John Smythe on archers at Kett’s Rebellion and the Prayer Book Rebellion

The fiercest advocate of the longbow during the period of the Elizabethan bow vs. gun debates was John Smythe, a nobleman and a cantankerous soldier of long experience. Smythe had first served in France during the short reign of Edward VI, and afterwards had fought in the Netherlands (on the side of the Spanish) and against the Turks in eastern Europe. The first book Smythe wrote in defense of the bow, titled Certain Discourses, based much of its authority on the historical triumphs of archery- biblical, classical, medieval, and a few from Smythe’s own time. Those from the 16th century are the only ones really of interest to us.

Let’s take a look at some of the victories of longbowmen over harquebuzers and musketeers Smythe presents, and then see if we can reconcile them with the historical record.

The first is an incident that took place during Kett’s Rebellion, a 1549 peasant uprising that saw the rebels successfully occupy the city of Norwich until they were ultimately driven out and destroyed on the field by the Earl of Warwick.

During Warwick’s assault on Norwich, there was some confusion with the baggage train and artillery which caused it to be captured by the rebels. Here’s what happened, according to Smythe:

For confirmation [that longbows are superior to firearms], there be divers moderne examples, with verie honorable testimonie of such as are yet living, verie honorable by birth and parentage, as also by titles of honor and worthines, of the which that noble Gentleman Ambrose Earle of Warwicke is one, that accompanied the Duke of Northumberland his father (then Earle of Warwicke) a man of great valour and sufficiencie for the governing and conducting of an Armie, who in the yeare 1548. was sent by King Edward the sixt, as his Lieutenant generall with an Armie of horsemen and footmen, to suppresse the rebellion of Ket in Norffolke, who at that time lay encamped with a great power of notorious and hardie rebells by the Citie of Norwich, uppon a high hill called Mount Surrey, to the which Citie the Duke with his Armie being come, he with great order did encampe and lodge himselfe and his Armie on the other side of the citie and river, & the next day he entred the towne and brought in foure and twentie field peeces, to the chiefe charge whereof he appointed the Coronell Courpenick an Alman and a great soldier, with his regiment of Almans, which was twelve hundred, the most of them brave shot, and all old soldiers, with divers other English bands and valiant Captaines of our owne nation for the gard of the same; but before they could throughlie entrench themselves, those furious Rebels contrarie to all expectation, descended downe their hil with such a furie of shot of arrowes, being al Bowmen, Swords and Bills, that they gave such a terror and feare to our people both strangers and English, as they were faine to runne away with the losse of the Ordinance, and slaughter of a great sort of soldiers, and before the Duke could make head against them, they had recovered eighteen field peeces, and carried them up to their hill even with verie force of men.

Smythe, of course, was not present at this supposed victory of a rabble of bowmen over experienced harquebusiers. This story is supposedly a verbatim account from Warwick himself.

The Chronicles by Raphael Holinshed give a very different picture of this event:;c=eebo;idno=a03448.0001.001;node=A03448.0001.001%3A88.1;seq=2666;vid=29044;page=root;view=text

Shortly after, the carriages belonging to the army, were broughte into the Citie by the same gate, and passing through the Citie by negligence and want of order given to them that attended on the same cariage, they kept on forward till they were gote out at Byshoppes gate towards Mousholde, whereof the Rebels beeyng advised, they came downe, and setting uppon the Carters, and other that attended on the cariages, putte them to flighte, and drove away the cartes laden with artillerie, powder, and other munition, bringing the same into their Campe, greately rejoysing thereof, bycause they hadde no great store of suche things among them: but yet Captayne Drury with hys bande commyng in good tyme to the rescue, recovered some of the Cartes from the enimies, not withoute some slaughter on eyther side.

The artillery and baggage was indeed captured by the rebels, as Smythe said, but Holinshed doesn’t attribute that rebel victory to the archers. To the contrary, Captain Drury, leading the well-trained London militia of 200 pikemen and harquebusiers, is given special attention for managing to recover some of what was lost. Drury’s harquebusiers were effective against rebel archers inside Norwich as well:

The Earle of Warwike advertised heereof, passed forth with all his forces to remove the enimie, and comming to Sainte Andrewe in Johns streete, was receyved with a sharp storme of arrowes, but Captayne Drury hys Harquebusiers, galled them so with their shotte, that they were gladde to give place, and so fledde amayne.

An eyewitness, Alexander Neville, gives the same description of the events.

The enemy (unlooked for) with his Bowmen discharged upon us a mighty force of Arrowes, as flakes of snow in a tempest.

