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Home > Books > The Archer's Guide > Chapter II
Chapter II
Sketch of the History of Archery in England
Part 1 of 4

Having shewn, in the preceding chapter, that, among the nations of antiquity, the use of the bow may be traced to the very earliest times, we shall here confine ourselves to the practice of archery in England.

Our ancestors, like the natives of most other countries in which archery was practised, used the bow for a double purpose: in time of war, it was a formidable weapon of offence; and in peace, an instrument of manly amusement, and the means by which food and raiment were obtained. Both the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes were unquestionably well acquainted with its use, and frequently employed it, not merely for the purposes of food and pastime, but also in battle against the inhabitants of this country for many centuries previously to the Norman conquest. It would appear that they must have attained considerable proficiency in its use at a very early period; as the Scandinavian Scalds, when praising the heroes of their country, enumerate among their acquirements a superiority of skill in handling the bow.

It has been, by some writers, asserted that the inhabitants of Britain were unacquainted with the bow previously to the Norman invasion Many of our historians, and particularly the modern ones, have represented the English, at the battle of Hastings, as entirely ignorant of the effect of archery, and have spoken of the astonishment with which their troops were seized, in finding themselves assailed by missiles which inflicted certain death from afar off. Thus Speed observes that the first discharge of arrows from the Norman army, "was a kind of fight, both strange and terrible unto the English, who supposed their enemy had beene already in the middest amongst them"Echard expresses the same sentiment. "The fight,"he says, "began with great fury, order, and equal bravery on both sides; in which the English were severely galled by the thick showers of arrows from the Norman long-bows, before the battle joined; which was a weapon then unused in England, and thereby the more surprising: the wounds coming from enemies so far distant, and not suddenly to be revenged."Hume mentions nothing of this extraordinary surprise among the English troops neither does Matthew Paris, nor many others. Sir J. Hayward says "The use of the bow was first brought into the land by the Normans; and that afterwards the English, being trained to the practice of it, became the best shooters in the world."

That the English, however, could have been ignorant of the bow at the period of the Conquest appears utterly incredible It seems unreasonable to imagine that they could have wholly disregarded the value of a weapon which had been so successfully applied against themselves by the Saxons and Danes. Archers, as we have before noted, in the preceding chapter, are thought to have formed a great portion of the auxiliaries attached to the army with which the Romans invaded Britain. It is therefore more than probable that the Romans introduced the bow as a military weapon into this island, as well as into France. Cæsar, in the second book of his Commentaries, speaks of both and Cretan archers being in his army when he encountered the Belgæ in Gaul; and it is hardly reasonable to believe that troops of this description could have been wholly discarded from his ranks when he invaded Britain, about two years afterwards. It is true it has been reiterated that no mention is made of archers among the troops of Harold; but, admitting that fact, it does not thence follow that the British were ignorant of the effect of archery, or that the bow was not then used in England.

During the reigns which succeeded that of Julius Caesar, and when the Romans had settled themselves in this island, archers are frequently mentioned as part of their troops; and it is probable that the reinforcements often sent to the army in Britain included many archers.

In North Britain, the bow- appears to have been known at least as early as it was in the south; the works of Boethius, and other historians of that country, seem thus to intimate. If the poems of Ossian may be brought as evidence of the fact, we may observe that they uniformly represent the bow as an attendant upon the warrior and hunter; and that the yew-tree was then employed to form these weapons. "Go to the cave, my love, till our battle cease on the field. son of Leith, bring the bows of our fathers! the sounding quivers of Morni! Let our three warriors bend the yew."

