The Anglo-Norman Period—Robin Hood—Military Achievements of the Bow in the Middle Ages—Its Decline and Fall—Revival for Amusement—First Toxophilite Societies—Establishment of National Archery Society.
Although, as stated in the last chapter, this work is essentially intended to treat on the practical and scientific points connected with the pursuit of Archery, and mainly thereby to supply an acknowledged want, still it may not be altogether uninstructive to present to the reader a short and compendious sketch of the history, powers, and doings of the bow, from the time of its first introduction into this country to the present day; so that every Archer may have a general knowledge of the career of this his favourite weapon, and be able to render a reason for the high estimation in which he doubtless holds it. Those that are desirous of more detailed information are specially referred to Mr. Roberts's work already alluded to—a work abounding in extracts from every author of authority who has written on the subject, and containing a mass of information that will amply repay a careful perusal.
The date of the first introduction of the long-bow into England is a matter of considerable uncertainty, and a cheval de bataille with all historians and authors who have attempted to determine it; but it is certain that it was not till after the battle of Hastings, and the subsequent conquest of Britain by the Normans, that it became he favourite and specially encouraged military weapon in the hands of its inhabitants. The preponderance of historical evidence goes to prove that, to the deadly effects produced by it in that battle, the invaders principally owed their victory—Harold himself and the best of his men falling victims to the clothyard shaft. Thus the long-bow proved the prime agent in subjugating this country, substituting the Norman for the Saxon rule, and, by the intermixture of the two people, ultimately in completing that far-famed Anglo-Saxon race, the popularly supposed powers of which to accomplish everything everywhere it behoveth not one of themselves further to dilate upon. From this time, then, we may conclude, commenced in England that general, and all but universal, cultivation of the bow, which was ultimately to lead to such marvellous and astounding results, and to render the very name of the, English bowman an object of terror and dread in the minds of his enemies. Archers we find employed on both sides in the civil contests between Stephen and Matilda, and during the reign of Henry II. they began to form the larger portion of the infantry of the English armies, and to evince that decided superiority over those of every other nation which they ever afterwards retained.
In this reign, too, first appeared upon the scene that prince of good fellows (as times went) and gentlest of robbers and outlaws, bold Robin Hood!—that hero of impossible shots, the twang of whose bow, with that "of his jolly companions everyone," could, according to Drayton, be heard a mile off! Credat Judaeus! However this may be, if there be truth at all in history and legend, he and his merry men were incomparable Archers, for strength and skill never surpassed, if ever equalled; and we may well suppose Archery to have been brought to the highest pitch of perfection in the times that produced such eminent exemplifiers of the Art. Robin flourished much longer than is usual with such bold spirits, even in the olden time; for we find him still in his glory through the reign of Richard I, John, and a considerable portion of that of his successor, Henry III.
It would be impossible, without entering into a mass of details whose length would be unsuited to the nature of these pages, to mention a tithe of the extraordinary feats performed and victories gained by the English during the next three or four centuries, owing entirely to their superiority in the use of the long-bow. The fictions of romance pale before many of the authenticated tales handed down to us by historians of the wonders it achieved. No armour that could be made proved strong enough to insure its wearer against its power, no superiority of numbers seemed sufficient to wrest a victory from its grasp. Speed declares that the armour worn by Earl Douglas and his men-at-arms at the battle of Homildon had been three years in making, and was of remarkable temper, yet the "English arrows rent it with little adoe." Gibbon tells us that, on one occasion, during the Crusades, "Richard, with seventeen knights and three hundred archers, sustained the charge of the whole Turkish and Saracen army;" and the pages of Froissart teem with the details of battles and skirmishes without number, in which the irresistible power placed by it in the hands of the English enabled them to set all odds at defiance, and constantly to emerge victorious out of situations where utter destruction seemed certain and inevitable. Look at Cressy and Poictiers, Navaretta and Agincourt! Since the extinction of the bow as a weapon of war, has England ever shown parallels to such victories as these? "Let him," says Roberts, "who reads the history of modern times, look narrowly to find, if but once (since Archery flourished), with our twelve or fifteen thousand we have defeated an army of fifty or sixty thousand;" and he might have added, as was the case in the last-named battle, if with twenty-five thousand we had completely routed and nearly annihilated an army of a hundred and sixty thousand! And be it also borne in mind that these marvellous and wondrous results were not obtained against barbarian hordes or undisciplined soldiery, but against some of the first chivalry and most renowned men-at-arms that the world at that time contained. In spite of Miniés and breech-loading rifles, will it ever again become a proverb in vogue regarding the British soldier, that he carries as many enemies' lives in his hands as bullets in his pouch; yet it was a common saying in Scotland in times gone by, that every English Archer bore with him the lives of four-and-twenty Scots— such being the number of arrows each carried in his quiver. All honour, then, to the long-bow! May the grateful remembrance of it never pass away from the land, whose glory it has raised to so high a pitch; and though it may never be seen a weapon of war again, may its practice long continue to form one of our most manly and health-inspiring amusements.
