By Bill Pritchard
In the reign of King George Ill, under the Patronage of his eldest son George, (later the Prince Regent and King George IV), and other Royal Dukes, archery societies sprang up across Britain. The local gentry in north-east Wales took up this social craze from its first inception and made it an elitist activity. They called their newly formed body the Society of British Bowmen and at their second meeting on May 14th 1787 the President Sir Foster Cunliffe of Acton Hall, Wrexham, was informed by a note from his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales that he had been graciously pleased to take the Society under his patronage and that it should assume the title of Royal and that he should annually give 2 prizes to be shot for by the Ladies and Gentlemen at their respective target distances, 60 yards for Ladies and for Gentlemen not less than 90 yards. The first phase of the Society ended in 1794 on account of the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars by which time a set of rules for the Society had been drawn up by Sir Foster Cunliffe and his merry men (and women). These are discussed below. The first phase of the Society lasted from 1787 to 1794 when make believe playing at Robin Hood and Maid Marion with bows and arrows was changed into the serious activity of fighting Napoleon Bonaparte with cannon and grape shot. The Society was revived for a short time in 1802-3, and again on 25 June 1819 when it continued to meet regularly for a number of years.
Members of the Society
In 1787 many of the local gentry, founder members of the Society of Bowmen, were enjoying new riches from the profits of agriculture, enclosure, canals, coal, and foreign trade. A prime example of this affluence was Sir Foster Cunliffe of Acton Park, Wrexham whose fortune was made in the slave trade. The gentry had no inhibitions in spending their new wealth and many of them engaged fashionable architects and landscape gardeners to build new country houses or redesign their ancient mansions and lay out their extensive parks after the manner of Capability Brown. Fashionable and exquisite environments were being created ideal for sylvan recreations. The latest aristocratic craze being archery if not always reminding them of cupid with his bow at least provided them with notions of the romantic and picturesque. Patriotism inspired them to dress up in green costumes, the dress centuries before of victorious British bowmen at Agincourt and Crécy. The ladies inspired by the beauties of the romantic painters dressed accordingly and promenaded their newly laid out gardens and landscape with an imposing tent erected in the shadow of the great house as an ideal theatre for social intercourse, chaperoned encounter, and arrangement of matrimonial alliances. Old and young had their different passion and desire to indulge and enjoy the meeting of the Society of Royal British Bowmen (and maidens) as an event which would enable them to meet their peers. In the meadows of the country houses, the ancient or modern mansion or castle, on the banks of the river Alyn, Dee, or verge of artificial lake, families came suitably dressed with their bows and
arrows, to share in an outdoor pursuit suitable for ‘ladies’ and ‘gentlemen’. To some it was an addition to the London season or a substitute for a visit to a ‘watering places’. For all of them in their own locality it provided an opportunity for physical recreation, social display and political gossip. It was a more healthy and worthwhile gathering than that of the Jacobite political club known as the Cycle of the White Rose Club which had flourished since 1710 in north-east Wales meeting usually at the same venues.
Although the Society was often associated with the County of Denbighshire with gatherings at Acton Park, Gresford Lodge, Erddig,
Wynnstay, Ruabon Vicarage, Penylan, Erbistock, and Trefalyn, etc., Flintshire houses also had a prominent place in the annual circuits with events at Leeswood, Hawarden Castle and the Rectory with other meetings spilling over into the Maelor and Cheshire. Membership of the Royal Society of British Bowmen was expected of the gentry as was service in the Militia, attendance at local hunts, and their participation in theatricals outstanding of which was the annual event at Wynnstay combined sometimes with a gathering of the Society of Royal British Bowmen.
