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Social History of Archery

During the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries archery was an exclusive sport whose appeal was rooted in its historic and rural associations and the opportunities that it provided for socializing and flirtation. Archery evolved as a sport as the development of guns marginalized the longbow as a military weapon.

At the end of the eighteenth century the sport became a popular aristocratic fashion thanks to a nostalgic taste for the gothic and medieval. Archery societies were set up across the country, each with its own strict entry criteria, outlandish costumes and extravagant dinners. They were conspicuous displays of wealth, havens of exclusivity and a way of reinforcing and reassuring one’s own position in society. In the midst of urban development and social and political change, the social association archery offered was an important way of forging new solidarities and identities.

Furthermore, women could not only compete in the contests but retain and display their ‘feminine forms’ whilst doing so, and thus the clubs also acted a forum for introductions, flirtation and romance. Archery’s aesthetics were historic, rural, picturesque and elegant. It appealed to exactly the same sentiments that made the contemporary Romanticist movement so popular amongst the leisured classes. As the nineteenth century progressed, archery gained a more middle-class following but it continued to be a forum for exclusive social interaction and bonding. In the middle years of the century, the sport also developed a more scientific and rational element with the establishment of a national championship and standardized rules.

The use of the bow in hunting and conflict dates back into prehistory but it was the Welsh after the Norman conquest who first used a longbow effectively in war. The longbow quickly became a standard weapon in medieval warfare and subsequently the implement used for target archery. During the medieval period, archery was practised by men of all classes, not as a sport but in preparation for war. In the twelfth century, bowmen who accidentally killed someone while practising were absolved from legal charges.

Archers played decisive roles in the battles of Crécy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). So important was the longbow to military needs that, from the fourteenth century, different kings of England actively prohibited other sports because of fears that they distracted men from practising shooting their bows. Archery competitions first evolved as a way of enlivening such practice and became a feature of fairs and holidays. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the longbow was slowly rendered redundant as a weapon of war by technological developments such as the musket. The bow’s use in hunting also largely died out in this period.

With the decline of the bow’s military use, archery became a pastime. Perhaps the first archery society in Britain was the Guild of St George, formed in London in 1537 by Henry VIII. From it grew the Finsbury Archers, who met in London until the late eighteenth century, when the land on which they traditionally shot was enclosed. Drawing upon medieval European and Scottish traditions, the Kilwinning Papingo was established in 1688 and required archers to dislodge a wooden parrot from the top of an abbey tower.

The papingo shoot was an annual event until 1870 and was revived in 1948. Today the target is a model dove. The Company of Scottish Archers was formed in 1676 and is possibly the oldest sporting body in Britain today. It was granted a royal charter by Queen Anne and drew its membership from the aristocracy, gentry and professional classes of Edinburgh. Archery took place at Harrow school until 1771, when a new headmaster ceased the practice. In Yorkshire and Teeside the Scorton silver arrow has been shot for since 1673, and encouraged the formation of local archery societies in Darlington in 1758 and in Richmond, Yorkshire in 1755.

Thus by the middle of eighteenth century archery was little more than a scattered and peripheral pastime. The revival of archery as a fashionable pursuit owed much to Sir Ashton Lever, an antiquarian and collector who was famous for his aviary and museum. He formed the Toxophilite Society in London in 1781. The society soon attracted the patronage of George, Prince of Wales. Royal favour encouraged imitation and, in an age of novelty and fashion, archery was soon immensely popular with the nobility and gentry, for who it provided an excuse to socialise, eat and drink.

The aristocracy was a group with considerable time and money on their hands and they indulged in extravagant and competitive displays of wealth. Archery prize meets were lavish, festive and ceremonial affairs, where the shooting often seemed secondary to the socializing. In north Wales and the borders, for example, the Royal British Bowmen toured around the country houses of its members, complete with its own marquee and servants. Members marched on to the shooting ground, complete with flags and banners, to the accompaniment of specially composed music and a salute of 21 guns. Yet the Royal British Bowmen actually regarded its shooting more seriously than most and took steps to limit the excessiveness and expense of the festivity.

Its rules placed time limits on meals in order ensure sobriety and specified that dinners should only consist of cold meats. Many societies sounded bugles when an arrow struck the target’s gold centre and presented prizes to the champions that included laurel leaves, medievalesque titles and silver bugles, arrows and medals. Shooting days were naturally bet on and were followed by dinners, balls, patriotic poetry recitals and singing. The wealthiest societies built their own lodges to host the celebrations, while the smaller societies utilised marquees or local taverns. From 1789 to 1793, a series of general meetings were held at Blackheath and Dulwich for the leading archery societies of Britain.

