Medieval Archery and the Archers of Ossett

Origins of the Name

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 charges 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.

Many archers would be recruited on a national basis from the poorer elements of towns and villages through a “Commission of Array”. Up to half of the army may have been composed of longbowmen…and, as surnames became the norm, no doubt some of them became known by the name of Archer, Fletcher, Bowyer or Bowman. Most people had surnames by the 1400s. The surname “Archer” 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 concentrations of families of the name “Archer”, at the time of the 1881 Census, resided around London and Yorkshire and particularly in the woollen towns of the West Riding of Yorkshire. My father always wanted to be descended from Robin Hood but the Archers of Ossett is the best I can do.

Development of the Longbow

Let’s go back in time to the 12th Century. A bow made from wych elm had been invented by the Celts in South Wales and much of what is known about the Welsh archers is from the writing of Anglo-Norman nobleman called Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald of Wales, in the 1180s. He described these elm bows as not very long, about 4 ft 6 inches, drawn to the chest and made for shooting over short distances, They were not as accurate as the crossbow. Gerald wrote, however, that they could penetrate through an armoured horseman’s hip and into his saddle. Curiously the bow was not used by Celts of North Wales, Ireland or Scotland.

The Normans had used the horizontal cross-bow at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In 1277, the English King Edward I used 106 mounted Gascon crossbowmen alongside 3600 South Welshmen with elm bows to put down the rebellion of the North Welsh under Madog ap Llewewellyn. The springier and strong self-yew bow began to be introduced at this time which could shoot over longer distances than the elm bow. Edward’s battle strategy now changed and by 1295, he had devised a plan to interleave yew bowmen with cavalry, which incurred devastating damage on the north Welsh, who only carried spears. This was the first time that the yew bow had come to the fore in battle and Edward set about building a professional army with a defined structure, which was to include archers. In Edward’s battle against the Scots at Falkirk in 1298, his knights made little headway until the archers and infantry arrived, when the battle quickly turned and the Scots were defeated.

Now, the bow was adopted by the English military and archers became a vital part of the structure of the army. Archers were used to start the battle with an arrowstorm against the front lines of the enemy…or they could be used on opposite flanks to drive the enemy into a funnel shaped area and shoot at them from the sides.

Between 1310 and 1320, the bow developed into the longbow and reached 6 feet in length, allowing it to shoot heavier arrows over longer distances when drawn to the ear. It was during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) that the longbow became famous for playing a major role in the great English victories against the French at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415). Legend has it that many of the archers were Welshmen, though that has been challenged in recent years and it is now known that at Crécy, where Edward III’s army numbering about 13,500, included 4,500 English and 2,000 Welsh archers.

When the Tudor warship, the Mary Rose, was raised from the Solent in 1982, 137 longbows were found in perfect condition, allowing them to be studied and exactly replicated by modern craftsmen. A combination of heartwood and sapwood allowed the bow to bend but retain strength. The length of a Tudor bowstave was now between 6 and 7 feet between the points of attachment for the cord. The original draw weight of examples from the Mary Rose, that’s the force needed to draw a bow, is estimated as 150–160 lb. Although the average distance over which an arrow was shot might be about 250 yards, a skilled archer could shoot an arrow up to half a mile from one of these longbows, at a rate of 12 per minute. The arrows were 3 feet long, iron tipped, and could break through chain-mail or take a horse down.


The Butts were practice areas where villagers could hone their archery skills. From 1252, every able bodied man between 15 and 60 must arm themselves with a bow. As the stronger longbow developed which needed much practice, a law was brought in during 1388, that all servants and labourers must practice archery at the butts on Sundays and Holy Days.

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. 


Also, in 1472, a law was passed that merchants who imported goods into the country must bring in four bowstaves for every ton of goods. Later this was amended to also require 10 bowstaves for every butt of wine imported. After 1503, customs duty was removed from imported bows that were longer than 6 feet, which is probably why the average length of the Mary Rose bowstaves was 6 ft 6 inches.

In 1574, a further Act required men over 24 to be able to hit a target over a distance of ten chains (220 yards). With no health and safety law, accidents happened, which were often fatal, but accidentally killing someone during archery practice was not usually punished.

A longbow became a valuable commodity and there are records of bows being left to male heirs in wills.

Every village and town would have a practice “butts”, which had to be maintained in good condition. In researching Ossett’s historic “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 300 years earlier.


In times of war, men would be mustered, or called up, to serve in the army.

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.

A skilled 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 Archer family 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 Dewsbury Parish from the late 1500s and my branch of the family comes from Chickenley and Earlsheaton (known as Soothill (pronounced “sutil”) ) and nearby Ossett, also originally in Dewsbury Parish. They may have originated in the Wakefield area, where there are several mentions of Archers in the Manorial Court records from the 13th century onwards at Horbury, Stanley and Alverthorpe.

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 probably 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 Elizabeth and 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 separately 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 husband Abraham Greenwood were recorded as “of Dewsbury”. Those three families paved the way for my Archer and related ancestors and Kirklees Cousins right up to the present.