The rules of the Society
Without repeating in detail the twenty-five rules of the Society a summary of their scope will show their intentions. The rules were strict and aimed at creating the same conditions wherever the event was held in order to prevent extravagant ostentation and enable gatherings to take place regularly. The rules state that they begin on the first of May, and continue every fortnight during the autumn, at a variety of venues. Meetings were held at most of the local great houses situated in the fertile river valleys of the Alun and the Dee. The emphasis was on the out-of-doors and an ingenuous stratagem was made to make it possible for the event to continue uninterrupted whatever the weather. It was decided that a tent was the most sensible and convenient centre and place of command chosen supposedly from the experience of many of the company in military activities. In this way the gentry found themselves tabernacled together in a tent reminiscent of God’s chosen people in the desert. The first tent was made to comfortably house 70 people and eventually enlarged to hold more. At the meeting at Bryn y ffynnon in 1791 Bryan Cooke of Gwysaney presented the Society with a smaller tent as a welcome addition. Another stroke of genius was to adopt the device of armies throughout the ages by the Society having built a large caravan to transport their equipment from one venue to another. In this way the tent, tables, cutlery, and other paraphernalia were uniform and available at all times. Medals were provided by the Society to be competed for and awarded to the first and second best shots for Ladies and Gentlemen. The Lady who won the first gold medal at the first meeting of the season became the Lady Patroness of the year and was presented with a hat ornamented with feathers. The office of Lady Paramount, named by the President of the year, was to settle the uniform of the Ladies, and to order fines in case of any deviation there from. The dinner was ordered to be on the table at 3 0’clock, in order to insure sobriety, the tent was ordered to be cleared for tea at 6 0’clock.
The dinner provided in the tent, to consist only ‘that Table Linen be provided for the use of the Tent, and afterwards knives, forks, spoons, plates, and dishes, as well as Bosses for shooting at.’
The duties of the laureate or bard.
Throughout Britain in the eighteenth century round and glee singing became a popular activity. Wales was becoming the land of song with the revival of the eisteddfod and patronage of the gentry. The bard through the writings for example of Thomas Gray, Sir Walter Scott and Robbie Burns was becoming a venerated figure. In the secular sphere opera and ballad created an enthusiasm and expectation for performance and members of social gatherings developed an appetite for song as did the Methodists with their hymns. Singing became one of the most endearing traditions attached to the Society of Royal British Bowmen and led to the appointment of one of the company as the bard or poet laureate for the meeting. His of her duty was to compose a piece relevant to the host and venue. This ballad or song, set usually to a well-known air, was sometimes sung by the composer or another favourite soloist during which performance the company present would enthusiastically join in the chorus. Extracts from some of these compositions are given below. The outstanding and chief performers were two distinguished clerics. The best known and more distinguished of these was the hymnologist Reginald Heber (1783-1826) a regular attender and performer until his departure for India in 1823 on his appointment and consecration as Bishop of Calcutta. Whereas Richard Newcome (1779-1857), warden of Ruthin, and archdeacon of Merioneth was over a longer period the more prolific composer and performer. An occasional female performer was Mrs Hayman of Gresford Lodge who had previously acted as governess to the ill-fated Princess Charlotte daughter of the Prince Regent.
Bow meetings, to judge by their mention in the archives of families such as the Glynnes of Hawarden, the Cunliffes of Acton Hall, and the Wynns of Wynnstay were social events anticipated and recorded by young and old alike for the mild physical exertion of the archery, the opportunity for fun afforded by the surprise performance of a new song composed for the particular host and venue. The Cunliffe family seemed to have adopted the Society as their own and not only did a quiver full of daughters perform well at the butts, one of them, Emma, acted as Secretary, and their mother Lady Cunliffe was prepared to dash off an ode when required. A list of members and a minute book survives for a few years from 1819 and recaptures the atmosphere and enthusiasm of the events. At the Eighth meeting held at Wynnstay in October ‘The weather was warm as June. A most numerous meeting as many guests as members in all about 220. The 1st prize & medal was won by Miss Caroline Cunliffe, the 2nd by Miss C. Warrington, the 1st gentleman by Mr Cunliffe the 2nd by Mr Grenville. The whole concluded with a Ball; rather a fatiguing day, only one good song written by Mr Newcome. ‘ 1823 at the first meeting at Edge 20 June ‘the weather most favourable & the Butts placed most advantageously in an avenue of fine oaks. The shooting good. The hat won by Miss Crewe. Everyone lamented the absence of the Bishop of Calcutta, the late laureate.’
The Glynne papers are full of mention of the Bow Meetings. For the widowed Lady Mary Glynne widowed in 1815 it became an important event for her and her two young daughters Catherine b.1812 and Mary b. 1814and their brothers Stephen b.1807 and Henry b.1810. There are frequent references to the Society and its meetings in their diaries and correspondence. It is clearly an ideal gathering for the whole family.
