Chiswell Archer

is at 14-20, Longbow House. In 1315 a large area known as Bunhill Fields was leased to the City of London, probably to be used, amongst other things, for archery practice. Eventually about two square miles of Islington fields were turned into the archery equivalent of a golf course with 194 targets.

In 1498, as the musket replaced the longbow, part of this area was made into an artillery ground. The Honourable Artillery Company still occupies the land it was granted then, north of this, 1950s-60’s building. Its designers have referred back to the archery history with this bold, primitive relief.

Inside Armoury House of the HAC is an interestingly battered stone with a nearby plaque: “This ancient mark or Rover is one of a number of similar stones used by the HAC for archery from 1537 to 1792 and which formerly extended from the Artillery Ground to Islington Common. It was removed to this spot from the wall near the Canal Bridge in the New North Road, 26th July 1881.” And nearby is a small framed map, showing the location of the ‘similar stones’ and the measurements between them. A caption reads “This plan shows the position of the ancient stone shooting marks which formerly extended from the Artillery Ground to Islington Common, the last of which, bearing the inscription “Scarlet”, was removed from the wall near the Canal Bridge in the New North Road and erected at the Armoury House, 26 July 1881.” It is believed this area was known as the Finsbury Marks.

Although the longbow was in decline as a weapon of war (its last decisive use was at Flodden in 1513), archery remained a popular activity in London throughout the 16th century, encouraged by successive monarchs. The earliest surviving map of London, the ‘Copperplate’ map of 1558 depicts archery taking place in Spitalfields, and also in Finsbury Fields, north of Moorgate.

The word ‘artillery’ comes from the French ‘arc tirer’, to draw a bow, and the Artillery Company (later to become the Honourable Artillery Company) was originally a company of archers. Before 1650 it was headquartered in the Artillery Gardens in Spitalfields, near today’s Artillery Lane and Artillery Passage; the 1558 map also shows musketry being practised there, with little puffs of smoke.

Archery in Finsbury Fields was more public, taking place on 11 acres of ground north of Chiswell Street which had been allocated for the purpose by the Mayor of London in 1498. Located around Finsbury Fields was a series of ‘archery marks’, the Finsbury Marks, as targets to be shot at in turn. The Finsbury Marks were 3-4 feet high, originally made of wood (later stone), each with a slot in the top to hold its individual identifying emblem. A fine engraving survives of King Charles I shooting in Finsbury Fields. The objective was to land your arrow as close to the mark as possible; then whoever was closest had the honour of choosing the next mark to aim at.

A succession of small books entitled ‘Ayme for Finsburie Archers’ was known to have been published in 1590, 1594, 1601 and 1628, listing all the Finsbury Marks then in use. The earliest map of the marks that survives is from 1594, when there were 194 of them. The names ranged from the simple (‘Lion’, ‘Pigeon’, ‘Star’) to the fanciful (‘Kings Kindness’, ‘Aeolus’, ‘Parks of Pleasure’), and several were named for archers of the day (‘Pritchard’s Hope’, ‘Hodge’s Pleasure’, ‘Baines his Needle’).

Just a few of the names on the 1594 map help us identify their locations: ‘Bunhill’ at the south, ‘St Leonard’s’ to the east, and ‘Rosemary Branch’ in the north, the name of an inn that was a frequented inn en route.  Bowyers and Fletchers sold their wares to the Finsbury Fields archers in the notorious Grub Street (now Milton Street), between Chiswell Street and Cripplegate. The pre-Fire Bowyers’ Hall was nearby, just inside the City wall, off Wood Street.

Interest in archery had held up well during the 16th century, but its effective military role had disappeared, and in 1595 the decision was made to stop enrolling archers for military training.

The Finsbury Fields were at some risk too: villagers had been encroaching on to the archery fields, and Stow reported in 1598 that “by closing in on the common grounds, our archers, for want of room to shoot, creep into bowling alleys and dicing houses, where they have room enough to hazard their money at unlawful games.”

Successive monarchs did their best: in 1605 King James I decreed that the Finsbury Fields be protected for archery and in 1633 King Charles I decreed that archery should be practised on Sunday afternoons, after divine service. Unfortunately, not much notice seems to have been taken of Royal Decrees.

After the disruptions of the Civil War, the Honourable Artillery Company moved its headquarters from the Artillery Gardens in Spitalfields to its present Armoury House ground in Bunhill Fields, and took over the management of the Finsbury Marks, later remaking them in stone.

But the decline had set in, and whereas 3,000 archers had paraded in 1583, only 350 archers paraded in 1675. By 1737 only 21 Finsbury Marks remained, and after 1786 no further attempt was made to preserve their use.

‘Perambulations of Islington’ in 1858 reported that only two stone pillars were still standing: ‘Whitehall’, dated 1683, with the HAC coat of arms on a small iron plate, and ‘Scarlet’, which was later built into the brickwork of a canal bridge on the New North Road, whence the HAC recovered it in 1881. The only known surviving mark, it is now on display in Armoury House.


photo Flickr  Chiswell Archer | by MisterPeter!




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