Archer of Ossett

Origins of the Name

Most people had surnames by the 1400s. Because Archer is an occupational name, the surname would have arisen in many different areas, in men who were not actually related to each other. It’s very surprising, therefore, that the biggest concentration of families of the name “Archer” resided in the woollen towns of the West Riding of Yorkshire at the time of the 1881 Census.

In times of war, men would be mustered to serve in the army. Famously, King Harold Godwinson was said to have been killed by a Norman archer at Hastings in 1066…and  it was during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) that the longbow became famous for playing a major role in the great English victories at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415).

In “The Medieval Archer”, John Gillingham says that the typical Archer was thought to be a relatively humble person “men without worth and without birth”. However, Archers could and did rise through the ranks. The Universities of Reading and Southampton published a quarter of a million service records of men who saw active duty in the 100 years’ War. Among them is a Robert de Fishlake, who was enlisted in 1378 at the age of 16 and who progressed from archer to man-at-arms. This database is available online, at this link. I put the name Archer into the search box and  found hundreds of soldiers who were listed with the surname Archer, fighting from Aquitaine to Agincourt, from Scotland to Ireland, and guess what their position was in the army? ARCHERS!!! Along with the Archers (of that surname) were an equal number of Fletchers, who were also serving as archers, as might be expected.

Of the men who were mustered into the medieval army, most would serve as archers or foot soldiers. The type of archers who were used in battle in this country were long-bowmen, not cross-bowmen. Archers with longbows were better suited to all-out battle than were crossbowmen. Whilst the crossbow was a formidable weapon and had enormous speed and power, the rate of fire was a distinct disadvantage. The crossbowman had to wind up the tension on his bow before he could release the trigger and fire an arrow. The crossbow was therefore more suitable to the longer slower siege situation. In England, up to half of the army may have been composed of archers…and no doubt some of them became known by that name.

Mustering for war

Just before the Civil War, Parliament had granted 20,000 archers to King Charles I and many of those would be recruited on a national basis from the poorer elements of towns and villages through a “Commission of Array”. But an archer’s position in society was increasingly a respected one and, although archers did not generally reach the dizzy heights of the gentry, they were nevertheless seen in the rank of Yeoman. During the Wars of the Roses, both the Yorkists and the Lancastrians would muster troops from the general population to support their campaigns. Different estimates exist of how many men were mustered, but an estimate is that one in thirty of the population were mustered by both sides.

The Butts

Archery was a necessary pursuit in medieval England. In King Edward IV’s reign (1471-1483), an Act of Parliament was passed, decreeing that every Englishman should have a longbow of his own size, and butts should be made in every township, at which the inhabitants should shoot every feast-day, or face a halfpenny fine. A “butt” is a mound of earth built especially for archery target practice. These butts had to be kept in very good repair since the practice of archery was looked upon as a necessary part of every man’s training. There is an area in Ossett, off West Wells, called the “Blue Butts”, and this may well be where Ossett’s long-bowmen practised their craft in medieval times. 


In researching Ossett’s Blue Butts I found that a piece of land of that name was in the possession of my Archer ancestors in the 1800s! Naturally I wonder if that had been the case back when archery was practised there 400 years earlier.

Archer of Ossett

Part of the 1775 Map of Yorkshire, showing the proximity of Soothill parish (Earlsheaton and Chickenley) to Ossett Streetside and Ossett Town. Dewbury to Ossett is a distance of about 3 miles.

My Archer family can be traced back to parishes in Dewsbury from the late 1500s and my branch of the family comes from Chickenley and Earlsheaton (together forming the parish of Soothill (pronounced “sutil”) ) and later moving to nearby Ossett, a parish also originally in Dewsbury. 

The first mention of an Archer in the parish records of Dewsbury was in 1581, with the baptism of a child, the daughter of Thomas Archer and his wife Ellen. The child’s name is not in the printed parish records, but she was almost certainly Ffrauncis (or Frances), my ninth great-grandmother.

Thomas is estimated to have been born about 1557 and probably not in Dewsbury. Thomas and Ellen may have married about 1579-1580 and their daughter Elizabeth was probably born before 1581 in another parish…but four more children of the marriage, after Ffrauncis, were baptised at Dewsbury Parish Church (Dewsbury Minster as it now is), between 1585 and 1595…they were Elline, Richarde, Susann and Jennet. Thomas became a Churchwarden at Dewsbury Parish Church, so we might expect that there are no errors and omissions in his family’s entries in the parish records once he had settled in Dewsbury Parish! After Thomas’s wife Ellen died in 1630, Thomas quickly re-married to Elizabeth Maunsfield in September 1630, but he died and was buried in Dewsbury in March 1631/2.

