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By Andrew Latham and Rand Lee Brown II
“All Englande was a fling, but for the crooked stick and the grey goose wing.”
– 16th Century English Proverb
Perhaps the most readily recognizable feature of Robin Hood to his audiences – both medieval and modern – is his intimate association with archery. The forest outlaw without his trusty longbow becomes someone else entirely, and even the earliest depictions of him strongly feature his skill with the medieval weapon. In one of the Lyttle Gest stories, we see the original version of Robyn’s clandestine participation in an archery contest while in disguise.
Familiarity with 14th-15th century English military archery is crucial to understanding the Robin Hood mythology and the historicity of the outlaw himself. To do this, we must delve into the world and character of the medieval English archer – who played a vital role in not only the military successes of his country during that titanic conflict now known as the Hundred Years War but also in the overall social and cultural development of his homeland’s very national identity.
While there is substantial evidence of a culture of military archery present in the British Isles long before the 14th century (especially in various regions in Wales), its crucial role on the battlefields of the Hundred Years War made it the globally recognized phenomenon that it is today. Through a process that is still not fully understood and hotly debated, the application of the longbow in combat became the focus of an entire military culture unique to 14th and 15th century England, specifically among the common classes, or, rather, the yeomanry.
It is widely believed that this phenomenon was first elevated and encouraged by the bellicose King Edward I who immediately recognized the value of massed armor-piercing ranged firepower in his battles against the densely packed schiltrons of Scottish pikemen. More importantly, the longbow and its use became enshrined in the law of the land as a crucial feature of medieval England’s citizen-soldiery – in which yeomen and commoners were expected to equip and train themselves to stand ready to serve the King in war when he summoned them. While this system went through centuries of political and legal development, this military system distinguished England from her more traditionally feudal contemporaries on the European continent – among whom her ancient French rivals represented the epitome of, with their emphasis on knightly aristocratic horsemen that had dominated Europe’s battlefields up to that point.
Most of the men (and often boys) who loosed cloth arrows from their longbows on the battlefields of their day were entirely drawn from the fields, villages, and other such haunts of the common folk. The longbow was a weapon unique to the yeomanry – often used for hunting just as much as it was for war. While flawlessly simple in its technology, the longbow required an incredible degree of skill to wield effectively in combat – a degree of skill that took a literal lifetime to acquire.
While there was still a degree of compulsion in medieval England’s military system, the vast majority of archers volunteered their service in some fashion, and the rewards of such service were often substantial. Along with indentured contracts of wages from the Crown, the yeomen who volunteered often looked forward to additional riches in the form of shared plunder and ransoms from captured enemies. In the aftermath of Poitiers in 1356, an English archer from the elite Cheshire retinue, John Jodrell, captured a silver salt cellar belonging to King Jean II and sold it to the Black Prince for £8 – which in that day was just over a year’s salary for the lucky soldier.
When those who chose to return home did so, they often found their social fortunes vastly higher than before as their service records and wealth purchased greater social and political opportunities and involvement. Many even became members of Parliament after their service – an institution that itself owed a great deal of its development to the increasing social impact of the yeomanry in this period. Even closer to our green-clad hero, a substantial minority of archers who served in France and beyond were actual outlaws who utilized the opportunity of the war to win pardons for their crimes from the King himself who desperately needed every man he could get.
England’s archers burst onto Europe’s historical stage at the start of the Hundred Years War and, as we all know by now, racked up an epic litany of battlefield victories still remarkable to this day. More importantly, the unique nature and employment of the English archers initiated a “military revolution” of sorts in Christendom that would eventually lead to not only the military professionalization of the early modern era but even the social and cultural decline of the feudal aristocracy. With the flower of French nobility repeatedly mowed down by professionally trained commoners wielding the impressive firepower of the longbow in combat all over Europe, the entire medieval social order was being gradually overturned, and the heavily armored elite on horseback found their socio-political role diminishing.
In England herself, the 14th and 15th centuries witnessed the rise of a veritable cult of the archer, further cementing her proto-constitutional development begun by Magna Carta. The social influence of the commoner in England had always been slightly higher than his contemporaries on the Continent – as untold thousands volunteered to serve abroad for King and country for generations and win an elite military reputation in every corner of Christendom, that influence increased exponentially. It should come as no surprise then that this influence also manifested itself in the arts and entertainment of the day – specifically in a series of stories glorifying the exploits of a yeoman archer-outlaw who wields his bow against the elite of his day.
In examining the figure of Robin Hood, we must always be aware that we are not only looking at a hero who would have certainly appealed to the military archers of that time but perhaps even to a sort of pastiche of those very soldiers who, with their “crooked sticks” left such a noticeable impact on the world of their time and beyond.
Capt Rand Lee Brown II is a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps currently assigned to Marine Forces Reserve. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Military History from Norwich University with a focus on medieval warfare, Capt Brown has written on military history for a variety of forums, including the Marine Corps Gazette and Our Site.
Hardy, Robert. Longbow – A Social and Military History (Haynes Publishing, 2012)
Wadge, Richard. Arrowstorm – The World of the Archer in the Hundred Years War (The History Press, 2009)