The ode of celebration
The Odes sung at the meetings of the Royal British Bowmen were recorded by Sir Stephen Glynne (1807-1874) 9th Baronet of Hawarden Castle. They were written in his Commonplace Book, the earliest dating from 1820. The precocious young baronet was present with his widowed mother Lady Mary Glynne and his siblings at many of the meetings some of which were held at their home in Hawarden Castle or at the Rectory where his uncle the Honourable and Reverend George Neville resided as Incumbent from 1813-1834. Both residences had been improved over the last decade. In September 1824 the Warden of Ruthin warbled his ode at Hawarden Castle in a manner matching the tune The Groves of Blarney.
Oh! The groves of Hawarden, they are so charming. ..
Then heres the Ladies on all these gay days
Their gowns as verdant as the fields in May
With hats and feathers, fit for all weathers…
And while the owls all hooting at their good shooting. ..
In Mold & Wirral the Ladies stir all
From Edge and Acton also closely packed or
Come coaches driving to the castles door.
Some from Trevalyn and the banks of Allyn
I hope they’ll fall in with Miss Williams Wynn
And at the Rectory ’tis my conjecture
They-re all first cousins of Sir Stephen Giynne
For the meeting at Trevallyn in 1822 Richard Newcome the Warden of Ruthin composed an Ode dedicated to “The Allyn” and sung by him to the air the Quaker ‘s Wife
Oh murmur not, fair Allyn’s stream
Notes of joy and gladness
Would thy echoes, more be seen
Than sounds of such sweet gladness
Tis- on thy banks our ensign flies
That calls to mirth and pleasure
Where dimpling smiles and sparkling eyes
Still from the bra’-man’s treasure —
Castalia’s font sure gave thee birth
The muses rock ‘d thy cradle
The sweetest stream e’re water’d earth
Or grac’d an ancient fable
Tis’ on thy banks we bend the bow
For care we have no leisure
Here target’s ring, and bugle blow
To crown the bow-man’s pleasure
And first thro’ Leeswood’s pleasant glades
Thy tiny waves are swelling
To where the oaks of Rhyddyn shades
Our secretary’s dwelling
He would deserve a mitre bright
As dews on hill of Hermon
Did he not dunning letters write
But only pen his sermon
Then on thou roll’st through Gwersyllt’s bow’rs
They silver waters clearer
Where she, the fairest of her flow’rs
Makes royal gifts, still clearer
For there we will dispute the prize
The victor’s pride and pleasure
Tho’ dimpling smiles and sparkling eyes
Are still the bowman’s treasure
Through Gresford’s vale, thou wind’st thy way
That joy of all beholders
Where age belov’d, and childhood gay
Adorn thy willow’d borders
Where Egerton oft twangs the yew
Which Hayman views with pleasure
For thee he left the rich hindoo
And she the courtly treasure
When lost in ocean’s rough embrace
That field of England’s glory
Tell him his lov’d Boscawen’s race
Still live in British story
That they upon thy verdant banks
Have spread the feast before us
Bid then accept the bow-men’s thanks
Who join in grateful Chorus
Chorus &c. ‘Tis on thy bank
In September 1822 the young Sir Stephen Glynne transcribed an ode ‘Sung at Erthig Bowmeeting — by the Bp. of Calcutta’.ln 1823 Reginald Heber sailed to Calcutta in India where he had been nominated Anglican Bishop.
Ye local Vills! Ye winding vales
Renowned in British story
Where all the tribes of princely Wales
Have treasured up their glory
Could all the Chieftains blazon’d show
Surpass in Gules & Sable
The Eyes that meet and Cheeks that glow
Around our woodland table?
Oh! Should some warrior’s armed shade
Revisit Erthig bowers
Or some illustrious Celtic maid
Glide thro’ you maze of flowers
The Stately Phantoms hovering nigh
Might pause in friendly greeting
And shed from forth the twilight Sky
Their Blessing on our meeting
Then were my Harp but half in tune
Its tide of Music swelling
Might find a theme from morn to night
In Gryffydd and Llewellyn.
Here Owen caught our English Queen
By one judicious tumble
And Berain’s Kate of matchless mien
Could twenty husbands humble.
But ah! The mystic dream is fled
Before my Muse could show it
And frowning dark the lordly dead
Disdain a Saxon Poet
Then — tho’ we praise the Herald’s skill
And honour Tudor Trevor
One health with greater glee we fill
The House of Yorke for ever
At the Bow Meeting at Edge in September 1823 a farewell to Heber was sung in his absence by his fellow Laureate Richard Newcome
The Bard is gone & other bards shall wait the call of pleasure
And strike the woodland harp with louder, livelier measure
And wear the oaken wreath, which he must now fore-go
But yet, tho’ many a sweeter song shall float the approaching tent along
And many a friendly health to the sons of Genius flow
Forget not them, who doom’d to part, will wear engraven on their heart
The sons, & daughters of the British Bow!
