The History of Horseback Archery in Britain

As presented to the World Horseback Archery Federation symposium in Oct 2013 by Dan Sawyer

 

Introduction

Britain has a history of archery that dates back thousands of years.  For hundreds of years the bow was the primary weapon of English armies, the weapon that destroyed Scottish and French armies time after time and made England a major power. 

Despite this, evidence of horseback archery is hard to find and conventional wisdom is that the British never used it.  It is my belief that horseback archery, while never a major tactic, has been used by the inhabitants of Britain much more than is generally thought, both for hunting and in war.

In this presentation I shall give a short history of archery in Britain, particularly in England.  I shall focus on those periods where horseback archery seems to have been used, but I shall also mention some instances of foot archery.  Although I shall mainly go in chronological order, I am going to start at the end.

 

The Last Military Use of Archery

The question is sometimes asked “when was the last time that a bow was used in warfare?”.  This is difficult to answer because tribal societies still use them and their fights can, on one definition, be described as wars.

The last use of the bow in major modern warfare that I have been able to find was in 1940.  Captain (later Colonel) Jack Churchill (no relation to Sir Winston Churchill), known as “Fighting Jack Churchill” or “Mad Jack”, was leading his men in Nazi-occupied France.  He was a man who would later declare that “any officer who goes into battle without his sword is incorrectly equipped” and used to play the bagpipes as he went into battle.  This photo shows him storming a beach in WW2 armed with his broadsword.

He was also an archer who had competed in the World Championships and had taken his longbow and arrows to France with him.  Upon sighting some concealed enemy, Churchill signalled the attack by shooting the German sergeant in the chest with a broadhead arrow.

 

Of Scots and Scythians

Great Britain is an island, divided into England, Scotland and Wales.  The English and Welsh are treated here as essentially the same since for the periods I am dealing with there is no real distinction in terms of their use of horses or bows.  The Scots are different.  They spent much of the period at war with England.  So who are the Scots?

The Declaration of Arbroath (1320) was a document proclaimed by various Scottish lords in protest perceived against English oppression.  It is a kind of Scottish Declaration of Independence.  In it the Scots declared that they

journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain… Thence it came ...to its home in the West where it still lives today.

The Scots claimed descent from the Scythians, one of the first and greatest tribes of Steppe horseback archers.  This is a strange claim.  Of course many countries have unlikely foundation myths.  Rome is not alone, for example, in claiming to be descended from the Trojans.  But this is different.  The Scythians did not have the prestige of the Trojans.  Why would anybody claim to be descended from them? 

There is some support for the story.  DNA analysis suggests that many of the inhabitants of the British Isles are closely related to the Basques of Spain (a non Indo-European people).  The Declaration’s reference to Spain is telling. 

There is also a folk tradition in the region of Ossetia (on the shores of the Black Sea and very much part of old Scythia) that some of their ancestors set sail and settled in Scotland.  This may be a separate memory of the same history or it may be based on the Declaration of Arbroath itself, we may never know. 

We cannot be sure, but it is possible that the ancestors of the British had come from the Steppe.  Maybe horseback archery is in our blood.

 

Earliest British Bows

The earliest bows in Britain, which are among the oldest in the world, are the Meare Heath and Ashcott bows.  Both date from around 2,500BCE.

Archery became important very early on.  Graves have been found containing men who had been buried with flint arrowheads and bone armguards.  Their importance can be judged from their places of burial.  Most spectacularly, the richest grave found at Stonehenge, Britain’s most famous prehistoric monument, contained a man wearing an armguard and surrounded by arrowheads. Stonehenge was built maybe 500 years after the Meare Heath and Ashcott bows.

That bows were used for fighting as well as hunting can be seen from remains found at ancient hillforts, such as the spectacular Maiden Castle on the South Coast, where archaeological finds, including burnt wooden structures and many arrowheads, suggest that the settlement was destroyed by enemy attack around 3400BC.

What we do not find in this early time, however, is evidence of horseback archery. 

 

Horses in Ancient Britain

Horses have been in Britain for millennia: horse bones have been found dating to 500,000BC and some of the earliest art in Britain is a carving of a horse (on a horse bone) from 30,000BC.  It is probable, however, that most or all of them died out during the Ice Age, only to be reintroduced afterwards from Europe (this was at a time before Britain separated from the mainland).

