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Home > Books > The Archer's Guide > Chapter II
Chapter II
Sketch of the History of Archery in England
Part 2 of 4

The king of Bohemia, eleven other princes, eighty bannerets, 1200 knights, 1500 Of the noblesse, 4000 men-at-arms, and 30,000 privates of the French army, were left on the field of battle. Whereas, according to the authority of Andrews, in his history of Great Britain, three knights, one esquire, and a very few soldiers, constituted the entire loss on the part of the British.

At the battle of Poictiers, which was fought on the 19th of September, 1356, Edward the Black Prince, with an army of less than 10,000 men, had to contend with king John of France, whose troops amounted to 60,000 men. The battle was begun by the enemy, with 300 chosen men in complete armour, and nobly mounted, who were ordered to pass a defile, to dissipate the body of archers at the head of it, and make way for the rest of the army. They obeyed these orders with great resolution; but one half of them fell in the passage, and the other was cut in pieces at the outlet. A great body of men-at-arms, on foot, then entered the defile, commanded by the marshals Clermont and Andrechan; but the former of these generals being killed, and the latter taken prisoner, and many of their men being slain by the archers who lined the hedges, and by the first line of the English army, the rest fled back with great terror and confusion. The second line of the French hanng advanced to the charge, were defeated by the captal de Buche, who had been lying in ambush with 600 men. The enemy were soon after completely routed, and the victory became complete by thecap ture of the king of France and his son.

At the battle of Poictiers it has been observed, the cool intrepid valor of the English, opposed to the impetuous and ill-regulated ardour of their enemies, exhibited precisely a second Cressy. At the first onset. the English archers, being judiciously posted in vineyards and behind hedges, severely galled their assailants, who, consisting chiefly of dismounted cavalry, stumbled at every step, and became an easy mark for the hostile shafts. The slaughter was immense, and, in a very short time, the defeat of the vanguard of the French was completed. Those who had the Dauphin in charge, alarmed at the first appearance of a rout, left the battle to insure his safety; -and the Duke of Orleans, with three of the king's sons and 800 lances, accompanied their flight. Observing this, the Lord Chandos cried aloud, "the day is ours!" The Prince of Wales then immediately attacked the main body of the French; and though King John and his youngest son, by their personal bravery during four hours, supported for awhile their dispirited legions, their exertions were fruitless, and they were at length compelled to yield.

Sir John Smith, whom we have before quoted, says, that the English army on this occasion consisted altogether of only 8000 English and Gascoins, of whom 6000 were archers and 2000 men-at-arms; while King John's troops amounted to about 60,000 horse and foot, of which there were above 10,000 men-at-arms, and 30,000 horsemen.

"The prince," he adds, "considering his small numbers, and the hugeness of his host, did take a ground of some strength and advantage for the guard of the flanks and rear of his small army. Placing a great part of his archers in front, in the open space where the French horsemen and footmen were to enter and give battle, the archers, with their wonderful vollies of arrows, did that day so wound, kill, and mischief both horses and men, that he overthrew King John, and took him and one of his sons prisoners; and of earls, barons, knights, and esquires, to the number of 1000 or more; besides that, there were slain the Duke of Athens, and 700 earls, barons, and knights; and 80 many prisoners of all sorts taken, as far exceeded the number of the Prince's army".

During the reign of Richard II., little is recorded with respect to the bow. We are informed, however, by Hollingshed, that a number of archers were sent, at the request of the Genoese, to assist them against the Saracens on the coast of Barbary, and that they performed some wonderful exploits with their long bow; and, from a passage in Stowe, we find Richard II. to have had a numerous guard of archers.

