"Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt" are precious names in English history, and serve as an appropriate motto to the Arms of the Bowyers' Company, which perpetuates the traditions of one of the most romantic of mediaeval industries, the making of bows. As long as there are bowmen there were bowyers. Maybe the earliest bowmen were Bowyers as well, in an amateurish way; but there is reason to believe that in a very remote time, the making of bows became a distinct trade, and that some of the best bows were made in London.
The Late Medieval Period
For years the London Bowyers existed by prescription as a fraternity, and it is remarkable that they were not formally incorporated until archery was on the wane. An early reference to a bowyer is the name of Ivo le Bowyere, whose misdemeanours brought him into conflict with the Abbot of Westminster. A freeman of the City of London, he successfully defied the Abbot by the defence that he was not subject to a Court outside the City walls. The longbow became central to English military strategy under Edward I and Edward III. From 1300 onwards, bowyers increasingly came to London hoping for large orders from the King's Bowyer, or Master Provider of the King's Bows, who had a special workshop and residence in the Tower of London. Most of them lived in Ludgate, later known as 'Bowierrowe', and made longbows, crossbows, arrows and bolts interchangeably.
The victories of Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), and later Agincourt (1415), put the seal on the longbow's fame throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In these battles the English were outnumbered about three to one and owed their superiority in the field to the English archer. He carried the longbow, a large and stiff weapon. He drew the string to his ear instead of his breast as the shortbowmen did. How many members of the family L'Anglois realise that they are probably descended from a liaison between a French woman and an English bowman or bowyer?
The scale of manufacturing of bows and arrows is noteworthy. In 1342 Edward III, in preparing for an invasion of France ordered, 7,000 bows and 3 million arrows. In 1360, Rothwell, the Keeper of the King's Privy Wardrobe at the Tower, had the following "on charge": 4,062 painted bows, 11,303 white bows, 4,000 bow staves and 23,646 sheaves of arrows (a sheave being 24). It is interesting to speculate that some women were employed in the craft for it is on record that that some of the blacksmiths in the Tower of London were women. They would of course be capable of running the family business in the absence of their men folk on campaign.
The wars made some master bowyers rich, despite government restraints and regulated prices. A 'Mystery' was a trade, occupation or craft; or the guild of craftsmen so engaged. It is a 14th Century term from a Medieval Latin root. The 'mystery' of the Bowyers was not recognised as a City Company until 1363. That same year Edward III issued the Act whereby archery practice was made compulsory for all able bodied men between sixteen and sixty years of age. Every Sunday and feast day they were to go to the butts to learn and practice the art of shooting. Novices would begin with lightweight bows and progress to heavier ones once their skill and strength increased.
The Company instituted a system of apprenticeship to ensure that the workmanship and hence the product was maintained at a high quality. Boys were bound to a master by indentures for seven years. An indenture dated 1371 between a young Nicholas de Kyghlay and bowyer John de Bradley required the apprentice "to keep his master's secrets, and his council". And "he was not to do him any damage to the value of sixpence per year or more, not of it done without preventing it to the best of his power or warning his master thereof forthwith." His leisure time was also strictly controlled. "He shall not play at dice, he shall not be in the habit of frequenting taverns, gaming houses or brothels." At the same time in anticipation of forthcoming puberty and the onset of sexual awareness, he was specifically forbidden to "commit adultery with the wife or daughter of the aforesaid master under pain of doubling his servitude, or contract marriage with any woman or marry her within the period of the indenture unless with the consent of his aforesaid master." In return for all this "John de Bradley shall inform Nicholas of his craft which he uses of bowyercraft and in buying and selling." He shall also provide food, drink linen and woollen clothing, bedding, footwear, and all other necessaries. These prescriptions were quite standard although additional odd items could be added.
In 1370, however, the Fletchers and Bowstring Makers broke away to form separate companies; and demarcation disputes over supervision arose between them until 1429, when a city ordinance defined their respective spheres.
Not until 1487/88 did the Bowyers acquire a coat of arms and a set of coherent written ordinances.