Horses began being domesticated (rather than hunted, as they had previously been) around 2,000BC (the same time as Stonehenge was being built).  Even then, however, they were exclusively for the elite.  This will be a theme throughout our study: the nobles had horses but the poor did not.

The importance of the horse to the ancient Britons is obvious from art.  Most spectacularly, the 110 m long Uffington White Horse was carved into the chalk hillside some time around 1,000BC.

When Julius Caesar attempted to invade Britain in 55BC, he described the Britons riding chariots but not riding the horses themselves.  It is clear from other evidence that men did ride horses in these days but cavalry as we would think of it was predominantly chariots.  This ancient weapon is immortalised in this famous sculpture of Queen Boudicca, who fought against the Romans.

 

The Picts

The Picts were early inhabitants of northern Britain.  The name means “Painted People” and refers to their custom of painting themselves with blue paint made from woad (the word “Britain” ultimately comes from the same root as “Pict”).  They are also famous for their carved standing stones, many of which depict horses.  The stones also regularly include symbols that appear to represent arrows. 

As we so often find in the history of Britain, however, we see horses and archery but there is no actual depiction of horseback archery.

 

The Roman Occupation

Britain was a Roman province from 43 to 410CE, and the Roman influence remained for years thereafter.  The most obvious relic of the Roman occupation is Hadrian’s Wall, which runs the entire width of the country from coast to coast.  A great many fortified camps were constructed along the way, and soldiers were garrisoned there.

The fort at Vindolanda has proved to be a trove of Roman remains, including the biggest known collection of Roman leather goods.  One of these leather artefacts is a thumb guard for archery.  Since the Europeans tended to use the three-finger draw, this evidence of the thumb draw is clearly significant.

Further East along the Wall is the fort at Housesteads and it is here that we find our next piece of evidence: an engraved stone showing a figure who is clearly an Eastern archer.  He carries a composite recurved bow and wears headgear that is generally used to represent Easterners.  He was from a unit known to have been stationed in Britain at the time: the First Cohort of Hamian archers, from modern Syria.  Sadly there is no evidence that they were mounted, at least not in their primary function.  Common sense suggests that they would have had access to horses, even if they did not ride them to war as part of their main function.

One unit that we know was mounted, however, is the equites taefali.  They were not a designated unit of “equites sagitarii” (horseback archers) but it is believed that they may well have used the bow as a secondary weapon.  I have spoken at length to Mr John Conyard, a respected Roman reenactor whose group Comitatus recreates the equites taefali.  His opinion is that an elite auxiliary cavalry unit such as them would have had at least some of their men trained in mounted archery.  He draws this conclusion from finds at the garrisons of other such units and his view is supported by various authors and historians.  Frustratingly, there have been no conclusive archaeological finds in Britain to confirm his theory, although it is widely shared by historians.

In summary, Roman Britain certainly had Eastern archers using composite recurve bows and a thumb release, as well as elite cavalry who may well have used the bow from horseback.  Nonetheless, we must rate the presence of mounted archers during this period as tantalisingly unproved.

 

Post-Roman Britain

The Romans withdrew from Britain in 410CE.  This was largely caused by the incursion of various Steppe nomadic tribes into the Roman Empire.  It is ironic that mounted archers, in the shape of the Huns and others, caused horseback archery to be absent from Britain for several centuries.

Within a century of the Roman withdrawal, Britain became the target of successive waves of invasion/settlement by Germanic tribes such as the Angles and Saxons (who were led, according to legend, by Hengest and Horsa, whose names translate as “Stallion” and “Horse”).  They eventually took over the whole of what is now England (which is why England is called that: it is the land of the “Aengles”).  Various Saxons dynasties ruled England for about 500 years.  During this period there is essentially no evidence of mounted archery in Britain.

 

The Norman Invasion

1066 is probably the most famous date in British history, and it may well be the most important.  In that year the Saxon monarchy was overthrown by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings.

The Normans came from Normandy in what is now France.  They were not French, although they had sworn loyalty to the French king and spoke a form of French.  The clue to their origins lies in the name “Norman”, which is very similar to the word “Norseman”, denoting somebody from the North – a Viking.

Only a few generations before the Norman invasion of Britain, a mighty Viking warrior led his forces in a raid on what is now northern France.  They got within 20 miles of Paris before the French King bought them off by giving them the land they had conquered and making their leader the Duke of Normandy.  This leader was called Gongu Hrolf, which means Hrolf the Walker, because he was such a big man that it was said no horse could bear him.

