Monday, November 11, 2019

British Amazons

by Maria Grace


As the Georgian period drew to a close, an increasing fascination with the medieval past led to a revival of the English archery tradition. (Sounds nothing like what we do today, does it? SCA friends, I’m looking at you!) The privileged gentry class, not required to work for their living, had time to indulge in pastimes like sporting activities. And indulge they did.

While most sporting activities effectively barred women from participation—exertion, sweating, running and all the odd postures that might be necessary were decidedly unladylike— archery was not only considered an acceptable pastime, but an activity where women could show off their grace and ‘feminine form’ without risk of being considered vulgar. (Vulgarity was considered the kiss of death in polite society.)

 “The acceptability of women practicing and watching archery was rooted in their presence adding to the pastime’s aesthetics. This was something frequently remarked upon by observers: ‘The beauties in the circle of carriages which surrounded the enclosure upon the Heath, out-numbered and out-shone those of any assembly we ever saw.’ … As one writer put it, archery could not fail to display ‘the graces of the female form, in a considerable degree’. …
The male archers no doubt admired and enjoyed such elegant and graceful female forms. Parallels can be drawn here with the new public cultural venues that were being built in many towns of the period and which were notorious as forums for sexual spectatorship and courtship. Indeed, this was part of the very raison d’être of the assembly rooms, pleasure gardens, theatres and halls.…
Archery, complete with the romantic associations of Cupid and his bow and arrows, offered men and women an opportunity to meet, view and enjoy their social equals.”  (Johnes, 2004)

Archery Societies

Against this backdrop, in 1781 Sir Ashton Lever and Thomas Waring formed the influential Toxophilite Society in London. The organization was dedicated to the sport of archery and to socializing. The society would later gain royal patronage in 1787 with the attention of the Prince Regent (ultimately King George IV), becoming the Royal Toxophilite society, which still exists today.

 The success of this society inspired the development of other archery organizations throughout England.  Initially, the societies were male-only clubs.  Some permitted female guests of members to visit to shoot. One thing led to another and soon many had female members. In 1787, the Royal British Bowmen became the first archery society to allow women as full members. Interestingly, the Royal Bowmen had a reputation for being one of the most serious archery clubs of the period. They saw archery was a sport to be mastered, not an excuse to party.

Other societies were a bit less serious and more social. The clubs, like modern leisure organizations, had their own rules, and uniforms, and often used their common interest as an excuse to throw lavish parties and socialize among their peers. (Since club dues, uniforms, and equipment were expensive, the lower orders were effectively barred admission.) “In 1787, ‘several young ladies’ who shot with the Royal British Bowmen were said to have ‘added to their conquests the hearts of young gentlemen of honor and fortune’ and thus the society was responsible for the marriage of ‘not a few happy couples’.” (Johnes, 2004)

(Pride and Prejudice fans may find it interesting to note that in the late 1700’s Hertfordshire had an archery club that did admit women. Derbyshire had a club as well, but it is not clear whether or not it included ladies.)

“Female archers in Lewisham even organized a club of their own in 1788, called The British Amazons, the name referring to the mythic female archer-warriors of antiquity, mentioned by Homer in ancient Greece. A news-cutting from 1789 refers to:
"The elegant and beauteous assemblage of Ladies Archers established last Summer at Blackheath under the name BRITISH AMAZONS, on Saturday last gave a splendid supper and Ball to a Society of Gentlemen who practice the science in the vicinity. Not much is known about The British Amazons as they have no preserved records or regulations.” The society seems have been connected to The Kentish Bowmen. (Arnstad, 2019)

Women Archers in practice

When shooting with their societies, women wore the uniform associated with their group. The Hainault Foresters’ uniform as described in their rules:

Nankeen great coat, black silk collar, dark green silk cape; lappels, cuffs, and pockets, bound with black; full green sleeves down to the elbow, tied with black ribbon in the middle of the arm; a single row of uniform but¬tons, the front of the coat bound with green: black beaver hat, plain green band round the crown, buttoned up on the right side with uniform button and gold twisted loop, with green cockade and feathers. (Arnstad, 2019)

A brace to protect the arm from the bow string and a three fingered shooting glove were worn by participants. A belt to hold a tassel for cleaning arrows, a grease box to anoint the glove and brace and a pouch for arrow also made up the uniform. A quiver was not used for target shooting.
Ladies usually shot at a distance of about fifty yards, men often shot at distances up to one hundred yards. Two targets are placed opposite each other and the archers would then shoot from one to the other. When all the group finished shooting at one target, they would walk up to it, gather their arrows, and shoot back to the one they came from, minimizing the effort spent in retrieving their arrows.

Score was kept with printed cards where hits and their location were registered with a pin instead of pen and ink which would have been difficult to manage on the archery ground. Prizes were often awarded based on scores for where the arrows hit and for the hit nearest the center of the bullseye. (The young lady’s book, 1829)

Despite the acceptance of women in archery societies, including Princess Victoria, who later ascended to the throne as queen, it is noteworthy that the birth of the Olympic movement and modern sports in the 1900s suddenly made women’s participation in the sport controversial.

References


Arnstad, Henrik. The Amazon Archers of England: Longbows, Gender and English Nationalism 1780–1845. Master's thesis, Stockholm University, 2019. Accessed May 10, 2019. https://www.academia.edu/39147585/The_Amazon_Archers_of_England_Longbows_gender_and_English_nationalism_1780_1845

Beard, J.A. Mr. Beard’s Regency Tour Day 3: The Ghosts of Agincourt and the English Artemis, Archery in Regency England. J.A. Beard’s Unnecessary Musings. October 8, 2011. Accessed June 13, 2019, http://riftwatcher.blogspot.com/2011/10/mr-beards-regency-tour-day-3-ghosts-of.html

Beard, J.A. Robin Hood, Agincourt, and Gender Equality? Archery in late Georgian England. English Historical Fiction Authors. August 30, 2012. Accessed June 13, 2019. https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2012/08/robin-hood-agincourt-and-gender.html

Johnes, Martin. Archery, Romance and Elite Culture in England and Wales, c .1780–1840. St Martin’s College, Lancaster. 2004. The Hstorical Associatioin and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.  Accessed May 10, 2019. https://www.academia.edu/203053/Archery_Romance_and_Elite_Culture_in_England_and_Wales_c._1780-1840

The Young Ladys Book: A Manual of Elegant Recreations, Exercises, and Pursuits. London: Vizetelly, Branston, and, Fleet Street, 1829.


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Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

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