By the 1490s the price of imported wood was causing them acute embarrassment. Though legend has it that yew trees were grown in church yards, the only enclosed area of a village to protect livestock from eating the poisonous wood, English yew was most unsuitable for the manufacture of bows. The supply of bow staves made of yew from Spain, Italy or Scandinavia was a very productive trade. By a statute of Edward IV the Italian merchants in London were bound to import bow staves into England, and a statute of Richard III ordained that no "Merchant of Venice nor any other that useth to repair to this realm with merchandise unless the same merchants did bring with every butt of Malmsey wine, bow staves of good and able stuffs upon pain of forfeiture if 13s10d for every butt of wine so brought".
Bows of the best kind were made of yew, and laws had to be framed to prevent the supply of wood falling short, so in a statute of the reign of Henry VIII it was ordered that no person under 17 years, except he or his parents had lands or tenements to the yearly value of £10.00 or be worth 40 Marks sterling should shoot with any bow of yew under penalty of 6s 8d (two florins). This was apparently to restrain the wilful destruction of yew wood by young and ignorant persons. Common people were to use bows of other woods, and the bowyers were instructed to make 4 bows "meet to shoot with" of elm, wych hazel, ash or other wood to every one of yew or to be fined 3s 4d for every such bow lacking. Even this personal interest of Henry VIII in archery could not save the longbow now. By 1547, when he died, its military supremacy was over.
The real challenge however came later, with improved handguns from Germany after 1517, and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the craft continued to decline. In 1566 the price of the best bows of foreign wood was to be 6s 8d, a second sort 3s 4d and the coarser sort and those made of English yew 2s.
In 1570, the "decayed Companies of Bowyers and Fletchers, Stringers and arrowhead makers" as they styled themselves jointly petitioned Lord Burleigh for a prohibition of unlawful games and the enforcement of the exercise of the longbow. Lord Burleigh interested himself so much in their favour that a commission was granted to put the statute made for the "maintenance and exercise of shooting in the longbow and the debarring of unlawful games" into full force. Commissioners were appointed in every county to take due and lawful search, as well for such as used in unlawful games, as also that every person, for himself, his servants and others had sufficient bows and arrows, and occupied the same according to statute. This commission not answering the purpose intended, another was issued in 1571, wherein the commissioners were required to certify to the Lord Chancellor or Lord Keeper for the time being in how many towns and parishes the commission had been executed, and the effect produced.
The Bowyers Company, despite the decline in trade, made strenuous efforts to maintain both its prestige and the continuance of such business as might arise from the use of the bow for exercise and sporting purposes. In 1621 it obtained a Charter from James I formally creating it a body corporate and setting out the rules for its Governance, most of which remain in force to-day.
James I expressed his willingness "as such as in him did lie to restore the ancient and laudable exercise of archery with the longbow unto the end that the said fraternity might with better encouragement and practice their trade". A Master, two Wardens and ten assistants were appointed with power to elect a clerk and a beadle. The Charter further declared that all freemen of the Company, and all persons of the Mistery within three miles of the City and suburbs, should be contributory to the Company, paying 8d a quarter. This Charter was confirmed by Charles II in 1666.
A member of the Livery, James Wood, an Assistant when the Company was incorporated, by his will dated 1st August 1625, left to the Company his manor of Isley Walton in Leicestershire, the income from which after a payment of a number of charitable donations was to be used to acquire a Hall. James Wood died in 1629. For what ever reason this was never done and the estate was sold by the Company in 1889. The Company also provided three scholarships to Oxford and two to Cambridge for sons of the Company's Freemen, "if there should be any such, but if not then for five poor scholars from Christchurch School in London, or such others as the Master and Wardens think fit". Each scholar would receive £6 a year for seven years. Further the Company was to bestow upon six poor men or widows, free of the Company, every Michaelmas , broadcloth or money.
Every alternate year on the Thursday after St James Day (25th July) on the occasion of the election of the Master and Wardens, the Court and the Livery were to attend service at the Parish Church of St Nicholas Cole Abbey, "to hear a sermon and then to give the parson 20s for his sermon and to the Clerk and Sexton of the Church 1s 6d a piece, and to the Churchwardens for the use of the poor of the said parish 10s, to the Beadle 2s, and unto the poor people they shall meet coming and going 15s in two pences."