Public display and ceremony were important elements in the aristocracy’s affirmation of its own status. The Woodmen of Arden built a Forest Hall, designed by an Italian architect, on the estate of its president, the Earl of Aylesford. Its interior, decorated with the coats-of-arms of various members, must have acted as a self-affirmation and expression of status and lineage. Like some Hunts, dress codes added to the sense of status, identity and cohesion.

The uniform of the Yorkshire Archers was typical: a plain green frock and velvet cape, with uniform buttons, white waistcoat and breeches and a round black hat with a white ostrich feather. Most societies fined their members for not turning up the correct attire. The cost of such uniforms ensured that they developed the wearer’s sense of status and reinforced the exclusiveness of the society.

The well-cut green archery uniforms combined the display of dazzling contemporary military uniforms, with the elegant but more sombre civil dress that was becoming fashionable in the wake of the anger of the French revolution’s mobs at their powdered peacock elite. When an array of such uniformed aristocracy shot in the landscaped grounds of country houses (which themselves were potent symbols of taste, status and power) to the accompaniment of bands, marquees, banners and beautiful women, the picturesque spectacle encaptured the self-vision of the aristocracy.

Such scenes had the cultivated feel of a medieval tournament. Medievalism, antiquity and gothic romance were highly fashionable in polite culture across Europe in the late eighteenth century and archery was both shaped and promoted by such tastes. It was believed that in the medieval period, custom, hierarchy and inherited rank enjoyed greater significance than they did in contemporary society.

The fashion for all things medieval thus provided the aristocracy with some reassuring roots, stability and a sense of continuity in the face of the uncertainty of the industrial revolution, a demographic explosion and the political upheaval and sense of crisis engendered by the French revolution and the loss of the American colonies. Archery’s central place in the popular legends of Robin Hood and medieval English victories meant that archery also boasted a patriotic twist to its antiquity.

In an age of increasing European tensions, this fulfilled the ruling classes’ desire for new patriotic forms of cultural expression that enjoyed British roots. The revival of archery was thus part of the invention of new patriotic traditions and myths in which Britain could seek solace, unity and greatness. Advocates of archery were never slow to emphasize the pastime’s historic credentials. Eighteenth and nineteenth century works on the sport featured long historical sections, and Toxophilus (1545) by Roger Ascham, tutor to Elizabeth I and her half-brother, was reprinted in 1788.

As industry and commerce increasingly created new men of money, the aristocracy could no longer rely on wealth alone as a signifier of social status. By the later eighteenth-century the aristocracy was thus deliberately excluding men of new money from the realms of social and cultural power. Archery societies demonstrated these elitist concerns by limiting the number of members and strict entry criteria that were operated by systems of balloting and blackballing.

The Royal Foresters took such criteria to extremes by demanding that prospective members prove the gentility of their descent on their father’s side for at least three generations. The social aspirations of the English bourgeoisie meant that the culture of the wealthy middle class often imitated that of the aristocracy and a number of archery societies were set up by the business elites of provincial towns. These societies offered the middle classes their own opportunity to socialize and assert their local status.

After the Napoleonic wars and subsequent domestic tensions had disrupted archery and aristocratic life across Britain, the 1820s saw the sport revived again with old societies being reformed and new ones established. Royal patronage again gave archery some fashionability and prestige. Edinburgh’s Royal Company of Archers was appointed the king’s bodyguard for Scotland in 1822 and its captain-general took part in Victoria’s coronation procession.

Victoria had shot before accession and later created a Master of Archery amongst her household officers. New heights of opulence were reached in the revived meets, as the landed gentry and artisocracy’s obsession with competitive and ostentatious display continued. With show and sociability the prime concerns, handicaps were often devised to ensured that the better archers did not spoil proceedings. At the Mersey Archery Society, established in 1821, shooting partners were drawn by lot and there was a stipulation that no one was allowed to win more than twice in any season.

The revived popularity of archery again owed much to the taste for medievalism. This fashion peaked in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, partly in reaction to the unprecedented industrial growth of the 1820s. Grounded in the fashion for medievalism but also hugely influential in developing its popularity were the novels of Walter Scott and, in particular, his hugely popular Ivanhoe (1819). One chapter of Ivanhoe depicted the winning of an archery competition by a heroic, manly and chivalrous Locksley, who was based upon on the ever-popular Robin Hood. Walter Scott himself became a member of Edinburgh’s Royal Company of Archers.

The fashion for medievalism and archery was now particularly prevalent amongst the urban middle classes, who were attracted by archery’s combination of rural overtones and urban fashion. The crisis that preceded the 1832 Reform Act revealed the deep-seated divisions that existed between the upper and middle classes. The increasing adoption of archery by the middle classes no doubt made the pastime less palatable to its upper-class adherents. The cost of the extravagance that accompanied archery did not help and the aristocratic fashion for conspicuous displays of status slowly declined. Less ostentatious provincial archery societies thus became more common and aristocratic excess more unusual. Between 1840 and 1860 archery perhaps reached its peak of popularity with the number of clubs trebling.

