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Sir John relates that when the duke of Northumberland was sent by Edward VI to suppress Kett's rebellion in 1548 the rebel bowmen made such an impression against German hackbutters that the duke said: "he would thenceforward hold the bow to be the only weapon in the world".

Humphrey Barwick, who made a reply to Sir John, always spells his surname Smith", which may have significance of some sort. He makes extravagant claims as to the rate of fire and range of firearms, but pays one compliment at least to the appearance of the English infantry, mostly bowmen, at Boulogne in the reign of Edward VI: "I thought that in all England, there were not so many in any one shire to be found, of the like comeliness and shape of body."8 This is in striking contrast to the description of the type of recruit alleged to have been enlisted in Elizabeth's reign. For instance, Barnaby Rich in 1578 says: "In London when they set forth soldiers either they scour their prisons of thieves or their streets of rogues and vagabonds, for he that is bound to find a man will seek such a one as is better lost than found."9 Perhaps they had better luck in the country.

It is astonishing to hear from Barwick that if the archer "gets no warm meat nor his three meals every day, as his custom was at home, neither his body to lie warm at night, whereby his joints were not in temper, so that ... he is like a man with the palsy, and so benumbed, that before he get to either fire, or to a warm bed, he can draw no bow at all." Moreover, an archer lying in rain in camp could have the glue in the horns of his bow dissolved.10 Was Barwick unaware that the archers at Agincourt were not only hungry but wet through, without sleep and suffering from the bloody flux? And as an ex-archer he ought surely to have known that the horns would be kept in position when the bow was braced. But he had a point when, in contradiction to Sir John's statement archers used rusty arrows, he insisted that bright arrowheads would penetrate clothing more easily than rusty ones. And he declared that he had never seen an archer with rusty arrows

In 1599 the deputy-lieutenants called on the gentry for more arms, since all companies contained too many bows and bills. In the same year the inhabitants of Peterborough were bein amerced for not shooting on fast days and in 1610 some trained bands still contained a few archers.11 As a weapon of war, the bow was, like Charles II, an unconscionable time a-dying There were dedicated archers who were supported by the London City Guilds, especially those connected with archery. The Bowyers, Fletches and Stringers were continually petitioning the Council about the neglect of archery. They had obtained from James I in 1606 Letters Patent setting up a Commission to enforce the laws regarding archery and in 1627 a petition was presented to the Court of Aldermen of the City relating to the Charter granted to the Bowyers in 1621. The outcome was that a "regiment" should be recruited in each quarter of the City, each under the command of a captain and the whole force to be commanded by a colonel. The captains were to raise their contingents from volunteers -- or conscripts if necessary -- who could use a bow. In each parish the Constables and Officers were to ensure that the Statute of Henry VIII for the maintenance of Artillery was enforced. Once a year the captains were to lead their men into the fields to compete for money prizes. An Ensign was to be provided for their officers and a Lieutenant, Sergeant and Drummer to accompany them.12 It seems that compulsory archery was not only intended to keep the male population from "immoral" games (which included almost everything but archery), and to find employment for the archery guilds, but was still regarded as training for the defence of the realm.

The Bowyers Company in 1628 and in 1631 again petitioned the Court; on the second occasion specifically to order the Captains with their "Bands for Archery" to exercise on St. Luke's Day next. After this nothing more is heard of the bands for the time being but in the Civil War some archers are said to have taken part in the sieges of Devizes and Lyme and in Montrose's army at Tippermuir.l3

Whether archers with Ensigns and Colours flying and drums beating, mentioned in 1661 were connected with the above is unknown. In 1664 prizes were awarded for archery at Bartholomew's Tide and in the following year there was a petition from "Lords Knights and Gentlemen wno delighted in archery for Commissioners to set up marks and stakes which had been removed by "insolent farmers and field-keepers" who also set their mastiffs on the archers.l4 It seems that archery was now more of a recreation for the upper classes, at least in London.

Owing to the enclosure of certain fields archers were forced to seek a fresh venue and were eventually allowed to use the Artillery Ground belonging to the Honourable Artillery Company. They sometimes accompanied the H.A.C., armed with longbows, swords, and palisades (stakes pointed at both ends for defense against cavalry), with hats turned up at one side (presumably the right, to clear the bow-string) and tied with green ribbon.l5 And this is the last we hear of the old English longbow as a potential weapon of war; but the Finsbury Archers, perhaps the descendants of those mentioned, survived until 1770.

The question remains: was the longbow discarded too soon? The loss of the bow had meant the advent of the pike and that heavy cavalry was allowed to reappear on the battlefield, sometimes decisively, in the seventeenth, eighteenth and even part of the nineteenth centuries.l6 Long after Elizabeth's reign the longbow was in many respects superior even to the improved firearms. In the Peninsula the basic infantry weapon was the still smooth-bore muzzle-loading flintlock. This was the old "Brown Bess" which had been used in the American War of Independence against rebel rifles, our own Ferguson rifle being used only experimentally. The "Brown Bess" frequently misfired, flints wore out, they were still put out of action by damp and though the ball would carry much farther, the effective range was much less than two hundred yards.l7

The Baker rifle in 1813 was still a muzzleloader and was lethal over two hundred yards. Riflemen could load with paper cartridges, but whenever possible they had to load with loose ball and patches and "blank" paper cartridges. This ensured greater accuracy and a rate of three rounds a minute.18 Rifleman Harris describes how at the battle of Vimeiro he was enveloped in the smoke of the rifles: "I could see nothing for a few minutes but the red flash of my own piece ... in such a state on a calm day, until some friendly breeze ... clears the space around, a soldier knows no more of his position and what is about to happen in his front, or what has happened ... than the very dead lying on the ground."l9 In view of the disabilities of firearms even in the Napoleonic wars it seems that those who had suggested the return of the yeoman's weapon were not so absurd as one might think. Formations of archers as good as those in the Hundred Years War could often have influenced the tide of battle long before the musketeers could "see the whites of their eyes". And it would not have been the only time the clock had had to be turned back. In World War I old weapons like grenades, mortars and even clubs or knobkerries were re-introduced, and in World War II rockets and fighting-knives were brought back.

But once the bow had fallen from favour it would perhaps have been more difficult to reintroduce. Unlike firearms, the longbow needed a great deal of practice to work up the muscles, skill to enable one to get the aim without the use of sights or other aids, and a great deal of dedication. Not only this, but the noise, fire and smoke of firearms, apart from disconcerting the enemy also, like the old war-cries and shouts, heartened one's own side. And there was the desire of the common soldier not to be left behind in the "march of progress". The sneers from musketeers would have made archers feel inferior, unless they could also have been armed with a pistol and perhaps rewarded with higher pay.

References


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