It appears, also, that in this reign, (anno 1377,) the French landed at the Isle of Wight, and having taken and destroyed the town of "Franche-Ville," directed their march for Carisbrooke castle. The English, alarmed at the invasion, took the measures necessary for their defence, and arranged their forces, which consisted principally of archers, in the best order. The archers were placed in ambush, and one division of the French army having fallen into the snare that was laid for them, became a prey to the deadly effect of their shafts, and being hemmed is a narrow road, are reported to have been all killed or wounded in the encounter. The other division of the French forces had commenced an attack upon Carisbrooke Castle, but the archers having advanced to its relief, soon cleared the island of its intruders.

In the poems of Chaucer, also, we have the following curious account of an archer of that day:

"And he was clade in cote and hode of grene;
A sheaf of peacocke arrowes bright and keen,
Under his belt he bare full thriftily:
Well coude he dresse his takel yewmanly:
His arowes drouped not with fethers lowe,
And in his hande he bare a mighty bowe;
A not hed hadde he; with a browne visage
Of woodcraft coude he well all the usage.
Upon his arms he had a gaie bracer,
And by his side a sword and a bokeler;
And on the other side he had a gaie daggere,
Harneised wel, and sharp as point of spere;
A cristofre on his breast of silver shelle,
A horn he bare, the baudrek was of grene."

In the reign of Henry IV. a remarkable victory was gained over the Scots near Halidownehill, in the year 1402, by Lord Percie's archers. The earl of Douglas, who commanded the Scottish army in that action, enraged to see his men falling thick around him by showers of arrows, and trusting to the goodness of his armour, which is reported to have been three years in making, accompanied by about eighty lords, knights, and gentlemen, in complete armour, rushed forward and attacked the English archers sword in hand. But he had soon reason to repent his temerity. The English arrows were so sharp and strong, and discharged with so much force, that no armour could repel them. The earl of Douglas, after receiving five wounds, was made prisoner; and all his brave companions were either killed or taken. In the same reign, also, in the year 1403, at the battle of Shrewsbury, the archers on both sides did terrible execution.

Philip de Comines acknowledges, what our own writers assert, that the English archers excelled those of every other nation; and Sir John Fortesque says, "that the might of the realme of England standyth upon archers." The superior dexterity of their archers gave the English a great advantage over their enemies, the French and the Scots. The French depended chiefly on their men-at-arms, and the Scots on their pike-men; but the ranks of both were often thinned and thrown into disorder by flights of arrows before they could reach their enemies.

The battle of Agincourt, which happened in the year 1415, under Henry V., is the next signal victory ascribed to the English archers.

The English army, on this occasion, had to struggle with every disadvantage. After landing in France, it had been by various accidents reduced to 10,000 men, of whom not a few were sick, or slowly recovering from sickness: they had to traverse a long tract of country, inhabited by exasperated enemies, from whom they were to procure provisions and every thing they wanted; that country was protected by many strong towns, intersected by deep rivers, and defended by an army of from 100,000 to 140,000 men. Undaunted by these dangers and difficulties, Henry departed from Harfleur, marching his army in three lines, with bodies of cavalry on the wings. He proceeded by easy journeys, observing the strictest discipline, and paying generously for all provisions which the countrypeople brought to his camp. They arrived at the village of Agincourt on the evening of the 24th of October; and there beheld the whole French army at a small distance, directly in their route. The king surveyed it attentively from an eminence, and being fully convinced that it was impossible to proceed towards Calais without a battle, and equally impracticable to return to Harfleur, he resolved at once to hazard an action the next morning. The English army lodged during the night with comparative comfort, and spent part of their time in mutual exhortations to fight bravely in the approaching conflict. The king, overhearing some of his nobles express a wish that the many brave men who were idle in England were present to assist them, is said to have cried out "No, I would not have one man more: if we are defeated we are too many; if it shall please God to give us the victory, as I trust he will, the smaller our number the greater our glory." Henry, with some of his best officers, carefully examined the locality by moonlight, and judiciously pitched his field of battle on a gentle declivity, defended on each side by hedges, trees, and brushwood.

