Archery was Tudor England’s national sport as well as an important piece of their national defense. The English and Welsh had used the longbow, a tall bow about 6 ft (1.8 m) long, for both hunting and as a weapon since medieval times. But during the Hundred Years’ War with France (1337-1453), archery became a national imperative when people began to credit English victories in particular battles to their soldiers’ use of the longbow rather than the crossbow (which was preferred by the rest of the world for its power and distance in the hands of untrained users). And so 1363 marked the first of a series of ordinances and parliamentary statutes meant to compel Englishmen to spend their Sundays and holidays “not in pointless amusements such as football, bowls, tennis and dice, but in shooting at the butts.” It was a departure from the general view that peasants should spend their time at home, at work or at Church. Authorities worried that games encouraged gambling, or might get out of hand and cause trouble. But now they made an important exception, and villages erected butts, usually near the local parish Church (the Church was the center of most social activity back then). Weekly competitions became a happily anticipated event.
Of course, regulating fun was not the easiest thing to do, and the laws kept coming. In 1477, Edward IV banned an early form of cricket because the sport was interfering with archery practice – it was actually to get around this law that our football/soccer was invented (this new game was not banned, just discouraged as enticing “vile and loutish behavior”). In 1503, Henry VII banned the possession of crossbows by Englishmen (other than lords and “well-to-do freeholders”) to make sure people were using the right weapons during their regular practices. In 1515, Henry VIII went further, ordering that butts should be erected and kept in repair in all townships, and that the inhabitants should practice shooting at them on holidays. He also commanded that every householder keep bows, not only for himself, but for his servants and children – and that every adult and adolescent male learn to use them (a subsequent decree promised a pardon to any man who accidentally shot a passer-by while fulfilling his obligations under the first decree…).
Henry happily practiced what he preached. When he came to the throne aged only eighteen, he was incredibly energetic and athletic – tiring as many as eight or nine horses in a single day’s hunting and going on to dance the night away after that. He was a skilled and enthusiastic archer and held regular tournaments, many of which he won, to practice himself and encourage the sport. Tournaments would celebrate marriages, births, alliances, victories – pretty much any excuse would do (an archery tournament was even held to mark the death of Catherine of Aragon…historians disagree as to whether the court was also wearing celebratory yellow at the time…).
Henry’s children were raised to share his views, and they continued his practices. Edward VI spent a great deal of time at archery, and detailed his successes and disappointments at matches in his Chronicle (a singular resource – written by Edward himself, often in a detached third person narrative that offers a fascinating glimpse into a young king’s thoughts). Mary added orders for the keeping of bows and arrows by all the population, and Elizabeth followed in the steps of her grandfather by regulating the price of bows (she also instructed bowyers to always keep in hand a sufficient stock of bows).
Steven Gunn, Archery Practice in Early Tudor England (Oxford Journals, Volume 209, November 2010)
The Society of Archers, formed in the UK in 1673, The Longbow Statute of Henry VIII
1902 Encyclopedia Britannica, Archery in Tudor and Stuart England
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