However, tracing the family before 1581 has been impossible. So, 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, gradually migrating to Ossett, Chickenley and Earlsheaton…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 the Wakefield Manor from at least the 13th Century.

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

  • 1285: “Wakefeud – William de Wrydelesforth, for dry wood, 6d; pledge William the Goldsmith. Richard Archur, for the like, 6d. same pledge.”
  • 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 The sons of Robert Slenge and Nabbe Brodeye, the like, id. and 2d. Pledges, Walter de Alvirthorpe and Henry Archur.”
  • 1298 Stanley (a village near Wakefield): “John Bullok keeps a dog that has strangled two does. He finds pledges for satisfying the Steward therein, viz. William Attebarre, Hanecok le Nunne, William Archur, and Philip Wlf; fine, 21.”
  • 1307 Wakefield pledges “Cicely Archur 4d”
  • 1307 Wakefeud: “Henry Archur obstructed the common way through the hayfields [? perfenile] 6d”
  • 1308 Wakefeud: “Henry Archur’s wife 2d for dry wood”
  • 1308 Wakefeud: “Maggie Archur 4d for dry wood”
  • 1308 Wakefeud: “John Cussing v. Robert Archur, for trespass, by William Margeriman. Pledge, Henry s. of German.”
  • 1309 Wakefeud: “Henry Archur’s wife 2d for dry wood”
  • 1309 Alverthorpe: (a village near Wakefield): “Henry Archur raised the hue on John s. of Sibbe unjustly; i2d.”
  • 1309 Alverthorpe: Robert Hodde drew blood from the wife of Henry Archur; \2d. And from Juliana Horsse ; 1 2d.
  • 1309 Alverthorpe: “An inquisition finds that Robert Archur ousted John Cussing from the crop of a rood of land in the Graveship of Alverthorpe ; damages, 1 2d. ; fine, 6d.”
  • 1309 Hiperum: (Hipperholme is a village near Halifax) “Robert Archur, for default ; 6d.”
  • 1338 Halifax 26th Oct: “John Smythson likewise a messuage and 2 acres in Warulley, which are granted to William Archer to hold to himself and his heirs following the custom etc.; fine 12d.”
  • 1339 Wakefield 12th March: “For vert in the old park; Alice del Abbay 3d, William Hudelyn 2d, Robert Meggson 2d, William Atteline 2d, William Archer 2d. For trespass in the great wood: Thomas Molle 2d.”
  • 1339 Halifax 10th Oct: “Richard Sclater plaintiff and John son of Robert agree by licence in a plea of trespass. John is amerced 3d. William Archer plaintiff and John Smethson and William his brother likewise in a like plea. William Archer likewise 2d.”
  • 1340 Wakefield March: “Order is given to distrain William Couper, Robert Meggeson, William Anot, William Stele junior, William his brother, William son of Robert son of William, John his brother, John Hode, Thomas his brother, John Broun, Thomas son of Robert and John Jose who carried off timber from the mill-pond and bridge of Wakefeld. Also John Herward, Robert Tastard, Robert Walker and William Archer because they bought the said timber from the mill and bridge.”
  • 1340 Wakefield 21 April: “The jurors say that John Broun milner took timber from the mill-pond and bridge at Wakefeld to the value of 8d. John son of Robert son of William to the value of 12d. William his brother likewise 4d. William Anot likewise 12d. William Couper likewise 4d. William Stele junior likewise 8d. William his brother likewise 4d. Robert Meggeson likewise 2d. John Jose likewise 2d. Robert Walker likewise 3d. Thomas son of Robert likewise 6d. Thomas Hode likewise 3d. William Archer likewise Id. John Herward likewise 2d. Robert Tastard likewise Id. Fine 6s.”
  • 1340 Halifax 9th May: “Hugh de Langelay surrenders in court an acre in Werlouley (?Warley), which is granted to William Archer to hold to himself and his heirs following the custom of the manor; fine 6d.”

1379 Poll Tax

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.

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.

So, if there were any Archers in these parishes, they were poor men and not recorded…or perhaps they had been mustered and 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. I do not think he is likely to be of my family).

Archer of Ossett

The first mention of my earliest known Archer ancestor in Ossett, my tenth great grandfather Thomas, is in the Manor Court Rolls in January 1585. He would have been about 28 years old. He was the only Archer in the Dewsbury parish records, which also served Ossett at this time. At the Manor Court held at Ossett, in January 1585:

Thomas Archer was summoned to answer Edward Bayldon in a plea of debt and did not come; amerced 2d (punished with a fine of 2 pence)

Wakefield Manor Court Rolls at

16th to 21st Century

So, by the end of the 16th Century and early 17th Century, we find Archer families established in Dewsbury parish, notably in Ossett and the adjacent parish of Soothill Nether, (Earlsheaton and Chickenley)…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, my 10x great grandparents.

From the 17th century, possibly before, my own Archers were blacksmiths and they later became textile machine builders in the woollen industry. 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 (just put “Archer” into the search box accessed by the looking glass symbol on the menu bar)!