The History of Horseback Archery in Britain

Britain has a long history of archery and of horses, both dating back thousands of years. Despite this, conventional wisdom was that the British never practised horseback archery and certainly proof of it is sparse. Here we present evidence that horseback archery was used in hunting and almost certainly used on occasion in warfare; not as a common tactic, but as required in certain circumstances.

500,000 BCE: Equid bones (found in Boxgrove, Sussex)

30,000 BCE: A carving of a horse (on a horse bone)

Ice Age (maximum extent 20,000 BCE): Equids are believed to have been wiped out during the Ice Age. More came across the land bridge from Europe to repopulate the British Isles before sea level rose (6,500-6,000 BCE).

3,400 BCE: The ancient hillfort of Maiden Castle on the South Coast was destroyed by enemy attack. Archaeological finds include many arrowheads (one embedded in a skeleton’s spine) amongst burnt wooden structures.

2,500 BCE: Meare Heath and Ashcott bows – the earliest discovered bows in Britain, among the oldest in the world.

2,000 BCE: The richest grave at Stonehenge contained a man wearing a bone armguard and surrounded by arrowheads.

2,000 BCE:  Horses began being domesticated (rather than hunted)

1,000 BCE: The 110m long Uffington White Horse was carved into a chalk hillside

? BCE: In the Declaration of Arbroath (1320 CE) the Scottish lords claimed descent from the Scythians, one of the first and greatest tribes of Steppe horseback archers, to strengthen their claim against English rule. There is some support for this tale.  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 had told of the Scythians journeying to Scotland via Iberia. There is also a folk tradition in the region of Ossetia (on the shores of the Black Sea, the region of old Scythia) that some of their ancestors set sail and settled in Scotland.

7thC BCE – 9/10thC CE: The Picts were early inhabitants of northern Britain, their name meaning “Painted People” and referring to their custom of painting themselves with blue paint made from woad. They have no written history but common symbols on the standing stones (that remain to this day in the eastern Scottish Highlands) include arrows (the V-rod and Z-rod, shown here) and horses on later stones.

55 BCE: Julius Caesar invaded Britain; he described the Britons using chariots but not riding the horses themselves.

The Romans Conquer BritainJoseph Martin Kronheim (1810–96)[1], Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

43 – 410CE: Britain was a Roman province that was fortified in the north with Hadrian’s Wall, which runs the width of the country, punctuated by forts. 

  • At Vindolanda a leather thumb guard was discoved. Europeans tended to use the three-finger draw. This is evidence of the thumb draw, historically associated with shooting shorter horsebows.
  • At Housesteads there is a carved stone showing a figure with a back quiver and arrows, a composite recurved bow and wearing eastern style headgear. The First Cohort of Hamian archers, from modern Syria, are recorded as being stationed in Britain at this time. Sadly there is no evidence that they were primarily a mounted unit, though common sense suggests that they would have had access to horses.
  • The equites taefali were an elite auxiliary cavalry unit, although not designated as a unit of horseback archers, experts agree that some were likely to be proficient with the bow as a secondary weapon.

The gravestone of Flavius Proculus of the equites singulares Augusti (the cavalry arm of the Praetorian Guard ie the imperial horseguards) from Mainz, Germany provides evidence that in the 1st century CE the Romans were mobilising mounted archers outside of their region of origin.

410 CE – 11th Century: Following the Romans’ withdrawal Germanic tribes such as the Angles and Saxons and the Vikings, invaded and settled in Britain. During this period there is no firm evidence of mounted archery in Britain.

However in 2016 a copper thumb ring was discovered in the West Midlands. It cannot be dated from the location it was found.  Some experts suggest that it is Kipchak in appearance. It is very similar to one found at Birka’s Garrison in Sweden (kaftans, part of a composite bow and quivers and bow cases typical of the steppe region were also found at the 10th Century fort, as well as 4 graves each containing a warrior with his horse and equipment). It could be hypothesised that Vikings who had travelled to Byzantium where they fought in the Varangian Guard of the Eastern Roman Empire might have brought back thumb rings and techniques learned abroad back to Scandinavia and on throughout the Vikings’ territory.

1066 CE, the Norman invasion. The Saxon monarchy was overthrown by the Normans (‘Norsemen’ who had settled Northern France in the 10th century) at the Battle of Hastings.