I am descended from three of Thomas’s children…Ffrauncis, Richarde and Elline, through my Hemingway, Archer and Greenwood lines respectively. Richarde married Maria Copley and they certainly lived in Soothill Nether, in Chickenley, where he died in 1668. Ffrauncis and her husband, Richard Hemmyngwaye, lived in Soothill Nether, in Earlsheaton. Elline and Abraham Greenwood were recorded as “of Dewsbury”. Those three families paved the way for my Archer and related ancestors right up to the early 20th century.

However, tracing the family before 1581 has been impossible. When did Archers first settle in the Dewsbury parish? We can find plenty of records of Archer in the Wakefield Manor Court Rolls in the 13th Century. It is therefore possible that our Archers are descended from Archer families of Wakefield, being adjacent to the parish of Ossett and close to Soothill…the road from Wakefield passed through Ossett, then Chickenley and Earlsheaton on its way to Dewsbury and Halifax.

Archers in the Wakefield Manor Court Rolls 1285-1309

We know there were Archers in Wakefield from at least the 13th Century.

There are several references to men and women with the surname Archer appearing in the Manor Court Rolls of Wakefield…but they were all living in Wakefield, not Ossett, Chickenley, Earlsheaton or Dewsbury.

  • In 1285: “Wakefeud – William de Wrydelesforth, for dry wood, 6d; pledge William the Goldsmith. Richard Archur, for the like, 6d. same pledge.”
  • In 1297: “Wakefeud – A stray coyllard is in John Pollard’s custody and at William Archur’s house.” (A coyllard…is a ram, from the French “coillart”.)
  • 1297: “Wakefeud – William Archer (?) gives 12d. for a stray coyllard; pledge, John Pollard.”
  • 1298 “Wakefeud Pledges, Walter de Alverthorpe and Henry Archer
  • 1307 Wakefield ledges “Cicely Archur 4d”
  • Wakefeud 1307 “Henry Archur obstructed the common way through the hayfields [? perfenile] 6d”
  • Wakefeud 1308 “Henry Archur’s wife 2d for dry wood”
  • Wakefeud 1308 “Maggie Archur 4d for dry wood”
  • Wakefeud 1308 “John Cussing v Robert Archur for trespass by the same”
  • Wakefeud 1309 “Henry Archur’s wife 2d for dry wood”

1379 Poll Tax

The 1379 Poll Tax was graded by social class, with the lower age limit changed from the previous 14 to 16, and to 15 two years later. The minimum amount of tax payable was 4 pence. However, tax collectors had to collect an average of 12 pence per head. Payments were therefore variable; the poorer in society would pay the lowest rate (4 pence) with the deficit being met by a higher payment from those able to afford it. So the rich would pay more than the poor. Paupers did not pay at all. “Exemption of the poor” meant that about 40% of inhabitants of any village or town were not counted.

The name of Archer does not appear in the Subsidy Rolls (Poll Tax) for the year 1379 in Ossett, Dewsbury or Soothill…not in Mirfield, Wakefield, Horbury or Stanley, Birstall, Sandal or East Ardsley. If there were any Archers in these parishes, they were poor men and not recorded…or they were away garrisoned with the armies, since 1379 was right in the middle of the second phase of the 100 Years’ War.

I found just one Archer in the West Yorkshire Poll Tax Rolls. In Stainland, a parish of Halifax, there was just one Archer who paid 4 pence tax in 1379 – this was a Ricardus (Richard) Archer, carpenter and wife.

16th to 20th Century

By the end of the 16th Century and early 17th Century, we find Archer families established in Dewsbury parish, notably in Soothill Nether, (Earlsheaton and Chickenley), adjacent to Ossett…and a century later my Archer family in Ossett  had enough means to own or lease property and to leave wills. (See Wills section). It is probable that they were all descended from Thomas and Ellen.

From the 17th century, possibly before, the Archers were blacksmiths and they became textile machine builders. In the 19th century and beyond, with the boom in Ossett’s Shoddy and Mungo mills, most of my Archer family worked in textiles, some as the owners of textile engineering works and others as humble rag sorters. While some of my Archer ancestors became respected textile machine makers, others became embroiled in industrial espionage during the Napoleonic Wars, or in petty crime, one illegally took machinery plans to America; others were conscripted to the army where one was sent to Passchendaele and his son was involved in the Normandy Landings and later the relief of Bergen Belsen Concentration camp. Some emigrated permanently, some became bankrupt and others were committed to the lunatic asylum. However, none were boring and their stories appear on these blog pages…so, please enjoy!

error: © Christine Widdall - Kirklees Cousins
© Christine Widdall
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