During the Saxon Heptarchy, we find that Offirid, the son of Edwin, king of Northumbria, was killed by an arrow, in a battle between the troops of that king and the united armies of Mercians and Welsh, which was fought about the year 633, near Hatfield, in Yorkshire. But, except this fact, little relating to the bow appears in our annals of the Saxon æra The Danes arrived after the Saxons; and these warlike people were accustomed to the use of archery in battle, as we find often noticed by our early chronicle-writers. About the year 870, they became very formidable, and committed great depredations on the inhabitants of East Anglia. In one of their battles with the East Angles they overcame their enemy, and took prisoner Edmund, king of that part of the island, whom, after insulting with many indignities, they bound to a stake, for the Danish archers and javelinmen to aim at, putting him to death by that cruel and ignominious expedient. During the reign of Alfred, it seems probable that archery was much in use, both in the army of the Danes and in that of Alfred. Polydore Virgil confirms this supposition; for, speaking of the troops of Ethelred, of which part were commanded by his brother Alfred, he says, a great number of archers were placed in the right wing of the army.

From this period till the æra of the Norman invasion, little occurs with respect to archery; at that time,bows and arrows are spoken of by all our historians, yet many of our early writers neglect to particularize the kind of bow made use of by the Normans. Speed, Echard, Ross and others, expressly state that the long-bow was used. The Hon. Daines Barrington was, however, of opinion that the cross-bow was the instrument principally employed in the army of the invaders; and, from Sir John Hayward's account of the Duke of Normandy, it seems almost certain that the Duke himself used the crossbow. It is most probable, however, that the arbalest and long-bow were both used on that memorable occasion.

Whether or not the use of the long-bow was introduced into England by the Normans, it is incontestible that the Conqueror encouraged the practice of archery in England from the time of his arrival; and that from that period it became a constant exercise with the natives of this island In the succeeding reign, chasing the deer with the bow appears to have been an amusement with persons of consideration, which may clearly be inferred from the fact that William Rufus, while hunting in the New Forest, was accidentally slain by an arrow, from the bow of Sir Walter Tyrrell.

Archers are occasionally mentioned in the accounts of the civil contests between King Stephen and the Empress Maude. It seems, also, that at the battle of Cuton Moor, in Yorkshire, the 22d of August, 1138, between Stephen and David king of Scotland, both armies had their archers; and that those of Stephen "terribly galled the Galwegians, and obliged them to quit their post, after they had compelled his men at arms to give way."

In the reign of Henry II., according to the authority of Lord Lyttelton, the English infantry consisted of archers and slingers; and archery seems to have been first carried into Ireland by the troops of that monarch. The same author says, "It is strange that the Irish, who had much intercourse with the Welsh before the time of Henry II., should not have learnt from that nation, who greatly excelled in archery that arrows were better weapons to annoy the enemy with than stones; which, unless at a small distance, could have little or no effect."The same author observes, that, "from many instances in the course of these wars, it appears that the English conquests in Ireland were principally owing to the use of the long-bow in battle, which the Irish infantry wanted."And therefore Giraldus Cambrensis, in his chapter, entitled "Qualiter Hibernica gens sit expugnanda"advises that, in all future engagements, archers should be intermingled with the heavy-armed troops.

In proof of the assumed superiority of the Welsh, in the time of Henry II., in the use of the bow, we may venture to repeat what is mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis, and which, making every allowance for exaggerations, will at least testify that the natives of Wales, at that period, piqued themselves highly on their prowess in handling this weapon. "There is a particular tribe in Wales,"says this ancient writer, "named the Venta; a people brave and warlike, and who far excel the other inhabitants of that country in the practice of archery. During a siege, it happened that two soldiers, running in haste towards a tower, situated at a little distance from them, were attacked with a number of arrows from the Welsh; which being shot with prodigious violence, some penetrated through the oak doors of a portal, although they were the breadth of four fingers in thickness. The heads of these arrows were afterwards driven out and preserved, in order to continue the remembrance of such extraordinary force in shooting with the bow. It happened also in a battle, in the time of William de Breusa, as he himself relates, that a Welshman having directed his arrow at a horse-soldier who was clad in armour and had his leathern coat under it, the arrows, besides piercing the man through the hip, struck also through the saddle. and mortally wounded the horse on which he sat. Another Welsh soldier, having shot an arrow at a horseman who was covered with strong armour in the same manner, the shaft penetrated through his hip, and fixed in the saddle; but what is most remarkable is, that as the horseman drew his bridle aside to turn round, he received another arrow in his hip on the opposite side, which, passing through it, he was firmly fastened to the saddle on both sides."