  • The 70m long Bayeux Tapestry (created by the ladies of the Norman court a few years later) shows the Norman cavalry, infantry and archers and the axe-wielding English fighting on foot. Although the section depicting the Normans pursuing the broken English army contains some peculiar errors that may have arisen during later repairs, the piece significantly includes a horseback archer.
  • A contemporary account of William the Conqueror 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.
  • William the Conqueror began importing Spanish horses to improve bloodlines.  He also banned the use of horses in agriculture; ploughs were to be pulled by oxen (there is not a single draught horse listed in the Domesday Book of 1068).  Horses were for riding and therefore predominantly for the wealthy.

The Crusades (11-13th centuries):  European Crusaders were exposed to horseback archery as a military tactic, e.g. during their defeat by Saladin’s forces in the Battle of Hattin (1187).

1325-1350 CE: The Taymouth Hours, a prayer book written by monks in Scotland, is decorated with pictures including one of a lady stringing her longbow whilst mounted and another showing her shooting a deer with bow and arrow from horseback.

12-17th centuries CE – In the hands of the English and Welsh, the English longbow dominated the battlefields of Britain and Europe, against the Scots and French. Despite the advantage the longbow gave the English it was not a prestige weapon and commoners became archers. While in the East archery skills were highly valued, in Western Europe nobles would have hunted with bows but worn armour in battle and fought hand to hand.

  • During the 12th century war in France was mostly raids and skirmishes, rather than large battles. The speed afforded by horseback archery would have been useful. But written accounts concentrate on the feats of knights not archers.

Normally archers would dismount and be located within the main body of the army, protected from attack by spearmen nearby. A contemporary account of the Battle of Bourgtheroulde (1124) records the English sending forward mounted archers (“equitibus sagittariis”) against the enemy right flank. Logic suggests that they shot from horseback otherwise their location would have made them very vulnerable

  • During the 100 Years’ War (1337-1453) with France, armies became more professional, archers became men of a higher status, earned more than infantry soldiers and could increasingly afford horses. The term “mounted archer” entered the English language, though the usual tactic for major battles was to ride to battle and then dismount to fight, with the horses taken to the rear; indeed the whole army, even nobles, fought dismounted at this time.
  • 1346, the Battle of Blanchetaque – A contemporary French painting shows the English (including horseback archers), fording the Somme to attack a French garrison. In this circumstance shooting whilst mounted makes sense, for speed in transiting the river and keeping your bow dry.
  • 1545 CE: Bows preserved on the wreck of the Mary Rose show us that the 6ft longbows made of yew, ash or elm were on average 180lbs in draw weight, and shot 34″ arrows fletched with goose feather weighing up to 1/4lb! Various arrowheads were used, including broadheads, though when fighting armoured knights they used armour piercing needle-like “bodkins”.

Introduction of firepower.  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 and required a much shorter period of training. By 1650 King Charles I had commented “there is no-one left who can shoot a ¼ lb arrow”.

Archers, musketeers and cannon are all shown in a depiction of Henry VIII and his army on their way to war (1544). The etched copy of a painting (which was since lost in a fire) also shows 3 horsemen who are clearly carrying bows; the front two likely longbows, judging by their size. It was painted for a Lord who fought in the campaigns.

16th century: The Border Reivers were families of the Scottish borders who raided amongst this lawless area. They were famed for their horsemanship and often recruited into the armies as mercenaries.  They rode small, hardy horses and purportedly covered up to 100 miles in a day on their raids. They are most commonly recognised as lancers and there is no direct account of them as horseback archers. However there is evidence of the use of recurved bows around this time in Ayrshire. In Kilwinning an annual Papingo shoot started in 1483; archers shot at a wooden bird which projected out from high up on the Abbey’s tower. A recurved bow is depicted on a winner’s medal from 1622 and the silver trophy which was made in 1724 is shown. On the English side of the Borders, they continued using the longbow until at least 1580, long after firearms had supplanted bows in most other areas.

1940, WW2: The last documented use of the bow in major modern warfare was Captain (later Colonel) Jack Churchill, known as “Mad Jack”. He was an archer who had competed in the World Championships and he took his longbow and arrows to Nazi-occupied France with him.  Upon sighting some concealed enemy, Churchill signalled the attack by shooting the German sergeant in the chest with a broadhead arrow.

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