The time that Archery commenced its decline in this country, till it finally ceased to be used in warfare at all, is almost as much a matter of dispute with writers as is the date of its first introduction. If we are to believe Moseley, "the battle of Agincourt (which happened under Henry Y., 1415) is the last important action in which Archery is mentioned;" but according to Roberts, (whose accuracy in matters of historical detail can in general be well depended on,) great slaughter was caused by it in the civil wars between the White and Red Roses; and he further adds, "it continued to support its military character and invincible career of glory with undiminished effect during the reigns of Henry VI., Henry VII., Henry VIII., and Edward VI., and even in the reign of Elizabeth was still in high repute amongst foreigners of great military skill, who had witnessed its powerful effects." Nevertheless, we find Hollingshead, who wrote in the sixteenth century, bewailing the degeneracy of the Archery of his day, as being deficient in force and strength. The mean between the extremes of conflicting opinions will probably lead us to the nearest approximation to the truth. It may, therefore, be concluded that towards the close of the fifteenth century the use of fire-arms had caused Archery to be held in somewhat less repute than formerly, and that, consequently, the cultivation of it had ceased to be of that all but universal character that it once had been. The natural effects followed—with less practice came less strength and skill; and by the time the sixteenth century came to an end, but little remained to the bow, beyond the remembrance of its former glory and achievements. The last mention of Archery as used in warfare, occurs in a pamphlet published in 1664, where it is stated to have been employed in the contests between the Marquis of Montrose and the Scots; but evidently for many years prior to this date, its ancient pith, power, and reputation, had departed.
We now arrive at the time when the bow, abandoned as a weapon of war, became a mere instrument of amusement and recreation; but hardly any record exists to enlighten us as to the extent to which it was practised, or the degree of skill retained by its admirers. During the eighteenth century it would almost appear to have fallen entirely into disuse, only two or three societies existing in the kingdom, and those in a very languid and feeble condition. In the year 1780, however, a society, under the title of The Royal Toxophilites, was established in London; and, the impetus once communicated, a great revival of Archery immediately took place, and a vast number of societies speedily sprang up in every part of the country, the greater part of which, with many new and more modern ones, exist in full force and vigour at the present day. Undoubtedly, however, we owe to the establishment of the Grand National Archery Society, fourteen years back, the present high consideration in which the practice of Archery is by both sexes now held, as well as the more general and increasing skill which continues year by year plainly to manifest itself—thus showing that the love of the bow has only slumbered, not died, in the breasts of Englishmen, and needs but moderate encouragement to become once more, if not a weapon of war, at any rate one of the most esteemed and highly-prized amusements in the kingdom. To conclude, let every Briton remember, in the words of Camden, that when Englishmen used Hercules' weapons—the bow and the black bill—they fought victoriously, "with Hercules' success"—and reverence their memory accordingly.