Mr. Gibbon mentions, speaking of Richard I., that when Jaffa was surprised by the Sultan, he returned to Acre, sailed with some merchant-vessels, and leaped foremost on the beach. The castle was relieved by his presence; and 60,000 Turks and Saracerns fled before his arms. The discovery of his weakness provoked them to return in the morning; and they found him carelessly encamped before the gates, with only 17 knights and 300 archers. Without counting their numbers he sustained their charge; and we learn from the evidence of his enemies, that the king of England, grasping his lance, rode furiously along their front, from the right to the left wing, without meeting an adversary who dared to encounter his career. We have little else of authentic record left to us by which to judge of the practice of archery during the reigns of Richard I. and his immediate successor; but, as the celebrated outlaw of Sherwood forest forms a conspicuous object in the traditionary tales which illustrate that period of our early history, there can be no question that it was then an art in which many excelled.

With respect to the exploits of the celebrated Robin Hood and his companions, we have no testimony beyond tradition and ballads. That such persons did live, however, and give the most signal proofs of their great skill in the use of the long bow, we have the evidence of several eminent historians. Stow and Hollinshed speak of them, and they are noticed by Fordice, in his Scotichronicon.. But the most particular account of this hero and his companions is to be found in Johannes Major, (the Scottish historian,) which is copied by Grafton, in his "Chronicle of Breteyne,"' (page 82,) in these words. "About this time, (anno 1189,) as sayth John Maior, in his chronicle of Scotland, there were many robbers and outlawes in England, among the which number, he especially noteth Robert Hood, whom we now call Robyn Hood, and little John, who were famous theves. They continued in woodes, mountaynes, and forestes, spoyling and robbing, namely such as were riche. Murders commonly they did none, except it were by the provocation of such as resisted them in their rifelynges and spoyles. And the sayde Maior sayth, that the aforesaid Robyn Hood had at his rule and commandment an hundreth tall yomen, which were mightie men and exceeding good archers, and they were mainteyned by suche spoyles as came to their hands: and he sayth, moreover, that those hundreth were such picked men, and of such force, that four hundreth men, whosoever they were, durst never set upon them. And one thing was much commended in him, that he would suffer no woman to be oppressed, violated, or otherwise abused. The poorer sort of people he favoured, and would in nowise suffer their goodes to be touched or spoyled, but relieved and ayded them with such goodes as he gotte from the riche, which he spared not; namely, the riche priests, fat abbotes, and the houses of riche earles. And although his theft and rapyn was to be contemned, yet the aforesayd aucthour prayseth him, and sayth, that among the number of theeves, he was worthie the name of the most gentle theefe."

"But in an old and ancient pamphlet, I finde this written of the sayd Robert Hood. This man (saith he,) descended of a noble parentage, or rather beyng of a base stoeke and linage, was, for his manhoode and chivalry, advanced to the dignitie of an earl; excellyng principally in archery or shooting, his manly courage agreeing thereunto: but afterwards, he 90 prodigally exceeded in charges and expenses, that he fell into great debt: by reason whereof, so many actions and sutes were commenced against him, whereunto he answered not, that by order of lawe he was outlawed. And then for a lewde shift, as his last refuge, gathered together a companye of roysters and cutters, and practysed robberyes and spoyling of the kinge's subjects, and occupied and frequented the forests or wilde countries. The which being certefeyed to the king, and being greatly offended therewith, caused his proclamation to be made; that whosoever would bring him, quicke or dead, the king would geve him a great summe of money, as by the records in the exchequer is to be seene: but of this promise no man enjoyed any benefit. For the said Robert Hood, being afterwards troubled with sicknesse came to a certain nonry in Yorkshire, called Berklies; where, desiryng to be let blood, he was betrayed and bled to death. After whose death, the prioresse of the same place caused him to be buried by the highway-side, where he had used to rob and spoyle those that passed that way: and upon his grave the sayde prioresse did lay a very fayre stone, wherein the names of Robert Hood, William of Goldesborough, and others were graven. And the cause why she buryed him there, was, for that the common passengers and travailers, knowying and seeying him there buryed, might more safely and without feare, take their journeys that way; which they durst not do, in the lifetime of the said outlawes: and at eyther end of the said tombe was erected a crosse of stone, which is to be seene at this present."

