01 February 2016

No Butts About It

I am not referring to the tuchas. I am referring to the archery practice, which for many centuries was mandatory for English yeomen.

And now an English vicar has invoked this ancient law:
A vicar has revived an ancient law to call members of her parish together for archery practice.

The Reverend Mary Edwards, of Collingbourne Ducis, near Marlborough, called residents to the village recreation ground on Friday.

Residents were rewarded for complying with the law with a bar, a barbecue and live music.

Church warden Mike Cox said: "It seems she's still entitled to do that."

"I've been checking on the web and most archery experts and clergy seem to agree she is," Mr Cox added.


"We are celebrating the building of a new loo [bathroom] in the church. After all these years we have at long last brought running water to the church."
It's a wonderful story, but it appears that their understanding of the law is not accurate:
……… And, in fact, it appears that the archery requirement was repealed quite a while ago.

While I would have preferred to fly to England and go rummaging through the Parliamentary Archives to confirm this personally, I had a deadline to meet, plus I am not especially welcome there anymore because of what I see as a simple misunderstanding as to whether their reading rooms are clothing-optional. So I have relied on the Internet, which is less authoritative but also less judgmental.

It is clear that there were laws requiring archery practice dating back to at least the 13th century. The motive was to make sure England had enough men trained to use the longbow, which for centuries was a crucial weapon for the English. (The most famous example is Agincourt, a battle that Henry V won in 1415 and is still going on about.)

The training requirement was usually combined with prohibitions on other kinds of games and sports so that people would focus on archery instead of, for example, “tennis, football, [quoits], dice” and other “games inappropriate.” The point was not so much to condemn games as to make sure they did not get in the way of longbow training. In other words, they saw nothing morally wrong with tennis, it’s just that it is hard to kill a French knight with a tennis ball, no matter how good your serve is.

In 1511 the requirement was expanded by “An Act concerning Shooting in Long Bows,” even though by then the importance of the bow was declining. This law provided that “All sorts of men under the age of 40 Years shall have bows and arrows” and practice using them. The playing of games continued, however, and in 1541 the law was expanded yet again by “An Act for the Maintenance of Artillery, and debarring unlawful Games,” the preamble to which declares that said games were believed to be the “Cause of the Decay of Archery” skills in England (There was another very important cause by then, namely guns–or, more specifically, bullets–but games always seem to get blamed for social problems.)

The archery requirement was extended to all men under age 60, and the list of banned games was expanded. As before, though, these restrictions did not apply to the aristocracy. They tended to become knights, not archers, plus they had the God-given right to play games if they liked. According to them, that is, not God.

At least some of this was still on the books well into the 19th century, but was probably repealed during the reign of Queen Victoria. In 1845, “An Act to Amend the Law concerning Games and Wagers” repealed any part of King Henry’s 1541 law making any “Game of Skill” unlawful or “which enacts any penalty for lacking bows or arrows … or which regulates the making, selling or using of bows and arrows.” If any of the older stuff survived, it was most likely repealed by more recent acts intended to get some of the ancient stuff off the books.
Seeing as how the good vicar did not threaten any sanctions against those who declined to practice archery, I won't spoil her fun, but it appears that she does not have the law on her side.

H/t Jill Junkala on Facebook.


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