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Sir William Wood (1609-91) and the Society of Finsbury Archers

A paper presented to the Worshipful Company of Bowyers at a Company Supper on 18 November 2008 by Court Assistant Tony Kench, describing the life of Sir William Wood and the prominent contribution he made to keeping archery alive and in royal favour during the reign of King Charles II. A companion paper to that presented a year earlier on the Finsbury Marks, the archery marks in use in Finsbury Fields during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.


1. Archery had still thrived in the 16th Century...

Although in military decline since its last decisive role in the battle of Flodden in 1513, archery had remained an active pursuit in England throughout the 16th century. Archers were still enrolled for military training; diehards reckoned that in expert hands, the longbow was still as accurate as the musket, and with a greater rate of fire.

King Henry VIII was himself a keen archer, and issued a number of decrees aimed at encouraging archery practice. He also granted the Artillery Company's Royal Charter in 1537, as overseers of 'the science of artillery, for long bowes, cross bowes and hande gonnes'.

Archers in London held periodic parades and shooting matches, with large numbers attending. A vivid eyewitness account survives (thanks to its inclusion in Sir William Wood's book of 1682) of a parade of 3,000 archers through the City of London on 17th September 1583, led by the senior archer of the day, who carried the mock title of the Duke of Shoreditch.

At the end of the parade there was a mock ceremony in Houndsditch of shooting "the Image of a monstrous Giant that in times past dwelt in that place", after which they went past Shoreditch Church to:

"Hogsdon-fields, where a tent was set up for the Duke and the chief Citizens, where they might see the Shooters appointed to shoot at the Butt new set up, being Sevenscore and eight yards from the other end of the Tent. The true number of Archers that shot was Thirty hundred: The number that accompanied him into the Field, of Archers, Citizens, Whifflers, and those which guarded them with Bills, was Forty one hundred and odd Persons, besides Pages and Henchmen."

'Whifflers' apparently were people who went before the parade, blowing horns to clear the way through the crowd. Everyone dressed up for this high-spirited pageant:

"The Attire worn by all this Company was very gorgeous; some in black Velvet Jerkins, Dublets of Satten, with Hats of Velvet; the most part in Satten and Taffety, and Hats of Taffety, a great many wearing Chains of Gold. The true number of Chains of Gold worn among the Company, that I saw, was Nine hundred forty two."

After the shooting match, all the archers were entertained to what must have been a very crowded dinner at the Bishop's Palace, where they were served with:

"boyled Capon, rosted Beef, Venison Pasties, Custard, Tart, rosted Capon and Rabbets, with other Dishes necessary for the time, with Wine, Beer, and Ale, and ever was replenished with sufficient thereof to their contentation. Every man familiarly drunk one to another, and then the Duke very reverently drank to them all."

2. But had declined rapidly in the early 17th Century

Bowing to the inevitable, the enrolment of archers for military training was finally ended in 1595, and the decline of archery after that was quite rapid.

As noted in the earlier paper on the Finsbury Marks, John Stow's Survey of London reported as early as 1598 that:

"by closing in on the common grounds, our archers, for want of room to shoot, creep into bowling alleys and dicing houses, where they have room enough to hazard their money at unlawful games."

The Bowyers were directly and drastically affected by the decline. 'Remembrancia' of 1878 (which documented many historical records of London) notes a petition from "the Bowyers and Fletchers and other poor companies belonging to archery" in 1604:

"...complaining of the disorders and abuses daily committed against their trade, and the good order of the City, through the practice of unlawful games in common bowling alleys by reason of the Letters Patent obtained from His Majesty by Mr Cornwallis, under false pretences for maintaining the exercise of shooting, and praying that a renewal of the licence might not be granted."

'Remembrancia' also records a petition dated February 1627 documenting the serious decline of longbow making in London:

"Petition of the Longbow-Makers of the City of London to the Lords of the Council, reciting that the late King James had incorporated them under the Great Seal, and that their incorporation contained a clause commanding that the exercise of the Longbow should be brought into use according to the statute in that behalf, of which grant they had not yet received any benefit, but daily declined, so that there were not above four of them left, and that they were unable to take apprentices, whereby the mystery of making Longbows was likely to be utterly forgotten in this kingdom."

