors.

Domitian and Commodus, were particularly celebrated for their matchless excellence in the use of the bow.

The feats of Commodus were numerous. He was one of the most expert archers that ever lived. Many stags, lions, panthers, and other species of beasts, fell by his hand. It is said that a second arrow was never necessary ! He would strike an animal in any particular point he wished, with the greatest accuracy. A panther was sometimes let loose into the circus, where a criminal was placed, and just as the animal was going to seize the culprit, he would drive an arrow so opportunely, that the man should escape unhurt.[20] One hundred beasts have been introduced at the same time upon the arena, and with the same number of shafts, he would lay them lifeless.

The Persians appear, from all accounts, to be astonishingly expert in the art of shooting in the Long-bow. These people may be placed with the first rank of Archers. Chardin says, that the Persians, in their exercises, shoot in the bow with incredible accuracy ; so accurate, that " they will often drive an arrow into the same hole." Their excellence, in shooting, while on horse-back, is thus described by Chardin. " A mark is placed on the top of a pole, about twenty-six feet from the ground, the horseman rides at full speed towards the mark, and having passed it, (his bow being ready drawn) turns round, and discharges his arrow backwards. Sometimes they shoot to the right hand, and sometimes to the left." The nobility and kings are fond of, and often practise this amusement.

The exercise of archery among the Persians was, (and probably is to this day,) practised thus; "The young people are taught at an early period to hold the bow firmly, to draw, and to let go the string smoothly. At first, they practise with weak bows, and afterwards by degrees, with others that are stronger. The Instructors in the art, direct their pupils to shoot with ease and agility in every direction;—before them,—behind,—and on either side, elevated in the air, or low to the ground.—When the pupils can manage a common bow, they then have another given to them, and when they understand how to handle the bow well, their first exercise, is to shoot in the air as high as they can. Afterwards, they are taught to shoot point blank. The art of shooting point blank, is not only in hitting the mark, but it is necessary also that the arrow goes firmly and steadily. Lastly, pupils are practised in shooting with very heavy Shafts, and with very great force."

Although among the Turks, the practice of the Bow is not so vigorously pursued as in former times, this Weapon is still retained as an implement of war. According to Sir John Smith, "Vallies ran with rivers of blood, caused by the slaughter from the Turkish Bow."—And Gibbon says, "that the first body of the Crusaders, was overwhelmed by the Turkish arrows, and a pyramid of bones informed their companions of the place of their defeat."

The victory obtained by the Normans over the English, at the battle of Hastings, was the seed sown for the future harvest of English renown, and the early germ of the wreath for British archery.

After the period of the Norman Conquest, archery became an object of the highest consideration to the government of this country. The superior personal strength, added to that cool and steady tempered resolution, so peculiarly natural to our general national character, may be said to have been the help-mates to those great advantages which the English possessed in their archers, and which enabled them continually to gain the most decisive victories, with great disparity of numbers, over every nation with whom they had to contend in arms. With these advantages of heart and strength, the opponents of the English archers were unable to stand against them with any chance of success.

William II., whilst hunting in the New Forest with Sir Walter Tyrrell, was accidentally killed by one of the knight's arrows.

Richard I. of England, when besieging the castle of Chaluze, approached, too near the walls, and was mortally wounded by an arrow. During the reign of this monarch, we first find particular mention made of Robin Hood the celebrated Chief of English Archers. The intestine troubles of England were very great at that time, and the country was much infested with outlaws and banditti, amongst whom, none were so notorious as this "Sylvan Hero" and his followers. Stow, in his annals, styles them "Renowned Thieves'

The personal courage of this celebrated outlaw, his skill in archery, his humanity, and especially his levelling principle, of taking from the rich and giving to the poor, have severally been perpetuated in the poetical effusions of the times, and which have served to hand his fame down to posterity, as well as to excite an extraordinary degree of lively interest in every circumstance with which the name of Robin Hood is connected.

Hearne, in his Glossary, inserts a manuscript note of Wood containing a passage cited from John Major, the Scottish historian, to this purpose; that Robin Hood was indeed an arch-robber, but the gentlest thief that ever was: and he remarks, that he might have added from the Harlein MSS. of John Fordun's Scottish Chronicle, that he was, though a notorious robber, a man of great charity.

The true name of Robin Hood was Robert Fitz-ooth.—The addition of "Fitz," common to many Norman names, was afterwards often omitted.

The last two letters "th," being turned into "d," he was called "Ood," or "Hood."—It is evident he was a man of quality, as by the annexed pedigree taken from Dr. Stukeley's " Paleographia Britanniae." Leland also has expressly termed him "Nobilis" (Collectanea I. 54.) from Ritson we read, "Ralph Fitzothes or Fitzooth, a Norman, who had come over to England with William

Rufus, married Maud, or Matilda, Daughter of Gilbert de Gaunt, Earl of Kyme and Lindsey, by whom he had two Sons: Philip, afterwards Earl of Kyme, that Earldom being part of his Mother's dowry, and William. Philip the elder died without issue ; William was a ward to Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, in whose household he received his education, and who, by the King's express command, gave him in marriage to his own Niece, the youngest of the three daughters of the celebrated Lady Roisia de Vere, Daughter of Aubrey de Vere, Earl of Guisnes in Normandy, and Lord High Chamberlain of England under Henry I. and of Adeliza, Daughter to Richard de Clare, Earl of Clarence and Hereford, by Payn de Beauchamp Baron of Bedford her second husband. The offspring of this marriage was, Robert Fitzooth, commonly called Robin Hood."

The Pedigree of Robin Hood
The Pedigree of Robin Hood

In the "Old Garland" it is said, that he was born at Loxley, in Staffordshire:[21] and in a shooting match made by the King and Queen, he was chosen by her Majesty as her archer[22] and she called him "Loxley;" a custom then common to style persons of eminence by the names of the towns where they were born.

If Robert Fitzooth, or his Father possessed any estate, it was doubtless seized on some political account, as it does not appear that any particular property was enjoyed by either.

In those days of Norman tyranny and feudal oppression, attainders and confiscations were frequent.

In the reign of Henry II, when Richard[23] the son of that king rebelled against his Father,—Robert de Ferrers manned his castles of Tutbury and Duffield in behalf of the Prince[24] William Fitzooth, the Father of our hero, was connected with the Ferrers, and probably suffered with them in the consequences of that rebellion, which would not only have deprived the family of their estates, but also of their claim to the earldom of Huntingdon.

From some such cause, Robert Fitzooth was induced to take refuge in those woods and forests, where he had often found a safe and secure retreat, when fleeing from the demands of his country, or to avoid the ruthless hand of tyrannic power.

Tutbury, and other places in the vicinity of his native town, seem to have been the scenes of his " juvenile frolics."[25]. We afterwards find him at the head of two hundred strong resolute men, and expert Archers, ranging the woods and forests of Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire, and other parts of the north of England.

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