The same was not true of his Norman descendants.  They were among the first European “knights” – fighting heavily armoured from horseback.  In 1066 the Duke of Normandy, William, believed that he had a claim to the throne of England and he invaded.  The English army, tired after fighting off another invasion less than 2 weeks before, met them on a hill outside the town of Hastings.

The tale of the Norman invasion is told in the Bayeux Tapestry, a 70m piece of needlework, a kind of mediaeval propaganda comic strip, which was created by the Normans a few years after the events it portrays.

At the battle, the English fought on foot, wielding great axes.  The Norman forces consisted of cavalry, infantry and archers.  At the height of the battle one of these archers changed the course of English and European history forever: a lucky shot hit the English King Harold in the eye, killing him. 

Shortly afterwards, the English army fled the field.

The Normans pursued the broken English army, and it is here that we find our next piece of evidence:

You can see here the Normans pursuing the English soldiers.  Note that one man is clearly using a bow from horseback.  This is exactly the kind of situation where mounted archery might have useful: harrying a fleeing foe.

The tapestry was made by ladies of the court rather than by warriors, and has been repaired at various times in its 1,000 year history, so details may not be too precise.  An example can be seen in the picture of the mounted archer.  Note that straight in front of the archer are two men with swords.  The one behind appears to be straddling two horses, including one being ridden by the man in front of him.  This is not normal Western tactics!

There is more, however.  A contemporary account of William himself by perhaps the leading writer of the time, Gerald of Wales, describes him as being so strong that nobody else could draw his bow, which he himself could draw whilst his horse was at full gallop.

The claim that a great leader could draw a bow that nobody else could pull is not unique to William.  The same was said of Odysseus in Greek mythology and of various rulers and generals throughout history.  The claim that he could do this at full gallop is odd, however.

Why would anybody claim this if the practice of horseback archery were unknown?  Descriptions that he could shoot all day or with great accuracy would be understandable but the reference to doing it at full gallop suggests that this was something that was known, rather than just an eccentricity.

That said, it is likely that horseback archery among the Norman elite was limited to hunting rather than warfare.  The Norman lords and knights did not use the bow in warfare, on horseback or otherwise. 

William certainly had a keen interest in horses.  After his conquest he began importing superior Spanish horses to improve the bloodlines.  He also banned the use of horses in agriculture.  Ploughs were to be pulled by oxen.  Horses were for riding, and that meant that they were for the wealthy.  In the Domesday Book, a complete census of the Kingdom, down to the last chicken, ordered by William, there is not a single draught horse mentioned. 

 

Nobles and Peasants

We have now reached one of the main reasons why horseback archery was never extensively used in Britain’s wars: the gap between nobles and peasants. 

Since the days of the ancient Greeks and their successors the Romans, Western Europe has viewed the bow as a weapon for cowards and peasants.  The true man stood or rode in full armour and met his enemy head on.  This view probably started because in those early cultures only the rich could afford armour but whatever the reason, the nobility have always viewed the bow as fine for hunting but not for combat.  Unlike in East, the bow in Western Europe has never been a prestige weapon.

Added to this is the fact that while the peasants, who formed the bulk of the archers, may well have had horses, they used them to pull ploughs or for transport.  They probably rarely had horses fine enough for horseback archery, nor did they have the time to acquire the riding skills required.  The nobility trained at riding from a young age but would not have dreamed of using a bow in battle.

 

The Middle Ages

The Normans and their descendants ruled England (and later Wales, Ireland and Scotland) for centuries. 

The Norman conquest took place only a few years before the Crusades began.  For hundreds of years thereafter, men of all ranks would travel to the Middle East to go to war.  They certainly encountered Muslim horseback archers whilst there, so from this point on we can say that European warriors were aware of the military uses of horseback archery.

We can say with some certainty that horseback archery was still being used in hunting.  Our evidence comes from the Taymouth Hours (1325-1350).  This is a “Book of Hours”, which was in essence a prayer book written by monks.  Two pictures from this book show a lady first stringing her bow and then shooting it from horseback.  This is clearly a hunting scene rather than war but it shows that horseback archery was alive and well in Britain.

 

Military Use of the Longbow

In the Anglo-Norman armies, both Normans and British were represented.  The bow was generally wielded by the British, especially the Welsh and the English.  Before long the bow had evolved into one of the most dominant weapons in European history – the English longbow.

