Saturday, October 8, 2011

Mr. Beard's Regency Tour Day 3: The Ghosts of Agincourt and the English Artemis, Archery in Regency England

Welcome to my third post on Regency England. If you haven't a clue what I'm talking about, please check out this post.


We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
      And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
      That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's Day.

      --- Henry V in Shakespeare's Henry V, Act IV, Scene iii, right before the Battle of Agincourt

Mighty archery helped the outnumbered English defeat the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and, consequently, earned a place in English folklore, but by the Georgian era, the actual skill of archery had fallen into near oblivion. The rise of firearms had rendered it ineffectual as a weapon of war, so the practical minded wasted little time on the activity. The late Georgian and Regency era, however, witnessed the rebirth of an interest in archery as a hobby sport rather than a martial skill.

In 1781, Sir Ashton Lever formed an archery society in London, the Toxophilite Society. This archery club would earn the distinction of being frequented by the then Prince of Wales (later the Prince Regent and ultimately King George IV). The prince became an official patron of the society in 1787 at which point it became the Royal Toxophilite Society (helps to have friends with influence). That society, in turn, inspired many other archery societies throughout England.  Despite rules, regulations, and uniforms, the relative seriousness of the societies varied. Some were very dedicated to mastering the bow and shooting. Some treated archery as just a contextual excuse to throw lavish parties or get drunk with the sports aspect an almost afterthought. So, perhaps not particularly different than many amateur sports clubs in modern times.

To this day, many aspects of modern competitive Western-style archery are influenced by the patterns established during the Georgian and Regency rebirth. One can draw a line from modern Olympic archery competition all the way back to these late Georgian and Regency archery societies. Admittedly, like many things during this period, the the archery resurgence was more the province of the upper-classes. The wealthy had the resources and leisure time, unlike the working classes, to take up such diversions, but the burgeoning rising middle class started to take up the sport as the years passed.

De facto class limitations aside, in an interesting contrast to the stark gender differences that helped define many activities, archery was considered an acceptable pastime for women. During the Regency, most sports were effectively socially barred from women as they were considered unfeminine. A few sports such as shuttlecock (a badminton precursor) and lawn bowling were permitted. Though the archery societies initially were male only, several soon allowed female guests of members to shoot, and not longer after even allowed full female membership. The Royal British Bowmen were the first archery society to allow regular women members in the rather surprisingly early 1787 (and, yes, they still kept the Bowmen name).

A Royal British Bowmen event in 1822. Both men and women appear in
the picture in the uniform of the society.

When the often stark separation between the sexes is considered, it's obvious that co-ed archery events and societies provided excellent opportunities for aristocratic men and women to mix in a less formal setting. It is interesting to note that the Bowmen had a reputation as one of the more serious archery clubs of the period and were known for trying to minimize the more frivolous aspects that tended to go with the archery societies (e.g., drinking and partying). So, arguably this provides some evidence that their interest in women joining the society was grounded in a similar sober respect for the sport.

Such acceptance of women wasn't universal, but archery still was very unusual at the time for providing an activity where women were allowed relatively equal freedom to participate. Even many women who could not join an archery society still had a keen interest in archery. In an era where most forms of sporting activities were frowned upon for women, it offered an excellent outlet for those so inclined.

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