But while they were yet shooting, intending to mixe heaven and earth together: On the sudden came Captayne Drury the second time with his charge of Harquebusiers, yong men, and of an excellent courage and skill, who payed them home againe with such a terrible volly of shot (as if it had beene a storme of hayle) and put them all to flight as in a moment, trembling.;view=fulltext

The rebels drew up in battle array three days later. German mercenaries numbering 1,400 had arrived to reinforce Warwick the previous day. Drury’s London militia and the German landsknechts together demonstrated the effectiveness of the modern weapons:

Captaine Drurie with his owne bande, and the Almaines or Lansqueners, whether ye lyst to call them, on foote, getting neare to the enimies, hailled them with their Harquebuse shot so sharpely, and thrust forwarde upon them with their Pykes so strongly, that they brake them in sunder.

Again, Smythe’s account is at odds with Holinshed and Neville:

And within two or three daies after, those gallants did not let to abide the battaile against the Duke & his whole Armie in the plaine field, where the battaile was so manfullie fought on both sides, that it could be hardlie iudged by the best soldiers that were there, which side was like to prevaile, but in the end, God giving the victorie, it was seene by that battaile that arrowes were a most noble weapon.

The chronicles mentions one interesting story that happened during Kett’s Rebellion. When the rebels were attacking Norwich for the first time, the citizens of the city repulsed them with bows and “other weapons”. The rebels sent out boys to collect the arrows which had stuck in the ground. When they were pierced with arrows shot from the walls, the boys pulled them out of their own bodies and delivered them back to the rebel bowmen. It is almost hard to believe that the arrows inflicted so little hurt, except that the story is collaborated by Alexander Neville in Norfolkes Furies:

it is reported also, that some having the arrowes sticking fast in their bodies (a thing fearefull to tell) drawing them out of the greene wounds, with their owne hands, gave them (as they were dropping with bloud) to the Rebels that were about them, whereby yet at the least, they might bee turned upon us againe

Perhaps arrows really did inflict such slight wounds. Even John Smythe only claimed that archers could drive musketeers off the field when they had received “three or foure arrowes in their bodies, faces, armes or legges”.

Smythe alleges that rebel archers were also very effective against experienced mercenary harquebusiers during the Prayer Book Rebellion, which also took place during the summer of 1549.

The Archers of the Rebells did so behave themselves with their volees of arrowes against divers old bands Harquebuziers Italians and Spaniards, that they drave them from all their strengths, as from bancks, ditches, hedges, and other advantages of ground, to the great mischiefe of manie of those strangers.

Again, other sources show the opposite.

Thanks largely to Spinola’s arquebusiers and the steadiness of the local billmen gallantly led by the gentlemen, he [Russell] got the better of the insurgents who, armed only with bows and bills, stood little chance against the accuracy and penetration of the professionals’ disciplined fire. Russell’s own archers were not very effective; far too many of their shafts flew wide, and the rebels retrieved them and shot them back.

Smythe further alleges that, when Warwicke arrived in Newhaven in 1562, the English snatched victory from the jaws of defeat thanks to eighty archers of Hampshire, who  inspired their comrades to rally and drove back the French with their volleys of arrows. The incident is mentioned in Holinshed’s chronicles, sans any mention of archers.;c=eebo;idno=a03448.0001.001;node=A03448.0001.001%3A98.1;seq=2814;vid=29044;page=root;view=text

Humphrey Barwick, one of Smythe’s contemporary critics, says that he couldn’t find any evidence of the eighty archers at Newhaven either. Barwick suggests that (supposing the archers weren’t an invention of Smythe) the circumstances of the battle were such that the French would have retired from the skirmish even if the archers hadn’t arrived.

Smythe claims that his accounts of Kett’s Rebellion and Newhaven are verbatim from Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick. Perhaps they were. Warwick was not around to contradict him, as he died February 21st, 1590, less than three months before the publication of Smythe’s Certain Discourses. Ambrose Dudley’s younger brother, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who had an intense dislike of Smythe, had died in 1588.

If Warwick has left behind any written record showing that he favored the longbow as highly as Smythe claims, I’ll eat my words, but until I find one it seems like Smythe can’t be trusted to give an unbiased historical account.

Unfortunately, Smythe provides us only hearsay evidence for the longbow’s effectiveness. Despite his own lengthy military career, Smythe offers no anecdotes from his personal experience. Perhaps Smythe had never actually seen the bow used in combat. That would be strange, since Smythe had served against the Turks, who still heavily utilized archery, but it could explain why his opinion of archery was so much higher than most of his contemporaries.

11 thoughts on “John Smythe on archers at Kett’s Rebellion and the Prayer Book Rebellion

  1. Interesting but slightly puzzling piece. Holinshed used Neville as his source.

    Neville was NOT an eye witness. He wrote on behalf of the bishop, who was “in the city” at the time.