A final verse was added by Maria Newcome
To Heber waft unfeigned lament
That swells each heart within this Tent,
Where the superior powers e’re bent
To cheer the days decline.
The Mitre now, that brow must wear
Assume the Patriarchs care
The Bard of Palestine.
A song composed by Lady Cunliffe for performance at Trevalyn in August 1823 is full of feminine sentiment
Come, ye merry Bowmaids
Join the jocund throng
Make the heights of Marford
Echo with our song:
Hit the golden centre
Hark! The target rings
Point your arrows truly
Fate is on the wings.
Apollo often wanders
Allens banks along,
His pencil in her wave he dips
Her shores repeat his song.
With him, we archers bend the Bow
With him, prolong the strain
May genius, health & happiness
Long bless Trevalyn’s plain.
There is a splendid coloured engraving (after J. Townshend, a member ) of the Royal British Bowmen in the grounds of Erthig on 13 September 1822 recapturing the scene repeated at all such gatherings. The ladies and gentlemen, many wearing the archer’s green, shooting at the targets, the Lady Patroness holding court in front of the tent in the foreground and between them and the mansion of Erthig, in the middle-ground a coach arrives, and in the centre background families are enjoying strolling in the immaculately landscaped grounds which a stream divides. Around the perimeter is woodland the haunt of the nightingale.
A visit to the opulence of Eaton Hall, the ancestral home of the Grosvenor family, was regarded as a great occasion by the Royal Society of British Bowmen. One such visit took place in October 1826 when the laureate was Mr Bellasis whose ode rejoiced at the joy of Welsh bowmen crossing the border into England to express their loyalty and friendship
March, march Acton and Gresford
Bowmen Cymru! March forward in order
March, march Harden and Leeswood Vale
Now your green bonnets, are over the border
Search oe’r your bardic rhymes
See if in ancient times
Bowmen like yours could be found o’er the border
Sons of the greenwood shade!
Let not your laurels fade
Point with your arrows and shoot in good order
Let it never be sung
That our bows are unstrung
Let our voices re-echo from Monmouth to Mona
Proclaim far and wide
That our country’s our pride,
And that Queen of all sylvan sports here we enthrone her..
Shew that not rivals, but friends are now meeting us
Then long life to our host
And let this be our boast
That we’re met both with bows & with hearts in good order
And minstrels shall many a year
Tell of the meeting here.
When the green bonnets came over the border…
The Bowmen returned to Eaton six years later on 1801 October 1832 invited to a meeting arranged to coincide with the visit of the thirteen year old heir to the throne Princess Victoria and her mother the Duchess of Kent staying there when they opened the Grosvenor Bridge. There is no record of the ode on this occasion but an account of the visit is recorded in a letter written by Lady Elizabeth Grosvenor who described the scene to her mother.
‘The day began with heavy rain . .. we had our own luncheon in the dining room, the public in a tent at 2, as the weather completely cleared about 12 and the afternoon was very fine and warm. We walked about nearly the whole afternoon among quantities of people. About 5 we came in and the regular Bow-meeters and their parties were included in the dinner which was arranged in the Library. After the dinner there were many toasts, the gleesingers from Chester singing after each. There were 260 people dining. The children came in after dinner at the Princess’ request. When we got up we all went into the other rooms for tea. The company were pretty well cleared by 10, when Princess Victoria took leave of us all and gave the children very pretty little presents.’ [p 42]
Members records Bibliography
‘The Society of Royal British Bowmen ‘ Denbighshire Historical Society Transactions V014.
The Society of Royal British Bowmen (1787) Gwilym Usher pp85-90 and vol.51Pant-yr-Ochain :the chief house in Gresford by Christopher Williams p29f
The Encyclopaedia of Wrexham ( Revised edition W.A.Williams Bridge Books 2010 ) p271 Royal BritishBowmen
Lady Elizabeth and the Grosvenors — Gervais Huxley pp42-3 ( Oxford UP 1965).
Flintshire County Record Office, Hawarden
Information from Mrs Maureen Thomas
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