Archery in Medieval England, Richard Wadge


Reviewer: Wouter van Dijk

Archery in Medieval England. Who Were the Bowmen of Crecy?, Richard Wadge

The History Press, Stroud 2012
ISBN: 978 0 7524 6587 6

Hardcover with dust jacket, illustrations in black and white, with notes, bibliography and index
224 pages
£18,99 / €23,99



The popular tradition of archery in England before the Hundred Years’ War

Row after row of English archers shooting masses of arrows at their helpless French adversaries, a familiar image for everyone who knows a little about medieval warfare. The rise of the English armies in the fourteenth century that relied primarily on longbowmen supported by heavy infantry seems an odd development at first glance. How this prominence of the longbow archer came into being is the subject of this book by Richard Wadge, medieval historian and himself an enthusiastic traditional archer. Wadge is not a newcomer in the field; Arrowstorm – the World of the Archer in the Hundred Years War (2007) is one of his previous publications. Where Arrowstorm focused on the well-known archers of the Hundred Years’ War, Wadge now concentrates on the question to what extent a tradition of popular archery existed in England before these years; and how could it have propelled the English archer to the important position in England’s armies in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The period under study runs roughly from the Norman Conquest to the outbreak of the Black Death in Britain, so from 1066 to 1348. In addition to his main question, Wadge tries to discern the various phases in England’s history where popular archery was growing extraordinarily in popularity.

In ten chapters the author explores the life of the medieval Englishman and to what extent the possession and use of bows and arrows were part of his daily routine. Wadge does this mainly through judicial source material, since there is very little written down and preserved concerning the use of bows and arrows by the English common folk. Legal records are an exception to this rule. Although bows and arrows are only mentioned in these records when they played a role in a committed offence, they can give us some interesting insights in the issue at hand, as Wadge clearly shows. Before turning to the judicial archives however, Wadge starts exploring the legislation of the English kings, thereby concluding that an archery tradition was already in existence by the time of Edward I (r.1272-1307). This becomes clear from the king’s ordinances concerning the weapons that were to be carried by the lower classes of society; the bow and arrow were to be their weapons. This is a striking example, because at this time in the rest of Europe the lower classes were supposed to carry pole weapons with them when called up for service.

Next Wadge devotes quite some space to the Forest Law that was in force in royal forests and their immediate surroundings. This law implied that one was not allowed to carry bows or arrows in or around royal forests, in order to protect the king’s game inside against poachers. Since England at the time was covered with royal forests, this law affected large parts of the population. Therefore it is no surprise that in court records numerous examples are to be found of archery-related offences in those areas. The author also pays much attention to hunting and poaching practices, and these chapters are very interesting. They show that many men could increase their bow skills considerably by illegally hunting game in royal forests. Because of the introduction of the Forest Charter and Magna Carta at the beginning of the thirteenth century offences against the king’s game in those forests weren’t to be paid with life or limbs anymore. Instead, a variable fine had to be paid by the offender, the height of which depended on the prosperity of the offender. Here lay, according to the author, the roots of the explosive growth of archery and archers in army and state regulations that promoted archery, culminating in Crécy and Agincourt. The choice of Henry III, that made possible the deployment of large numbers of archers, to choose archers as his most important military unit instead of pikemen as was usual in the rest of Europe, was for a large part due to the existing tradition of archery in England. This had partly developed because of the laws of the Viking king Cnut that arranged that everyone could hunt on their own property. This custom remained until William the Conqueror put an end to it, but through the easing of the Forest Law by the Forest Charter large groups of the population could train their archery skills again on a considerable scale.

Wadge has written a very extensive account on the development of the archery tradition in medieval England, often with a wide range of examples in order to make his point. Especially the listings of judicial cases can be mentioned in this respect. Although this circumstantiality strengthens his argument, it does not improve readability. Because of this monotony large parts of the book are difficult to get through, and when you’re not very interested in archery you’re probably put it aside. This is especially a pity because Wadge isn’t a bad writer, far from that. The last chapter for example is testament to his skills as a writer.

When you manage to read your way through the dry sections however, you will be rewarded because the insights the author gives in medieval English archery are remarkable. For example, the prove from contemporary sources that poachers often carried only two or three arrows is fascinating, they did this because they always tried to retrieve the arrows they shot and a main reason for that was to leave no recognizable evidence of their presence. We must not forget that this was before the massive bow and arrow production of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries so many archers made their own arrows, and were therefore recognizable by those arrows. Wadge’s conclusion on the hunting and poaching practices however, seems a bit exaggerated when he presents the numerous conflicts between keepers of the Forest Law, the Foresters, and poachers as a form of ‘informal warfare’. According to Wadge this would have trained Englishmen for the wars in France in the course of the fourteenth century.

To pursue the development of the archery tradition into the battle-winning tactics of the Hundred Years’ War Wadge presents some battles as being typical for the use of archers in battle. He mentions the Battle of the Standard in 1138 as one of the earliest examples, followed by Falkirk in 1298 where archers were decisive in securing victory. The use of archers as a battle-winning tactic seems to be initiated by Henry the Beaumont who told his experiences with archers at the Battle of Dupplin Moor to Edward III at Halidon Hill, where they won the day again. From then on archers seem to have been given the prominent place in English armies that resulted ultimately in the victories of the Hundred Years’ War.

It may be clear that Wadge has provided us with a lot of contemporary information about archery in medieval England and the use of bows and arrows at the time, and because of that the book sure has its value. Unfortunately large parts of the book are also hindered by this deluge of examples from the source material, which makes reading on difficult at times. Some restraint in providing example after example would have served the narrative. Therefore I would not recommend it to the general reader who is interested in medieval archery as such. However, for scholars and those with a special interest in the history of archery Wadge’s book provides rich ground for exploring and further study.

Wouter van Dijk

One thought on “Archery in Medieval England, Richard Wadge

  1. Pingback:

Comments are closed.