A committee of the Court of Aldermen took note of this petition and recommended the setting up of four regiments of archers in different parts of London, to practise and to shoot for prizes at least once a year, the first prize to be 20 shillings; and volunteers were identified to take responsibility as captains of the regiments. However, there seems to be no record of anything much happening in practice.

The Civil War of the 1640s must have had a further highly disruptive effect; the situation is hard to imagine. Many gentlemen left London, taking their armaments with them; the HAC records that its armoury of 500 muskets disappeared.

3. Restoration London: 'Archery Revived'

Archery began to revive during the 1650s. The HAC moved its headquarters from the Artillery Garden in Spitalfields to the present Artillery Ground in Bunhill Fields, and in 1652 the Society of Finsbury Archers came into existence. It was founded by a number of members of the HAC who were keen to see archery continue to be practised despite being dropped from the HAC's military remit, together with a number of other keen archers from outside the HAC.

From a slow start, the revival received a great stimulus from the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, since King Charles II was himself a keen archer. A Grand Archery Parade was organised in Hyde Park in 1661, in the presence of the King:

"Four hundred Archers made a splendid and glorious Show in Hide Park, with flying Colours, and Cross-bows to guard them. Several of the Archers shot near Twenty score yards within the compass of a Hat; and many of them, to the amazement of the Spectators, hit the Mark. There were likewise three Showers of Whistling Arrows. So great was the delight, and so pleasing the exercise, that three Regiments of Foot laid down their Arms to come to see it."

The Finsbury Marks were put into active use again; in 1664 there were still 108 of them to shoot at in the Finsbury Fields.

4. The Society of Finsbury Archers and William Wood

The Society of Finsbury Archers also held three formal meetings each year shooting at butts in the HAC's new Artillery Ground, the three meetings being known as the Easter Targets, the Whitsun Targets and the Yearly or Elevenscore Targets. The first archer to shoot an arrow into the gold became the Society's 'Captain' of the meeting, and the first to hit the red became the 'Lieutenant' of the meeting.

One of those from outside the HAC who rose to prominence in the Society of Finsbury Archers in the 1660s was the subject of this paper, William Wood. Nothing is known of the first fifty years of his life, but he had been present at the Grand Archery Parade in Hyde Park in 1661, and included the above description of it in his later book, 'The Bowman's Glory'. Obviously an expert archer, he became Society's Lieutenant at a meeting in 1665 and then four times Captain in the years to 1673, by which time he had already reached the age of 64.

In 1673 William Wood also had the role of 'Bearer' for the organisation of the Yearly Targets, as noted in the surviving text of a ticket for the competition:

'All Gentlemen, Lovers of the noble Society of Archery, are desired to meet at Mr Humphrey Wilks at Jack of Newberries in Chiswell Street, on Monday the 30th day of June, 1673, by Twelve of the Clok precisely: And according to the ancient custom of Finsbury Archers, to deliver to the Bearer hereof Mr William Wood, upon receipt of this Ticket, Two Shillings and Six pence, that provision may be made accordingly.

'This serves also to give notice, that the Elevenscore Targets shall be set up by us
in the New Artillery Ground, upon Monday the Seventh day of July following,
and that day to begin to shoot at the same, by Nine of the Clock. All Archers
intending to shoot at the same, are to pay down their Twenty Shillings upon the
30th day of June unto us, or to Mr William Wood, that Plate may be provided.

'Given under our hand, June 16. 1673. John Robinson, Tho. Player, Stewards.'

Twenty shillings was obviously a substantial entry fee, and the entry fees were put toward prizes based on elaborate counts of the number of hits by each archer. The prizes seem to have consisted mainly of items of silver plate, particularly spoons.

5. Tensions with the HAC

By this time the HAC no longer had archery within its military remit, and some tensions seem to have arisen between the Society and the HAC in 1674, with regard to how closely the HAC wished to associate itself with the Finsbury Archers.

The HAC minute book recorded that in October of that year a debate took place on 'the question of the Archers being drawn up in the Artillery Ground on Lord Mayor's Day'. The Archers' leader, Sir Robert Peyton, agreed to draw up elsewhere, and instead assembled his 350 men in Moorfields.

Again a year later, in October 1675, when the HAC was preparing for its attendance at the swearing in of the new Lord Mayor, it agreed:

'to ask the Lord Mayor if some course could not be taken to hinder the Archers from marching, but few of them being Citizens'.

