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The Archers of Ashover

The Archers of Ashover

[dropcaps]Traditionally bowmen from Ashover, Men of Asher as they were known, fought with Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt. Of them only the name of their leader, Thomas Babington remains, but as Brian Spencer discovered, one of the local pubs, The Crispin has direct links to that momentous event in English history.[/dropcaps]

Archery was an important part of every man’s life in medieval times, either for hunting, or to support his lord and master in battle. The word ‘butts’ is a common appendage to the locality of many villages. Ashover is one such place where in a private field a little way from domestic property, a line of earth ridges can still be seen.

This is where the butts or targets were set up and where the local archers fulfilled their legal obligation to practise their skills. The English, sometimes known as Welsh, longbows they used with great skill were upwards of 6ft 6inches (2metres) long and made from yew grown in churchyards up and down the land; the flax or hempen drawstrings needed 470 Newtons (105ft/lbs) to pull and loose an arrow towards a target 200yds away. As a result the left arms of longbow archers grew longer than their right, such was the strength needed to hold the fully stretched bow.

The crude two finger salute is also related to these men. It originated as proof that they had the strength and ability to pull back and hold a drawstring; it was the custom in those days to hack off the index and middle fingers of archers when they were taken prisoner. Although a prehistoric longbow dating from 2665BC was found at Ashcott Heath in Somerset and Ötsi the Iceman was carrying one, none survive from the Middle Ages. However, when Henry VIII’s flagship Mary Rose was raised from the Solent, it was found to be carrying 137 whole longbows and 3500 arrows.

Names linked to the industry of making bows and arrows remain with us to this day – if you are called Bowman, Archer, Fletcher (makers of arrow flights) or Arrowsmith, then it is a clear link to your ancestor’s profession. Clichés like ‘fast and loose’ (archery commands), or ‘adding another string to your bow’ can trace their origins to the military exploits of long ago. During the Middle Ages, battles tended to be set pieces governed by traditional rules of knightly chivalry.

Heavily armoured mounted noblemen would charge each other armed with lance and mace, but as every student of Shakespeare knows, this was all to change when King Henry V headed an expeditionary force across the Channel in order to regain England’s lost territories. Despite being heavily outnumbered with around 7000 Englishmen, many of whom were suffering from dysentery, against upwards of 36,000 mostly mounted French troops, Henry led his men in a series of hard fought battles.

Starting with an attack on the fortified seaport of Harfleur, where Shakespeare has Henry rallying his ‘band of brothers’ to go ‘once more into the breach dear friends’, his tiny army living on meagre rations marched inland in pouring rain to confront the much larger force at Agincourt. Hard though it was the rain became the ally of the English during the later battle. Known today by the French as Azincourt and inland between Calais and Boulogne, the Battle of Agincourt took place on 25 October 1415, Saint Crispin’s Day.

Heavily outnumbered, King Henry chose to hold his mounted knights to the rear, deploying his bowmen in the front rank and to both flanks. With a line of sharpened stakes pointing towards the French, skilled master bowmen placed poles as distance markers at intervals along what was to become the field of battle. As the French cavalry made their first and fatal charge, the lead archer gave the order to let loose their arrows. What happened next even the most optimistic Englishman could not have predicted. In their haste to be the first to capture or kill King Henry, the French armoured foot knights and horsemen were bunched up in a solid mass, making an unbelievably easy target for the English arrows.

Those Frenchmen not killed by the first volley were drowned as the crush of bodies pushed them into the mud. The rain that had tormented the English on their forced march now came to their aid. Maddened with blood lust the victorious English armed with leaden clubs set about slaughtering the survivors as they struggled to get away; bodies were stripped of armour and valuables, leaving the nude bloodied corpses for the crows. The classic film made as a morale booster during the second World War with Laurence Olivier as Henry V shows the arrows in the battle scene converging into a solid mass rather like a swarm of bees and with it the mounted French falling like wheat against the scythe.

Although without proof it is nice to imagine one of Henry’s band of brothers returning to Ashover and as Shakespeare puts it ‘—- strip his sleeve and show his scars, and say, these wounds I had on Crispin Day’. Maybe we can further imagine that proud medieval archer opening a pub next to the church and calling it The Crispin Inn, serving ale to ‘—- Gentlemen (who were) now a-bed (who) shall think themselves accursed they were not here’.

Thomas Babington of Dethick the local landowner who led the Bowmen of Ashover returned to his home and seems to have faded from history, no doubt relaxing on past glories. For a few centuries afterwards, Ashover enjoyed a degree of prosperity exploiting the rich veins of lead beneath the surrounding hills and quarrying good quality limestone. This prosperity manifests itself in the fact that another Thomas Babington a hundred years later was able to pay for expensive alterations to the parish church.

When he died in 1518 he was commemorated by the still painted effigy of him lying next to his wife Edith who had preceded him in 1511. A few years later another Babington, Anthony, was involved in a failed plot to free the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots and died horribly for his misguided bravery. The present Crispin Inn is certainly old, maybe built on the foundations of one older. It was certainly in business during the Civil War. A plaque on the wall nearest the church tells that in 1646, Job Wall, the then landlord and an ardent supporter of the Parliamentary Cause withstood a unit of the King’s Troops, refusing to sell them drink as they already had had too much.

Brave though he was he was turned out of his inn and forced to watch while all his ale was drunk or tipped on to the floor. The Parliamentary Roundheads who arrived later were not much better, if at all, for they stripped lead from the church windows in order to make bullets. ARCHERY TODAY – ALIVE AND FLOURISHING The medieval skills of archery are still with us even in the twenty-first century, albeit for more peaceful ends. Up and down Derbyshire and for that matter throughout the land, archery clubs using modern equipment, practise and compete in the way the Archers of Ashover would have done in days gone by. One of these clubs, the Derwent Bowmen, meet regularly on a sheltered field behind the Three Stags Heads at Gold Close near Darley Bridge.

Formed in 1962 the group of local archers of both sexes compete in the East Midlands Archery Society and Derbyshire County Archery Association trials. Along with competitive events, Derwent Bowmen also stage demonstrations such as that at the Chatsworth Country Fair. Although several members of the club favour the traditional longbow, most use hi-tech equipment with a complex array of sights and counter balances costing around £800 which would be the envy of those men who fought beside King Henry V at Agincourt. The Derwent Bowmen’s website gives all the details of membership and training days.

Alistair Plant


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