The period from around 1200 – 1600 saw the English longbow at its height.  In the hands of the English and Welsh, it dominated the battlefields of Britain and Europe.  With it, England repeatedly destroyed Scottish armies and the English kings fought a war of over 100 years against the French.  Although ultimately France was lost to the English, the war was fought on French soil and tens of thousands of Frenchmen, from peasants to the highest lords, died at the hands of the longbow archers.

This was the period when the longbow evolved into its final deadly form.  We know much about it from writing and also from a horde of bow staves and arrows.  In 1545 a warship called the Mary Rose sank off the South coast of England on its way to fight the French. 

It sank quickly and remained at the bottom of the sea for centuries until it was found and, in a massive archaeological achievement, raised from the seabed.  It is now in a museum in Portsmouth and well worth visiting. 

Hundreds of bowstaves and arrow shafts have been recovered, allowing detailed studies.  The warbows taken from the Mary Rose had an average draw weight of around 180lbs.  It was about 6ft long and had a “D” cross section.  The whole bow bent, including the handle, which was usually not even wrapped.  The best bows were made of yew, although ash and elm were also common.  When yew was used, the staves were cut so that the belly of the bow was made of the heartwood (which is very strong in compression) and the back of the bow from sapwood (which is strong in tension).  This combination of heartwood and sapwood essentially means that a longbow is self-backed.

The arrows shot from the longbow weighed anything up to 1/4lb and were 34” or so long, fletched with goose feathers.  The bow was drawn to the ear with a distinctive action known as “shooting in the bow”.

Various arrowheads were used, including broadheads.  When fighting armoured knights, however, the archers used “bodkins”.  These long needle points were designed for penetrating armour and tests show that against anything but the best steel they were terrifyingly effective. 

 

Horses in the Middle Ages

At the start of this period horses were still not common outside of the nobility and the gentry, but they were not entirely a rarity.  During the 100 Years’ War with France, things changed somewhat.  The war was fought in France.  The English nobility, descendants of the Norman invaders, owned land in France.  English armies would be based in English territory and would raid mercilessly their French neighbours.  Armies became more professional.  The archers were becoming men of higher and higher status.  Their pay was better than that of the rest of the infantry.  More and more of them could afford horses.  The term “mounted archer” entered the English language.

Unfortunately it is pretty clear that “mounted archer” meant an archer with a horse.  The usual tactic for major battles was to ride to battle and then dismount to fight, with the horses taken to the rear.

Big battles were quite rare in this period.  The war was mostly raiding.  When the battles happened, however, the whole English army usually fought on foot, including the lords and knights.  Horseback archers have no role in that kind of battle.

There is some evidence that archers did use their bows from horseback.  The first piece of evidence is simple common sense.  Most of the fighting was raiding and skirmishing.  Shooting from horseback makes sense in these situations, even if it does not make sense in big battle when the knights are afoot.

The second piece of evidence is found in a description of the Battle of Bourgtheroulde, in 1124.  A contemporary account describes the English army sending forward mounted archers (“equitibus sagittariis”) against the enemy right flank.  This is generally assumed to mean that they rode forward and then dismounted to fight. 

This would in itself be a departure from normal tactics, which had the archers dismounting and fighting together with the main body of the army.  It would be very odd to deploy archers on foot without the backing of spearmen, as they would be vulnerable to attack.  Some historians have therefore suggested that the archers at Bourgtheroulde probably shot from horseback.  This would have been made easier by the fact that the bows had probably not reached their later very heavy draw weights.

The third, rather more solid, piece of evidence is a roughly contemporary painting of the Battle of Blanchetaque.  This battle took place in 1346 when the English army was burning and pillaging its way across northern France.  The French king raised a huge army and managed to trap the English between the Seine and the Somme.  The English, needing to cross the Somme to escape the trap, found a ford and attacked the French garrisoning it. 

Note that the archers in the left foreground are shooting from horseback.  This makes sense if you are trying to go across a ford.  The longbow is long.  You don’t want to the bottom limb to be in deep water.  You do want to cross the river quickly.  Shooting from horseback makes sense.  That said, it only makes sense if you can do it.  We all remember our first go at horseback archery.  Imagine trying it for the first time in the heat of a desperate battle.  My personal view is that shooting from horseback, while not “official tactics” was not something that was unknown in this period.

Most of the art we have comes from big battles, as do most of the written descriptions (which in any event rarely mention archery of any sort – they focus on the deeds of the great lords, not the peasants).  As mentioned above, in those situations even the English knights tended to dismount.  We would not expect to see horseback archery.  In an army that spent most of its time raiding, hunting, living off the land, we would expect to see it being used, especially in light of the Taymouth Hours picture of a hunter shooting from horseback.