Some resolution appears to have been reached during 1676, however, since it is recorded that on Lord Mayor's Day, 30th October, the Artillery Company received the Lord Mayor on his return from Westminster at Blackfriars Stairs, and that at the same place a regiment of Archers was drawn up under the command of Sir Robert Peyton, their Colonel. They were described at the time as:

"a most heroic rarity; viz, gentlemen Archers completely armed with longbows and swords, arrows and pallisades, with hats turned up at the outside, and tied with large knots of green ribbon."

It thus appears that a substantial effort had been made to 'gentrify' the Finsbury Archers and repair their relationship with the City establishment. It seems likely that one of those responsible for this rapprochement in 1676 was William Wood.


6. William Wood's Great Year: 1676

In 1676 Mr William Wood was still listed as 'Bearer' on the ticket for the Yearly Elevenscore Targets; the wording was identical to that of 1673 (above), except that the place of pre-meeting to pay the entry fee had changed from Jack Newberries in Chiswell Street to the very much grander Drapers' Hall in Throgmorton Street.

The next of the Grand Archery Parades were held in 1675 and 1676, the first since 1661 (no doubt the destruction caused by the Great Fire had somewhat restricted the scope for parading). Wood recorded the 1675 parade, which was held in Tuttlefields (in what is now the Vincent Square area of Westminster, south of what is now Tothill Street) for the whole of London archery:


"Upon the 26th May, the Archers marched to Tuttlefields to Shoot their Whistling Arrowes. They Randezvouz'd in the Military-Ground near Bloomsbury, and march't from thence through Holbourn, Chancery-lane, Temple-barr and the Strand to Whitehall.

"When they were drawn up in a Line, then came the King with his Guard and Coaches of State, together with most of the Nobility attending him; to see them Shoot, His Majesty march'd twice from one end of the body to the other to view them. The archers were in number near a Thousand; the Spectators near Twenty thousand.

His Majesty was pleased to stay an hour or two to look on, whilst they shot several Showers of Whistling-Arrows to entertain him, with which his Majesty, and the Nobility, seem'd very much satisfi'd.

Showers of whistling arrows were obviously a great popular attraction. The 1676 parade was smaller, in the City alone. Wood records it as taking place on St Simon and Jude's day, when:

"About 350 Archers march'd under the Command of Sir Robert Peyton Knight; they Randezvousd in the upper Moor-feilds, and were plac'd to receive the King and Queen, the Nobility and Gentry, who came to Honour the Lord Mayor with their presence at Dinner at the Guild-Hall: When his Majesty was past by, then they march'd to Christ-Church to Dinner. Amongst the variety of Sights, none seemed to give his Majesty more content and delight, more pleasure and satisfaction, than to see the Bows and Arrows, these Ancient Habiliments of warr reviv'd."

Most importantly in 1676, William Wood was appointed to the new post of 'Marshall of The Queen's Majesty's Regiment of Archers'. This may have been just an alternate grand name the Society of Finsbury Archers gave itself, or it may have been a more gentrified unit formed from within the Society, arising from the resolution of the tensions with the HAC the previous year. Its name was obviously intended as a gesture of loyalty, as well as to sustain royal favour.

A decision was made by the Society to commission a silver artefact, to be known (in another gesture of loyalty) as the Catherine of Braganza Shield, named for King Charles II's Portuguese Queen. Members of the Society subscribed one guinea each toward its cost, and the shield was presented to William Wood, as the Society's new Marshall (Fig 1), to mark the esteem in which he was held by the Society. It appears to have been hoped that the Queen might present the Shield personally, but there is no record of this happening.

There is no known record of when William Wood was awarded his knighthood. It must have been after 1676, when his profile was at its highest but he was not yet referred to as 'Sir William'; presumably it was shortly afterwards.


7. 'The Bowman's Glory'

Sir William seems to have retained the title of Marshall for the rest of his life. In 1687 (by which time he had reached the age of 78) he is recorded as having presented to the Society his 'Easter Orders' for the annual Easter Targets shooting match.

In 1682 he published a small book, 'The Bowman's Glory, or Archery Revived', which was clearly intended to continue and propagate his life's work of raising the profile of archery, as well as sustaining royal favour.

