“Bending The Bow” (an Account of Archery in Medieval Warfare)

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 12th February 2007, p.37, reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.


The bow and arrow was one of the earliest weapons invented by man. It was known to prehistoric hunters, who used chert arrowheads of a type found in the Peak. Ancient yew trees in our churchyards and stately old gardens are believed to have been planted long ago to provide English longbows.

Another link with archery is the work ‘butts’ which survives in place names and almost always marks the site of communal archery targets. The butts were generally set up on earthen mounds for Englishmen to perfect their marksmanship with bow and arrow.

English archers have a place of honour in our history, their reputation built on the trusty longbow; it slew the French cavalry at Crecy in 1346, served Edward III equally stoutly at Poitiers, and took Henry V to victory against overwhelming odds at Agincourt in 1415. The longbow was always preferred on this side of the channel to the crossbow which became the main weapon of other European bowmen.

Even after the appearance of firearms, English foot soldiers were armed with longbows for a further hundred years or more; the earliest firearms were no substitute for the mighty longbow, which could shoot up to twenty arrows a minute with deadly accuracy as far as two hundred yards. Henry VIII himself ‘shotte as stronge and as greate a lengthe as anie of his garde’, maintaining the reputation of his countrymen in an archery display at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

From the reign of Edward III, proficiency in archery was encouraged by a series of decrees. These ‘forbade all and singular that they do not apply themselves to the throwing of stones wood or iron, handball, football, bandyball, cambuck, and cockfighting, nor such-like vain play, which have no profit in them’.


Every Englishmen was to own a well-maintained bow of his own height and was to provide his son with a bow for regular practice from the age of seven. Able-bodied men and boys were ordered to ‘shoot up and down’ every Sunday and Feast Day, on pain of a half- penny fine. To this end, Charles II commanded all churchwardens to construct butts in every township. An edict from the city of Chester read; ‘Children of six and over on Sundays and holydays shall resort to their parish church, and there abide during the time of divine service, and in the afternoon all the said male children shall be exercised in shooting with the bow and arrow - for pins and points only.’

Early historians have written that the weekly practices often took place in the churchyard, which is taken to explain deep scorings sometimes seen on outer church walls - as at Thorpe and Fenny Bentley - as the result of arrows being sharpened on the stonework.

The journals of a man who spent his childhood near Monyash in Stuart times tell how the local boys spent many hours shooting at the butts, probably the site of archery targets which later made way for growing, or perhaps spinning flax.

Butts House in Churchtown in Darley Dale is known to have inherited the site once occupied by archery butts; the parish burial register contains an entry of 1766 naming William Watson of The Butts. Early maps show a Butts Field at Hathersage and the Abney Butts between Hope and Brough. Butts Field at Wardlow has mounds which may be relevant to its former use while The Butts at Ashover became a terminus for the Ashover Light Railway in the 1920s. The old practice site at Sheen is commemorated in Butts End house and fields.

The word Butts is incorporated into road names at Bakewell and London and a quiet backwater on the outskirts of Matlock. A stone Butts Wall that once stood above the reservoir at Tideswell was, however, the scene of rifle target practice by the ‘Old Volunteers’. The old word passed into use for other types of target too, such as grouse butts. It has also come to mean a target of a different kind, generally a person wounded only by words of ridicule.

© Julie Bunting
From “The Peak Advertiser”, 12th February 2007.

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