The French, exulting in their numbers, confident of victory, and abounding in provisions, spent the night in noisy festivity, and in forming fanciful schemes about the disposal of their prisoners and booty. On the morning of the 25th of October, both armies were ranged in order of battle, in three lines, with bodies of each wing. The constable D'Albert, who commanded the French, fell into the snare that was laid for him, by drawing up his army in the narrow plain between two woods. This error deprived him, in a great measure, of the advanlage he should have derived from the prodigious superiority of his numbers, and appears to have been the chief cause of all the disasters that followed. The king of England employed various arts to supply his defect of numbers. He placed 200 of his best archers in ambush in a low meadow on the flank of the first line of the French. His own first line consisted wholly of archers, four in file; each of whom, besides his bow and arrows, had a battle-axe, a sword, and a stake pointed with iron at both ends, which he fixed before him in the ground, the point inclining outwards to protect him from the cavalry; a new invention, which had a very happy effect. The lines being formed, the king, in shining armour, with a crown of gold adorned with precious stones on his helmet, mounted on a fine white horse, rode along them, and addressed each corps with a cheerful countenance and animating speeches. To inflame their resentment against their enemies, he told them that the French had determined to cut off three fingers of the right hand of every prisoner; and to rouse their love of honor, be declared, that every soldier who behaved well, should thenceforth be deemed a gentleman, and entitled to wear coat-armour. When the two armies were drawn up in this manner, they stood a considerable time gazing at one another in solemn silence. But the king of England, fearing that the French would discover the danger of their situation and decline a battle, commanded the charge to be sounded at about ten o'clock in the forenoon. The instant the word was given, the first line of the English knelt down and kissed the ground; then starting up, they discharged a flight of arrows which did great execution amongst the serried ranks of the French. Immediately after) upon a signal being given, the archers in ambush arose, and discharged their arrows on the flank of the French line, which they threw into some disorder. The battle now became general, and raged with uncommon fury. The English archers, having expended all their arrows, threw away their bows, and rushing forward, made dreadful havoc with their swords and battle-axes. The first line of the enemy was by these means defeated. The second line commanded by the duke D'Alençon, (who had vowed either to kill or take the king of England, or to perish in the attempt,) now advanced to the charge, and was encountered by the second line of the English conducted by the king. This conflict was more close and furious than the former. The duke of Gloucester, wounded and unhorsed, was protected by his royal brother till he was carried off the field. The duke D'Alençon forced his way to the king, and assailed him with great fury; but that prince brought him to the ground, where he was despatched by another hand. Discouraged by this disaster, the second line of the French made no further resistance; and the third fell without striking a blow; yielding a complete and glorious victory to the English, after a violent struggle for three hours. The king did not permit his men to pursue the fugitives to a great distance, but encouraged them to take as many prisoners as they could on or near the field, in which they were so successful, that, in a little time, his captives were more numerous than his soldiers. A great proportion of these prisoners were men of rank and fortune; for many of the French nobles being on foot, and loaded with armour, could not make their escape. Among them were the dukes of Orleans and Bourbon, the martial Boucicaut, the counts D'Eu, Vendome, Richemont, and Harcourt, and 7000 barons, knights, and gentlemen. The French left dead on the field, the constable D'Albert, the dukes of Alençon, Brabant, and Bar, the archbishop of Sens, one marshal, thirteen earls, ninety-two barons, 1500 knights, and a vast number of gentlemen, besides several thousands of common soldiers. Even the French historians acknowledge, that the loss of the English was inconsiderable: those of our own contemporary writers, who make it the greatest, affirm, it did not exceed 100, and that the duke of York and the earl of Suffolk were the only great men who fell on that side, in this memorable action.