The first half of the book contained copies of the 'Patents' or Charters concerning archery that had been issued by Henry VIII, James I and Charles I, republished as a reminder of the royal favour that archery had enjoyed. The second half of the book contained the 3,500-word eyewitness account handed down from 'W.M.' of the 1583 Grand Parade, and also William Wood's own short eyewitness accounts of the archery parades of 1661, 1675, 1676, 1681 and 1682. For 1681, he reports that:


"On the 14th day of July, the Archers march'd from London to Hampton Court, under the Command of Mr Edwards and Mr Henry Warren: That was a Day appointed to Shoot for Several Pieces of Plate, worth Thirty pounds, at Eightscore yards distance. The King was pleased to honour them with his Presence, and Stay'd near Two hours to behold their Pastime, to the great joy, satisfaction and honour of the Archers.

"So full of Goodness and Clemency was his Majesty, that he permitted as many of them as pleased to kiss his Hand, in token of his being well satisfi'd with that Heroick Exercise; The Prizes were two Silver Cups, and three dozen of Silver Spoons."

Finally, in his Postscript to the book, Wood reports with enthusiasm and optimism the Parade of 1682:

"On Friday the 21st of April, 1682, the Archers met in the Artillery Ground, marching through Cornhill, Fleetstreet, and the Strand to Tuttlefields. The King's most Excellent Majesty, his Royal Highness, and most of the Nobility, were so favourable as to Honour them with their Presence.

"There were at least a Thousand Archers in the Field; for now Gentlemen begin to be pleased with the Divertisement, and pleased with this Manly Recreation. There were Three Showers of Whistling Arrows; such a Sight, such a Noyse, and such an Appearance, it's presumed was never seen in England on the like Occasion; yet we hope that every year will beget new Lovers of this profitable and harmless Exercise."

8. Sir William Wood's Clerkenwell Memorial

Fig 3:The memorial to Sir William Wood in the church of St James, Clerkenwell

Sir William Wood died in 1691, at what was then the quite advanced age of 82. He was buried in the churchyard of St James, Clerkenwell, with full archer's honours of three flights of whistling arrows shot over his grave.

A century later in 1791, when the current church was built, The Toxophilite Society recovered his gravestone and placed the inscription from it on to a rather grand memorial tablet inside the church. It is still there today, mounted on the wall in the south east corner of the church, to the right of the altar (Fig 3).

These are the words on the memorial; the verse is rather excruciating but the sentiments were obviously heartfelt as a tribute to the great man:

Sir WILLIAM WOOD lyes very near this Stone
In's time in Archery Excell'd by none.
Few were his Equalls, and this Noble Art
Has suffer'd now in the most tender part.
Long did he live the honour of the Bow,
And his long life to that alone did owe.
But how can Art secure, or what can save
Extreame Old age From an appointed grave?
Surviving Archers much his losse lament,
And in respect bestow'd this Monument,
Where whistling Arrowes did his worth proclaim
And Eterniz'd his Memory and Name.
Obijt Sept.4th Anno Dni.1691 Aetat 82.

9. After Sir William Wood

Fig 4: The Catherine of Braganza Shield, now in the V&A Museum.

Following Sir William's death, archery in London, deprived of his leadership and inspiration, declined again quite rapidly.

As noted in the earlier paper on The Finsbury Marks, the HAC last mapped the marks in 1737, and by then only 21 of them were left, in a much-reduced area; with declining levels of participation, the archers were in no position to resist the increasing encroachments on to the common land of the Finsbury Fields. Twenty years later in 1757, the Society of Finsbury Archers was dissolved.

The next archery revival came later that century, when The Toxophilite Society (later to become The Royal Toxophilite Society, as it still exists today) was founded in 1781. Some surviving members of the Society of Finsbury Archers joined it, including the Society's last 'Captain of Easter Targets', Mr Philip Constable Senior.

Mr Constable had taken care of the remaining property of the Society of Finsbury Archers, and on joining in 1781 donated it to The Toxophilite Society, thus preserving a historic link and affiliation. This property included the Catherine of Braganza Shield, which Sir William Wood had bequeathed to the Society of Finsbury Archers on his death.

The Shield (Fig 4) is prized as a rare silver artefact of its time, one of the few connected with Queen Catherine, and since 1929 has been preserved on permanent loan in the Silver Department of the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington. It is 14.5 inches high, 12 inches wide, and weighs 15 ounces.