The author of the "New Garland"has collected a great variety of interesting anecdotes explanatory of the history of this famous outlaw and his companions; which he has subjoined to his life. (See the Notes to the Life of Robin Hood.)

According to the account of Hargrave,-- "Old age, disappointment, and fatigue brought on disease. A monk was called in to open a vein, who either through ignorance or de. sign, performed the operation so ill, that the bleeding could not be stopped. Feeling that his dissolution was approaching, and desirous of pointing out the place where his remains should be deposited, he took his bow and discharged two arrows; the first fell in the river Calder; the second, falling in the park, marked the spot for his future sepulture."

"But give me my bent bow in my hand,
And abroad arrow I'll let flee;
And where this arrow is taken up,
There shall my grave digg'd be.[1]"

Robin Hood died on the 24th of December 1247, aged (about) 87. The following epitaph was preserved by Dr. Gale, Dean of York, and inserted from his papers by Mr. Thoresby in his History of Leeds, and is as follows:

Hear undenead dis latil stean
Laiz Robert Earl of Huntingdon
Nea Arcir verza lie sa gevd
An pipl kauld im Robin Heud.
Sick utlawz az hl an iz men
Vil England nivr sir agen.
Obit. 24 kal. Dekembris, 1247.

We have sufficient authentic evidence to believe that this renowned bow-man gave proofs of extraordinary strength and skill in the use of the bow. Yet many of the stories related of him and his companions are unquestionably fabulous and incredible.

Thus Dr. Hanmer, in his "Chronicle of Ireland," remarks, speaking of Little John, "there are memorable acts reported of him which I hold not for a truth; that he would shoot an arrow a mile off, and a great deal more; but these I leave among the lies of the land."

It seems to be admitted on all hands, that Robin Hood himself with advantages of early habit and constant practice, "drew a prodigious strong bow," and was an excellent and complete archer, and that many of his companions) also, who were picked men, rivalled their master in skill and prowess.

So early as the 13th century statutes were passed which enacted that every person not having a greater annual revenue in land than one hundred pence, should be compellable to have in his possession a bow and arrows, with other arms offensive and defensive and all such as had no possessions, but could afford to purchase arms, were commanded to have a bow and sharp arrows, if they dwelt without the royal forests, and a bow with round-headed arrows, if they resided within the forests. It was also ordained that proper officers should be appointed to see that those weapons were kept in good order, and ready for immediate service.

During this century, namely on the 22d of July, 1291, a battle was fought in the neighbourhood of Falkirk, a considerable town of Stirlingshire, on the high road from Edinburgh to Glasgow, between Edward I. of England, and the Scots, commanded by the Grand Steward of Scotland, Cumin of Badenoch, and Sir William Wallace. The latter had been invested with the supreme command; but, perceiving that this gave umbrage to the nobility, he resigned his power into the hands of the nobleman above mentioned, reserving to himself only the command of a small body, who refused to follow another leader. The Scots generals placed their pikemen along the front, and lined the intervals between the three bodies of which their army was composed, with archers; and, dreading the great superiority of the English cavalry, endeavoured to secure their front by palisadoes tied together with ropes. Edward divided his army also into three bodies; and, by the superiority of his archers, defeated the Scots with great slaughter.