The Royal British Bowmen had admitted women members in the late eighteenth century but most other archery societies were not quite so progressive towards their female guests and relatives. Women’s roles in the eighteenth century were usually limited to shooting at the invitation of their male counterparts or traditional symbolic positions such as the Lady Patroness who would present the winning archer with his prize. However, the archery of the early nineteenth-century was notable for the involvement of women.

The presence of women, as either participants or just dinner guests, added to the whole conviviality of archery. Amongst women themselves, archery could be most popular and a rare physical and social antidote to their sedentary lives. The social acceptability of women practising and watching archery was rooted in their presence adding to pastime’s aesthetics. The stance required to shoot a bow involved no unseemly exertion but it did require women to stand gracefully upright with their chests protruding. The male archers no doubt admired and enjoyed such elegant feminine postures.

Yet archery was not simply an excuse for voyeurism. Marriage and motherhood were a respectable woman’s overriding vocation and preoccupation and, despite the growing consideration given to personal compatibility, rank was still an fundamental consideration in the choice of marriage partners amongst the middle and upper clases. Archery offered men and women an opportunity to meet, view and enjoy their social equals, away from the prying eyes of their social lessers. Indeed, the preoccupation with the male archers and the lack of ability and interest that some women showed in the sport was often a source of some amusement. There was, however, nothing to stop men or women shooting on their own and archery also offered entertainment and physical recreation when polite company was not available.

In the 1840s, a decade when the ethos of rational recreation was on the significant upturn, archery developed more modern and sporting characteristics. In 1844 the first Grand National Archery meeting was held in York, marking the increasing encouragement of archery as a rational, healthy and scientific pastime. The beginning of this annual national championship also represented a conscious break with the older extravagant and festive practices of display. Nonetheless, the taste for the medieval was not anti-modern and celebrations of the past took forms that did not interfere with the working week.

Thus an increasingly competitive approach to the sport was not at odds with its essential antique and rural appeal. The promotion of the Grand National also owed something to a desire to promote friendship amongst archers across the country. The annual Grand National Archery meets, usually held in provincial towns, were convivial occasions that drew together the local gentry and were accompanied by other social functions such as dances and fairs. The Grand National was decided by a series of shoots over 60, 80 and 100 yards, which became a standard format for competitions known as the ‘York Round’.

This development of consistent rules was in line with gradual moves in other sports to codifying and unifying ways of playing. Women first shot at the Grand National in 1845 but shot over shorter distances than the men. With the founding of the Archer’s Register in 1864 by James Sharpe, a freemason and editor of county newspapers, archery also gained its own press. The embodiment and leading practitioner of this new serious and scientific sport of archery was Horace Alfred Ford, a Cheltenham solicitor (1822-1880). He did much to help improve archery standards and won the Grand National eleven times in succession between 1849 and 1959, often completely outshooting his competitors. He was a pioneer in technique and berated those who were not willing to learn how to improve their skills. His book, Archery: Its Theory and Practice, was first published in 1856 and remains influential today.

Competitive and scientific archery perhaps diverted some interest from the traditional festive societies but archery did continue as a forum and excuse for flirtation and socializing on the lawns of country houses, manors and vicarages. However, it was increasingly on a much smaller, less ostentatious and more informal scale. The fashion for medievalism had dropped away by the 1860s and with it went some of the customs of archery. Archers continued to shoot in green but only a small minority of isolated societies kept up the hats, elaborate uniforms and festive traditions. Thus rather than being the plaything of the aristocrat, archery became more common amongst modest provincial gentlemen and their lady friends, for whom it played a role in bonding together the country gentry.

The rifle volunteer movement appears to have reduced the number of male archers in the 1860s but the number of female archers temporarily upheld the popularity of the sport. By the mid-1870s female competitors at the Grand National were outnumbering their male peers. There were around 130 archery clubs in 1881 but the more active and faster, but still feminine and respectable, games of croquet and tennis were becoming hugely fashionable and marginalizing the popularity of archery amongst the middle classes. By 1889, there were only approximately fifty archery clubs left in Britain.

In the twentieth century, archery did retain some popularity and its inclusion in the 1900 Paris Olympics signalled the pastime’s acceptance as a serious sport. In 1922 the private archery field of the Royal Toxophilities in Regent’s Park was surrendered to make way for public tennis courts at the demand of the park owners. This perhaps symbolized that the old exclusive, festive and picturesque tradition of archery was coming to an end in a modern and perhaps more democratic age. In the post-1945 period, archery continued as a competitive and serious sport. It also found a new lease of life as a sport for the disabled. Some of the traditional societies do still exist today and exhibit a significant degree of pride in their history and heritage. However, technology has revolutionized the bow and, as a sport, archery has left its traditional and rural roots and been absorbed into a wider modern sporting culture.


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