As noted above, The Toxophilite Society in 1791 restored the memorial to Sir William Wood at Clerkenwell Church (Fig 3). In 1793 the Society also commissioned the familiar engraving of him in Marshall's uniform with the Braganza Shield (Fig 1).

The Shield was originally housed in a substantial wooden case, two interior panels of which contained painted portraits of William Wood with the Shield. The engraving was made from one of the portraits. The two portraits themselves also survive, and currently hang in the hallway of The Royal Toxophilite Society's Archers' Lodge in Burnham.

Postscript 1: Archery and Bellringing

Many City of London churches had some bells in the 16th century, and we know from various Churchwardens' Accounts that the bells were often rung to mark civic occasions as well as church festivals. First-hand descriptions are rare, however, and it is particularly interesting to find mention of bellringers in the eyewitness account of the 1583 Grand Archery Parade, as reproduced in 'The Bowman's Glory':

"Then last of his Train came the Baron Stirrop. This Baron brought a seemly Show of good Archers, all with green Ribbons about their Neck, and Escucheons in their Caps with the gilded Stirrop: Who, besides his great Cost and Charges in Feasting of his Archers, did chuse many good Ringers of his Neighbours, who in the Morning early did Ring at the chiefest Churches about London, for the honour of the Duke and his Company, feasting them in most commendable manner for their pains, who in the going out of the Duke through the City, did also Ring the Bells in many chief Churches all the way he went, and likewise at his coming home, to their great pains and labour."

Postscript 2: The Clerkenwell Archers

There are only two known surviving references to the Clerkenwell Archers. The first is when they appear as one of the early groups in the 1583 Grand Parade, under the leadership of their 'Marquess':

"Then came the Marquess of Clarkenwell with Hunters, who having been abroad with their Hounds, did wind their Horns, so that the noise of them, together with the yelling and yelping of the Hounds, and the whooping and hollowing of their Pages which followed, there was such a delight taken by the hearers thereof, as is worth Memory; which Marquess coming with his Forester, profered his Service to the Duke, which he thankfully accepted; which Hunters were under the Earl of Pancridge, whose two sons being nephews to the Duke, came with their power of Knights, Barons and Squires, accompanied with many good and excellent Archers, taking place, to the honour of the Duke, into the Field."

So the Clerkenwell Archers of the 16th century appear to have been active hunters with hounds, rather noisy, and quite well-connected.

The second surviving reference is 104 years later, in an advertisement appearing in 'The Tatler' in 1707:

All gentlemen who are lovers of the ancient and noble exercise of archery are invited by the Stewards to the Annual Feast for the Clerkenwell Archers, to Dine with them at Mrs Mary Barton's, at the sign of Sir John Oldcastle, upon Friday the 18th Day of July, 1707, at One of the Clock, and to pay the Bearer, Thomas Beaumont, Marshall to the Regiment of Archers, 2s.6d., taking a sealed ticket, that the certain Number may be known, and Provision made accordingly. Nath. Axtall, esq. and Edward Broomwich, gent. Stewards.

Perhaps the Clerkenwell Archers by the early 18th century had become a dining club, although it is interesting that the 'Bearer', Thomas Beaumont, was also Marshall to the Regiment of Archers (as Sir William Wood had been), thereby indicating a close relationship with the Society of Finsbury Archers, which existed until 1757.

The current 'Sir John Oldcastle' pub is in Farringdon Road, Clerkenwell, but the 1707 one was in Cold Bath Fields, a newly fashionable area based around the discovery in 1697 of a cold spring which was turned into a health spa. It was located in what is now the Rosebery Avenue and Exmouth Market area, to the north of Clerkenwell.

Sources and Acknowledgments

'The Bowman's Glory, or Archery Revived' by William Wood, 1682, reprinted in facsimile with preface by E.G. Heath by S.R. Publishers Ltd in collaboration with the Society of Archer-Antiquaries and the Grand National Archery Society, 1969.

'Ayme for Finsburie Archers' by James Partridge, 1628, republished with additional material by W.C. Books, Whitnash, 1988.

'The History of the Honourable Artillery Company' by Captain G A Raikes, 1878.

'From Quill to Computer, A History of The Royal Toxophilite Society' by Peter A Gerrie, published by The Royal Toxophilite Society, 2006.

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