"In Henry the VIth's time," says Sir John Smith, "John Lord Bellay, being accompanied with 200 lances at the least, met by chance with an English captain, called Berry, who had to the number of eighty archers. Perceiving the Frenchmen, he presently reduced his men into a hearse, turning their backs to a hedge, that and giving their vollies of arrows at the French lances charging, did so wound and kill men and horses, that they overthrew them, slew many, and took divers of them prisoners." -- "And within awhile after," continues the same author, "a French captain, Guion de Coing, accompanied by 120 lances, went out to seek an adventure with the English, and was met with Sir William Olde, with sixteen or twenty archers on horseback, who dismounted, and formed in a broad way, whence the lances could not charge them but in front: and the French charging them, the vollies of arrows of these few archers, wrought such notable effect against the French horsemen, that they broke and overthrew them in such sort, that there were divers of the French slain, and many taken prisoners."

Sir John Smith also writes, speaking of the battle of Herrings, (so called by the French,) which was fought in the reign of Henry VI. near Orleans, "this engagement doth evidently shew the great excellence of archery, against all other sorts of weapons; in which battle Sir John Falstaff, with other brave English captains, by the grace of God, and terrible shot of arrows, overthrew the bastard of Orleans, the lord high constable of Scotland, the count of Claremont, with many other captains of great account, and their whole army of Frenchmen and Scots, in the which there were a great number of French harquebusseers and cross-bowmen, which against the archers wrought no effect."

It is said that James I. of Scotland, during his confinement in England in the fifteenth century, was so struck with the spirit and gallantry of the English archers, that, on returning to his own country, he established the royal company of Edinburgh bowmen, which exists at the present day, and of which a more particular account will be found in a subsequent page. On his arrival in Scotland, it is recorded that he, in his humorous poem of Christ's Kirk on the Green, ridiculed the awkwardness of his countrymen in handling the bow, and procured the following law to be made in his first parliament, A.D. 1424: "That all men might busk thame to be archares, fra they be twelve years of age; and that at ilk ten pounds worth of land, thair be made bow markes, and specialle near paroche kirks, quhaim upon halie days men may cum, and at the leist schute thryse about, and have usye of archarie; and whassa usis not archarie, the laird of the land sall rais of him a wedder; and giff the laird raisis not the said pane, the king's shiref or his ministers sall rais it to the king."

Under Edward IV. an ordinance was made, that every Englishman and Irishman dwelling in England, should have a bow of his own height, "to be made of yew, wych, or hazel, ash, or auburne, or any other reasonable tree, according to their power." Butts, also, or mounds of earth, as marks, were directed to be made in every township, and the inhabitants to practise archery, under certain penalties. In the fourteenth year of the same king, it appears by Rymer's Faedera, that 1000 archers were to be sent to the duke of Burgundy, whose pay was settled at sixpence a day: a circumstance which, considering the value of money at that time, proves very strongly the great estimation in which English archers were still holden. In the same year, Edward, preparing for a war with France, directs the sheriffs to procure bows and arrows, as most specially requisite and necessary. On the war taking place with Scotland, eight years after this, Edward provided both ordnance and archers, so that though the use of artillery, as we now term it, was gaining ground, yet that of the bow and arrow was not neglected. There appears evidence, from our chronicles that Richard III. encouraged the practice of archery, and that he sent 1000 bowmen to the duke of Bretagne; and Shakspeare, whose endeavour it was to describe as accurately as possible the habits and manners of the people of England in the reigns which he selected for dramatic delineation, refers distinctly to the use of archers at the battle of Bosworth Field. Thus Richard, in the spirited address to his troops previously to the encounter, is made to say:

"Fight, gentlemen of England; fight, bold yeomen!
Draw, archers, draw your arrows to the head:
Spur your proud horses hard, and ride in blood;
Amaze the welkin with your broken staves !"

And from another passage, relating to the order of battle,. it may be inferred that it was the practice of that time to station the archers in the centre of the lines:

"My forward shall be drawn out all at length,
Consisting equally of horse and foot:
Our archers shall be placed in the midst:
John duke of Norfolk, Thomas earl of Surry,
Shall have the leading of the horse and foot.
They thus directed, we will follow In the main battle;
whose puissance either side
Shall be well winged with our chiefest horse."