James Wood was buried in the Chancel of the Church of St Nicholas Cole Abbey with his two wives Mary Pate and Margaret Browne. A bronze memorial was placed on the floor of the new church in 1902. During the second World War the Church was very badly damaged in the 'Blitz'. During this time many members of the Livery were serving in the armed forces but nevertheless the connection with the Church was maintained and at the time of St James' Day the Master, Wardens, Clerk and a few members of the Livery would gather in the ruins for a brief act of worship and thanksgiving.
The Company continued to attend St Nicholas Cole Abbey until 1978 when the Church was made pastorally redundant. The then vicar, the Company's Chaplain, the Reverend Prebendary Alan Tanner, moved to become the Rector of St Botoloph's without Bishopsgate and the Company moved with him. Members of the Company attend a biannual service of remembrance in the Church and place a wreath on the bronze memorial in the Church to this day.
Provision was also made for the yeomanry of the Company and for the poor of Isley Walton, and the Company was to keep the residue of the income towards the purchase of a Hall, or to otherwise to be employed at its discretion for the good of the Company. James Wood also gave to the Company £100 "to be lent out to four honest, sober and discreet young man of the said company by even portions at 3 percent for two years and the interest to be distributed by the Master and Wardens unto and amongst the poorest of the Freemen of the Company at their discretion".
The proceeds appear to have been almost entirely lost in the crash of the stock market after the First World War. Wood's generosity has however never been forgotten and a silent toast to his memory is drunk at every Livery Dinner.
Hanoverian and Victorian Times
Through out the late 17th and 18th centuries most Livery companies suffered from a decline in trade partly because many were founded to control the standard of the supply of items more common in the medieval household. Furthermore social changes meant that many of the members, particularly of the more influential companies, were no longer tradesmen. A new role therefore developed. By the 19th century, whilst some such as the Goldsmiths', the Vintners' and the Stationers' continued to have an important influence upon their trades, many of the others, some possessed of considerable and valuable property, had turned their attention towards charitable activities.
Bowyer Lord Mayors
Members of the Bowyers' Company have played their part in the governance of the City of London through the centuries. Until 1741, when the Mansion House was built, liverymen who were members of smaller livery companies were obliged to "emigrate" to one of the so-called "great twelve". These were the largest and richest companies which had halls of sufficient grandeur to sustain the office of Lord Mayor. This was not the case with the Bowyers, so it is not known if any Bowyers became Lord Mayor before that year.
Since then there have been three Bowyer Lord Mayors. Alderman Thomas Sainsbury (1786), Alderman Thomas Quested Finnis (1856) Alderman Sir Sir Roger Cork (1996). Alderman Finnis was the last Lord Mayor whose procession floated on the River Thames to the Royal Courts of Justice; hence the use of the word "float" with respect to carnival processions.
The Bowyers' were never wealthy but joined the others in developing a role which not only retained the principles and customs of the ancient Livery Companies but also provided assistance to charitable institutions. Today the Company's charity focuses particularly upon the disabled, many of whom derive both pleasure and therapeutic benefit from the use of the longbow.
The Bowyers' are one of the many Livery Companies to-day which keep alive the spirit of the men who, over the ages, found in their Company, not just the training and skills to protect their craft, but also companionship, security and spiritual guidance.
Among its present day activities, the Company plays its part in civic meetings and functions in the City of London as well as holding its own social occasions. It presents archery prizes at a number of competitions to encourage the fast growing sport and is closely connected with the Royal Toxophilite Society. Recently in association with the Craft Guild of Traditional Bowyers and Fletchers a certification system, to encourage the raising and maintaining of craft standards, has been created. The Company has its own charitable trust which gives financial assistance to a number of charities, including furtherance of education and help for the disabled, aged and infirm, and in particular to archers with disabilities.
Agincourt by Juliet Barker
Arrows to Atom Bombs - A History of the Ordnance Board by Norman Skentlebery
Celestine by Gillian Tindall
Longbow by Robert Hardy
Such Goodly Company by Barbara Megson
The Crooked Stick by Hugh Soar
Other Livery Companies
For a complete list of Livery Companies, with pictures of their Masters and one-click links to the Company websites (and detailed maps of Hall locations), please visit www.liverycompanies.com