In the reign of Edward II. we frequently meet with the term sagittarius, which is supposed to have peculiar relation to the shooter with the long-bow. Many of the soldiers employed in the unsuccessful expedition against Scotland, in 1323, were of this description, as well as those who were sent the next year to the relief of Aquitaine.

Under Edward III. the glory of the English long-bow may be said to have been at its zenith; and that monarch appears to have been very anxious that its lustre should remain untarnished. In 1342, a precept was issued to the sheriffs of most counties in England, for providing 500 white bows, and as many bundles of arrows, for the then intended war against France. Similar orders were repeated in the following years, with this difference only, that the sheriff of Gloucester was directed to furnish 500 painted bows, as well as the same number of white. The King afterwards ordered a letter of complaint to be directed to the sheriffs of London, declaring that the skill in shooting with arrows was almost totally laid aside for the pursuit of various useless and unlawful games; and commanding them not only to prevent such idle practices in future, but to see that the leisure time upon holidays was spent in the recreation of archery.

During the reign of this sovereign, the famous battles of Cressy and Poictiers were fought; and the splendid victories achieved by the British on those occasions have been, with universal consent, ascribed mainly to the archers.

The battle of Cressy was fought on the 26th of August, 1346. Edward III., who intended to give the French battle, had employed the forenoon of that day in drawing up his army in the most excellent order, in three lines. The first line, which consisted of 800 men-at-arms, 4,000 English archers, and 600 Welsh foot, was commanded by the Black Prince, assisted by the earls of Warwick and Oxford, and several other noblemen; the second line, composed of 800 men-at-arms, 4,000 halberdiers, and 2,400 archers, was led by the earls of Arundel and Northampton; the last line, or body of reserve, in which were 700 men-at-arms, 5,300 billmen, and 6,000 archers, was ranged along the summit of the hill, on the gentle declivity of which Edward had taken up his position: this division was commanded by the king in person, attended by the lords Moubray, Mortimer, and others. The king of France also ranged his troops into three lines; and, about three o'clock in the afternoon, the battle was begun by a great body of Genoese cross-bowmen, in the French service, who let fly their quivers at too great a distance to do any execution, and were presently routed by a shower of arrows from the English archers. The earl of Alençon, after trampling to death many of the flying Genoese, advanced to the charge, and made a furious attack on the corps commanded by the prince of Wales. The earls of Arundel and Northampton advanced with the second line to sustain the prince; and Alençon was supported by as many troops as could crowd to his assistance here the battle raged some time with uncommon fury; and, notwithstanding the advance of Philip, with the line under his command, the French army was entirely routed, with great slaughter, by the first two divisions of the British troops alone.

The French army, on this occasion, is said to have consisted of upwards of 100,000 men. That of the English was unquestionably greatly inferior in point of numbers; but the well-chosen position of the king, his personal coolness, and the steady valour of his men, aided by their despair of safety by any other means than their own exertions, gained a most glorious victory.

This battle was attended by a circumstance that seems to have a particular reference to the use of the long-bow among the English at that time Previously to the commencement of the action, a shower of rain so slackened the strings of the Genoese cross-bows; that they became almost unserviceable: while the English, who protected their bows from the wet by mean& of eases, were still; capable of annoying the enemy with the full effect of the weapon.

Froissart, in his Chronicles; speaking of this engagement, says, "When the Genoese felt the arrows of the English piercing through heads, arms, and breasts, many of them cast down their cross-bows and did cut their strings, and retired discomfited."

The English archers, according to the custom of that period, were ranged, at the battle of Cressy, in the form of a. hearse, about 200 in front and forty in depth, when they were first charged; and in this order, "the wonderful effect," says Sir John Smith,[2] (who, it should be mentioned, was an ardent advocate for the use of the bow as a military weapon, in preference to firearms,) "of our archery was such, that the arrows, flying in the air as thick as snow, with a terrible noise, much like a tempestuous wind preceding a tempest, they did leave no disarmed place of horse or man unstricken".

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