The Medieval and Tudor Archers of Finsbury, London

In Medieval England, archery was not only a fun way to spend time but an essential life skill. A bow and arrow was used for hunting and also, of course, for war. Men aged from sixteen years old to sixty could be drafted to fight against their king's enemies during the fifteenth century, and it was crucial that, lined up on the muddy field with the enemy approaching, they were skilled with a bow and arrow. It's no wonder then that kings ordered archery practice to be held by law. 

Photo by Gioele Fazzeri on Unsplash

In London, Finsbury seems to have been a particularly popular area for shooting. In the thirteenth century Edward I established a society called The Archers of Finsbury, and in 1498, Henry VII ordered the gardens in Finsbury to be destroyed but deliberately preserved the practice of archery, ordering the gardens be replaced with a 'plain field for archers to shoote in'. 

The fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were punctuated with tensions between England and countries including France, Spain and Scotland. The skill an Englishman could demonstrate with a bow and arrow was already legendary, Dominic Mancini writing of their expertise at the end of the fifteenth century. He also mentioned that the women too were not averse to using a bow and arrow, however used theirs for hunting. Henry VIII especially championed the practice of archery, promoting it throughout the country as well as in the capital. One pageant held during his reign was said to have featured three thousand archers who processed through London's Broad Street and Moorlands to Smithfield, where they shot at a target 'for honour'. Stow also relates the tradition of the Lord Mayor, sheriffs and aldermen shooting in front of the Londoners at a shooting ground in Finsbury. Archers were a feature of May Day celebrations in London during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, 'with good archers, morris dancers and other devices for past-time' entertaining the crowds. But if there was any doubt whether the practice of archery was optional, Henry VIII sent out a clear message. He put limits on who could train with a crossbow in an attempt to maintain use of the longbow and fined anyone who shirked their longbow practice 12d per month. He also attempted to limit the playing and establishment of other games, including football and bowls, the latter beginning to increase in popularity. If anyone was to take up sport for fun, under Henry VIII, it had better be archery. 

Although the practice begun to decline during the later sixteenth century archers still shot at Finsbury, with a bill of 1561 mentioning it as one of the fields and common lands used for shooting, as well as Stepney, Mile End, Bethnal Green and Spitalfields, among some others. 

The nineteenth-century historian John Timbs, who had a keen interest in the history of London, identified many archers and their associated tradesmen such as bowyers and fletchers, living in nearby Grub Street, now named Milton Street. Although it was then a poorer area of London, it was close to Finsbury, where fletchers and bowyers were able to try out their new creations. 

Grub Street, London. John Rocque, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, with new developments in weaponry and guns, demand for archers declined. Royal statutes ordering the practice dried up and it became more of a hobby than an essential skill developed and maintained for wartime. James I allowed the building of bowling establishments and tennis courts, and bowling soon overtook archery in popularity. Despite this, James' son Charles I was said to have been a skilled archer, and Samuel Pepys remembered shooting a bow and arrow during his childhood, at Kingsland, in today's borough of Hackney. Societies dedicated to archery continued however, and they made appearances at special events such as tournaments or royal public displays of tradition, such as one organised by Charles II at Hyde Park in 1661 which featured four hundred archers.

Archery was essential to our Medieval and Tudor ancestors, both as a pastime as well as for the defence of the realm. It is no wonder we huddle around open areas at stately homes in the summer months to see displays of archery as well as jousting. It's in Hollywood, too: think of its appeal in Robin Hood, Game of Thrones and Disney's Brave. There's something about it that fascinates us today, but back in Medieval and Tudor London it was a necessary form of training considered essential to the security of the realm. 

Interested in Medieval society? I explore some of the stories of forgotten women living during the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century, including a number of Londoners. It's all in my book Forgotten Women of the Wars of the Roses, published by Pen and Sword.  Order your copy here. 

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Page, William (ed). A History of the County of Middlesex, vol 2. (London, 1911) p283-292 British History Online 
Timbs, John. Curiosities of London. (Bogue, Fleet Street, London) 1855