Sunday, April 14, 2013

Question from Ryan - Prince Arthur and archery

I've read online (on google books) that Prince Arthur was an expert at archery, that whenever he was in London he would join the archers on Mile End and practice with them. He came to be so good, that whenever there was a great archer he was nicknamed "Prince Arthur" the book I read was over a hundred and fifty years old, and I've never come across this in any modern biography, I was just wondering if anyone had come across this and if it was true? Or it was mistake from the Victorian age? I was under the impression Arthur was no athletic and that he was weak


Marilyn R said...

Could you tell us the name of the book? Victorian authors of popular history often 'filled the gaps' when information was thin on the ground.

Rylan said...

Sure its in "A Dictionary of Sports; Or, Companion to the Field, the Forest, and the Riverside" by Harry Harewood, and its in "The Old Sports of England" pg 61. Modern books don't really say much about Arthur so I thought it was a bit of an unusual passage about him being an 'Expert'.

Foose said...

I did find at least one modern historian testifying to Arthur's skill in archery. Apparently "Prince Arthur's Archers" were well-known enough in London to be mentioned by Shakespeare. An essay by chivalry specialist Kenneth Hodges, "Prince Arthur's Archers: Innovative Nostalgia in Early Modern Popular Chivalry" (found in Arthurian Literature, eds. Elizabeth Archibald, David Frame Johnson, 2010) discusses how archery enjoyed an elevated status after Agincourt, with archers laying claim to the models and privileges of chivalric culture.

According to Hodges, "Henry VII was a supporter of archery, and both his sons were very good at it. Prince Arthur's Archers ... started as companions of Henry VIII's brother Arthur, and after his brother died, Henry gave Londoners the right to continue the tradition, choosing an 'Arthur' for themselves and giving a demonstration once a year."

The original source for this essay, as well as the sentimentalizing Victorians you are rightly suspicious of, is John Stow, a 16th-century Tudor observer whose chronicles are standard sources for many historians. Stow's reference reads, "In King Henry's time, the Citizens used to exercise their sport of Shooting at Mile-End. The Chief of these Archers was called Prince Arthur, and the rest of them his knights ..."

However, it appears that many of the Victorian and earlier historians have confused the chief archer of this group being called Prince Arthur (his companions being called Lancelot and other famous knightly names in keeping with the Arthurian romance tradition) with the actual Prince Arthur Tudor himself. I can't find any intervening source that would have allowed Hodges to definitively assert that Arthur Tudor was an excellent archer and that the band started as his companions.

However, I'm very hesitant to impugn a modern historian who has undoubtedly checked all the sources, and whose essay I was only able to read in parts, owing to the Preview feature of Google Books that blocks out certain pages. There could be some scholarly study or some old Tudor source I haven't found that supports Hodges' assertions. Henry VIII certainly could draw a bow, and it's reasonable that Henry VII would have ordered much the same sports education for both his sons (probably he would approved archery as being much less dangerous than jousting). David Starkey and some other historians, I think, have disposed of the notion that Arthur was a feeble sickly creature.

So, sorry to say I can't be conclusive. It would be interesting, if Hodges is correct, that Henry memorialized his brother in some way - most books I read seems to indicate Henry VIII's accession resulted in a complete suppression of Arthur's existence until the Divorce suddenly made it useful to dredge him up.

Foose said...

According to modern historian John Guy, "Arthur was considered to be a fit and healthy teenager before he fell ill. The idea that he was generally 'weak and sickly' derives from a nineteenth-century misreading of a letter, written in Latin, that his father sent to Katherine [of Aragon]'s parents ... In it, Henry explained that Katherine had been allowed to accompany her young husband into Wales even though many people had advised against it, 'because of the tender age of our son.'

"Arthur was nine months younger than his wife, and Henry had been warned against the perceived dangers of allowing a 15-year-old boy to enjoy unlimited sex ..."

I can't find the letter online in the original Latin. However, some words in Latin that mean "tender" in the sense of "young," also have as secondary meanings "weak", "effeminate," "frail" and even "unmanly": mollis, tener. So this may be indeed how the legend of Arthur the weakling originated.