Thursday, August 30, 2012

Robin Hood, Agincourt, and Gender Equality? Archery in late Georgian England

by J.A. Beard

From the legend of Robin Hood to the gallantry of the archers at the Battle of Agincourt, archery has long been a part of the English cultural identity (even if some of their Saxon ancestors didn’t think much of it for war).

Alas, in England, as in so many other places, the superior lethality and ease of training associated with firearms caused the practical-minded English to adopt the newer weapon over bows and arrows. Over the centuries, the proud tradition of English archery sank into near irrelevance.

In the closing decades of the Georgian period, a growing fascination with many things from the medieval past led to the rebirth of the English archery tradition. Many gentlemen of means were gentlemen of leisure. Indeed, it was a mark of pride to not have to necessarily work for one's living. They had more time to devote to non-vocational pursuits (though, I suppose, gambling can be a vocation of sorts). Among other things, though, this meant that many gentlemen also had time to devote their attention to sporting activities. 

It was in this context that in 1781 led Sir Ashton Lever to form an archery society in London, the Toxophilite Society. There were some earlier societies formed, but they would lack the influence of Mr. Lever’s society. The men of this society were interested in archery as both a sport and as another way to socialize. This particular society also would gain a powerful patron in the form of the Prince of Wales (later the Prince Regent and ultimately King George IV). The Toxophilite Society became the Royal Toxophilite Society, which, incidentally, still exists today.

The royal boost and success of the Royal Toxophilite Society helped inspire archery clubs and societies throughout England. These societies and clubs typically had rules and uniforms. That being said, actual serious attention to mastering archery was far from universal. While many archery societies did their best to lay the groundwork for a sport of skill and dedication, many other societies used archery as just a flimsy excuse to throw lavish parties and get drunk with the sports aspect barely a consideration. So, in that sense, these Georgian fellows were not that different from many amateur sports clubs in modern times.

Although Western target archery has grown and evolved over the decades, many basics of the sport are still heavily influenced by the influence of these earliest archery societies.

Those who have seen the Gwenth Paltrow version of Emma may remember an archery scene where Emma Woodhouse shoots off a few arrows. Though Ms. Austen’s novel contains no references to Ms. Woodhouse practicing archery, this scene is otherwise not anachronistic.

In contrast to the gender differences that marked many other activities in the late Georgian and Regency periods, archery was considered not only an acceptable pastime for women, but even an acceptable pastime for proper ladies, including a gentleman’s daughter such as Emma Woodhouse.

At the time most sports were effectively barred, via social condemnation, from women as they were considered that most horrible of things for Georgian ladies: unfeminine. Archery was considered an activity where women could demonstrate their grace and “feminine form” in a way that the people of the time didn’t consider vulgar. While archery was not the only permissible sport (some other examples included the badminton precursor, shuttlecock, and lawn bowling), it was unusual in its relatively quick acceptance of women into the fold for an activity that started as male only.

The initial men-only archery societies allowed female guests of members to visit to shoot and many (though certainly not all) soon even allowed full female members. In 1787, the Royal British Bowmen were the first archery society to allow full women members.

Besides the satisfaction that comes with mastering an activity of skill, co-ed archery societies could also help facilitate useful social interaction as they provided excellent opportunities for aristocratic men and women to mix.

To be clear though, it’s important to note that the Bowmen’s interest in adding women was likely considerably less influenced by such social considerations. They had a reputation as one of the most serious archery clubs of the period and often frowned upon the partying and drinking that interfered with the practice of the sport. For them, archery was a sport, not an excuse to party.


  1. Archery has always been a great fascination of mine. Thank you for the interesting article!

  2. I love this! Thank you for the insights...especially the information on female archery in the Regency period.

  3. I enjoyed this article very much! It is nice to have this information, as I recently ran across some examples of archery fashion from the Regency era. Most interesting! Thank you.

  4. Hello,

    I'm a journalist looking to do an article on archery and women. Can you refer me to some of your sources for that section of your article? Any additional information that you have would be greatly appreciated.


    Hope Loudon

  5. Sorry for the late response (I was just sent the comment for some reason). If it's not too late, well, I have good news and bad news.

    The bad news is that I moved last year and misplaced (and potentially lost) a lot of notes (in fact I've been exploring easily backed-up electronic solutions to this because, well, 2013 almost 2014 and all).

    However, I do remember two of my initial sources, which were fairly decent, and contains, of course, links to other sources:

    Johnes, Martin. "Archery, Romance and Elite Culture in England and Wales, c. 1780–1840." History 89, no. 294 (2004): 193-208.

    Huggins, Mike. "Sport and the British Upper Classes c. 1500–2000: A Historiographic Overview." Sport in History 28, no. 3 (2008): 364-388.

    J.A. Beard


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