 

The Coming of Firearms

Firearms came onto the scene in the 14th Century.  Cannon were present at Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415), two of the longbow’s greatest victories.  Over the next few centuries firearms became cheaper and better.  They were also much easier to use.  A man had to train from childhood to use the longbow effectively.  He could learn to use a firearm in a very short time.

Not until the American Civil War did firearms become “better” than longbows.  Benjamin Franklin urged the adoption of the longbow by the Revolutionary Army.  There is little doubt that Napoleon’s infantry would have been thoroughly outclassed by longbowmen from 500 years earlier: the musket could fire 3-4 rounds per minute and individually they were accurate to about 50m, if that.  A longbowman was not considered fit for military duty unless he could hit a man-sized target at 240yds 10 times in a minute!

For a time, including the time of the Mary Rose, English armies included musketeers and archers.  This can be seen from this carving showing Henry VIII on his way to war with his army.

These figures, which appear near the top of the picture, are clearly carrying bows.  The front two are clearly longbows, judging from their size.  Elsewhere in the picture we can see archers, musketeers and cannon all together.

 

The Border Reivers

The last group of men to use the longbow in combat were probably the Border Reivers.  These were raiding families living either side of the border between England and Scotland.  The whole region was a lawless no-man’s land for generations.  Many of these great reiving families still exist.  Nixon, Armstrong, Graham, Bell and Milburn were all Border Reivers, along with many more.  Their antics meant that the word “reiver” gave modern English two words: “ruffian” and “bereaved”.

It is a little known fact that, on the English side at least, the Reivers continued using the longbow until at least 1580, long after firearms had supplanted bows in most other areas.  There may be many reasons why the bow persisted so long along the border.  It may be that bows and arrows are much easier to make than firearms and ammunition (including powder).  Having spent years living in the area, I am tempted to say that it is because it is always misty and raining so keeping gunpowder dry would be nearly impossible...

The Reivers were truly famed not for their archery but for their horsemanship.  They were often recruited into the armies as mercenaries and were acknowledged as being among the greatest light cavalry in Europe at the time.  They rode small, hardy horses and were said to be able to ride 100 miles in a day on their raids.

Having got this far, however, it will come as no surprise that we have no direct evidence that the Border Reivers practised horseback archery.  They were certainly expert cavalry raiders and they certainly favoured the bow over the gun but beyond this tantalising coincidence, we cannot go.

 

The End of the Longbow

Over time, the musket’s ease of use slowly overcame the longbow, which faded from use by about 1600.  King Charles I (1600-1650) complained that “there is noone left who can shoot a ¼ lb arrow”.

After that the bow was used for sport.  It may well have continued to be used from horseback but hunting in the forests of England is very different from hunting on the Steppe or the plains of America.  Horseback archery is not the practical way to go about it and I suspect that horseback archery faded from Britain until the rise of the modern sport.

 

Historical Conclusion

It is generally thought that Britain has no history of horseback archery.  It is my opinion that the evidence actually shows that horseback archery was certainly used in hunting and almost certainly used on occasion in warfare.  It does not ever appear to have been “official” tactics but it appears in the evidence too often to be something that was unheard of.

 

Today – The British Horseback Archery Association

I believe that history keeps going.  We are part of history.  Therefore no history of horseback archery in Britain would be complete without dealing with modern times.  A few years ago Christian Schrade was invited to Britain to teach horseback archery to a small group.  That group, which included several members of the Society for the Preservation of Traditional Archery who practised horseback archery, went on to found the British Horseback Archery Association, which continues to grow.  In 2010 Great Britain joined WHAF.  In 2013 the first international competition was held on British soil, with a team from Sweden coming to compete.  We do not have many trained horses in Britain so we are not able to host a regular competition.  We do hope, however, to continue inviting other countries to come and compete against us.

 

A New Use for Horseback Archery

Horseback archery has always been a military skill, albeit one that was also used for hunting.  These days soldiers use different weapons and many have returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with terrible injuries, both mental and physical.  A charity, HorseBack UK, has been set up to help these servicemen find new life.  Horses form a large part of what they do and recently Dan and Claire Sawyer visited the charity and began teaching horseback archery.  Soon this ancient military skill will be used to show the victims of modern war just what they can still achieve.