To which Norfolk replies,

"A good direction, warlike sovereign."

In the 4th year of the reign of Henry VII. that monarch directed a large levy of archers to be sent to Brittany, and that they should be reviewed before they embarked In the 19th of his reign, an Act was passed which forbade the use of the cross-bow, with the view of encouraging in its stead the practice of the long-bow. That the bow was still used as a weapon of war at this period, and that our ancestors, whether as archers or men-at-arms, then possessed the same characteristic bravery and endurance for which they have ever since been noted, will be evident from the following highly interesting account of the demeanour of a small body of English volunteers who accompanied the then Earl of Rivers to Spain, to assist Ferdinand and Isabella in their campaign against the Moors. The narration is extracted from Mr. Washington Irving's recent valuable translation of the Spanish "Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada," 2 vols. 8vo. 1829.

"The most conspicuous of the volunteers who appeared in Cordova on this occasion, was an English knight of royal connexion. This was the Lord Scales, Earl of Rivers, related to the Queen of England, wife of Henry VII. He had distinguished himself in the preceding year at the battle of Bosworth Field, where Henry Tudor, then Earl of Richmond, overcame Richard III. That decisive battle having left the country at peace, the Earl of Rivers, retaining a passion for warlike scenes, repaired to the Castilian court, to keep his arms in exercise in a campaign against the Moors. He brought with him a hundred archers, all dexterous with the long-bow and the cloth-yard arrows; also two hundred yeomen, armed cap-a-pie, who fought with pike and battle-axe; men robust of frame, and of prodigious strength.

"The worthy Padre Fray Antonio Agapida describes the stranger knight and his followers with his accustomed accuracy and minuteness. 'This cavalier,' he observes, 'was from the island of England, and brought with him a train of his vassals; men who had been hardened in certain civil wars which had raged in their country. They were a comely race of men, but too fair and fresh for warriors; not having the sunburnt martial hue of our old Castilian soldiery. They were huge feeders also, and deep carousers; and could not accommodate themselves to the sober diet of our troops, but must fain eat and drink after the manner of their own country. They were often noisy and unruly, also, in their wassail, and their quarter of the camp was prone to be a scene of loud revel and sudden brawl. They were withal of great pride; yet it was not like our inflammable Spanish pride: they stood not much upon the pundonor and high punctilio, and rarely drew the stiletto in their disputes; but their pride was silent and contumelious. Though from a remote and somewhat barbarous island, they yet believed themselves the most perfect men upon earth; and magnified their chieftain, the Lord Scales, beyond the greatest of our grandees. With all this, it must be said of them, that they were marvellous good men in the field, dexterous archers, and powerful with the battle-axe. In their great pride and self-will, they always sought to press in the advance, and take part of danger, trying to outvie our Spanish chivalry. They did not rush forward fiercely, or make a brilliant onset, like the Moorish and Spanish troops, but they went into the fight deliberately, and persisted obstinately, and were slow to find out when they were beaten. Withal, they were much esteemed, yet little liked, by our soldiery, who considered them staunch companions in the field, yet coveted but little fellowship with them in the camp. Their commander, the Lord Scales, was an accomplished cavalier, of gracious and noble presence, and fair speech. It was a marvel to see so much courtesy in a knight brought up so far from our Castilian court. He was much honored by the King and Queen, and found great favor with the fair dames about the court, who, indeed, are rather prone to be pleased with foreign cavaliers. He went always in a costly state, attended by pages and esquires, and accompanied by noble young cavaliers of his country, who had enrolled themselves under his banner, to learn the gentle exercise of arms. In all pageants and festivals, the eyes of the populace were attracted by the singular bearing and rich array of the English Earl and his train, who prided themselves in always appearing in the garb and manner of their own country; and were indeed something very magnificent, delectable, and strange to behold.'"

The campaign opened at the siege of Loxa; and there Lord Rivers made a gallant display.

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