    So you have ONE contradictory source, written 25 years later on behalf of a bishop who may have seen very little of the rebellion, and placed it against the writing of a knight who fought across Europe and who obviously came into contact with Ambrose at some stage.


  2. […] victories over the Scots at Flodden (1513) and Pinkie Cleugh (1547)”, but does not mention the use of archery by rebels against loyalist harquebusiers during the peasant rebellions of 1549. Neither does he mention the victory of Blaise de Montluc’s harquebusiers over a larger force […]


  3. What you demonstrate in the first battle, is that the archers managed to rout the musketeers, taking their cannon and wagons, and the musketeers managed to rout the archers, receiving and inflicting “slaughter on either side,” and only managing to recover some of the carts. In surprise to no one, the rebels lost against the might of the British and their mercenaries. However, the victors didn’t disregard the bow but commended its stunning rate of fire, and how strong their attacks were to defeat their enemies. They also gave equal precedence to pikes, so it’s strange to act like the whole battle was carried by the musket.

    You claim that these accounts are contradictory, suggesting a phenomenal bias or misreading. No, Smythe and Holinshed had no contradiction on the raiding of the British caravan and taking their cannon, despite your painting these as “contrary” accounts. You even try to say that his point that it was a hard fought victory is false, when there is nothing in the other reports which deny this…. Rather, the accounts emphasize the arrows being like snow storms, and the great power it took to best these archers. While not definitive, it suggests Smythe was correct in considering it a hard-fought battle.

    The snow storm bit in particular is interesting, as that’s very reminiscent of Ivan’s mentioning the time the Portuguese were bested by the Koxinga pirate archers, stating their arrows blocked out the sun and that they were matching the riflemen. Of course, there’s nothing to say the rebel archers were anything near that proficient with the bow.

    – – –

    The account of the arrow damage is surprising, as any bowhunter will tell you a broad head will take down man or deer within minutes. However, the arrow does need to be removed at some point, and we don’t know what happened to the boys of unknown age after they pulled them out. They probably fell back to compact their wounds and reduce bloodloss, but were tough enough to accept the brutal practicality of war, and pull them out and hand them to their own side as they passed out of the battle lines. Certainly, if they were so tough that they pulled them out and just keep running around looking for more arrows, little injured as you suggest, I’d expect something that surprising to warrant mention.

    As for your claim about John saying arrows did little damage… that was right after references to skirmishes and battles where CAVALRY including their horses were taken out by archers (a horse is a big animal), including that Monsieur de Plessis was shot through his maille gusset and killed, along with many other men at arms, in the time of Henry VIII. What you quote-mined was a line about setting such a torrent of arrows on harquebusiers that they will panic, forgetting to load their pieces and etc.. So rather than assuming he was immediately contradicting himself, or proclaiming the crazy idea an arrow to the face isn’t enough to disable an opponent on its own, it’d make more sense to figure he was portraying the fact the storm of arrows was so dense that some troops would be hit multiple times (Mark Stretton found an interesting effect of that on armour, in one of his tests).

    – – –

    I agree that old English is very hard to read, but it’s still incredible the number of non-sequiturs you are presenting as contradictions…. Moreover, I don’t see how you can mistakenly cut out the start of the quote, where Smythe was referring specifically to SKIRMISHES. Even with what was quote-mined, Smythe didn’t say that the arquebusiers did a poor job, nor did he say the billmen weren’t gallant… he pointed out the archers causing, “mischief,” and driving them from the rebel’s strong point. And since the battle went on for about a month, that’s very plausible. Meanwhile, as J brightly pointed out, your source is from a quarter century later, working off a third-hand account of the battle….

    WORST OF ALL: Smythe attests that CAPTAIN SPINOLA, the Italian Captain you reference in the “contradictory” quote, was one of his witnesses to this battle, and that he spoke well of the bow! How could you be so dishonest as to not include or mention that detail!?


    comming to certeine skirmishes & encoun∣ters with the Rebells, the Archers of the Rebells did so behaue themselues with their volees of arrowes a∣gainst diuers old bands Harquebuziers Italians and Spaniards, that they draue thē from all their strengths, as from bancks, ditches, hedges, and other aduantages of ground, to the great mischiefe of manie of those strangers. And of these great effects of Archers against Harquebuziers,* I haue heard the Lord 〈…〉 aforesaid (who was there an eye witnes) verie notably report. Besides that, manie yeares past I haue heard Captaine Spinola an Italian (who was a verie braue soldier,* and wounded with arrowes in those seruices and actions, giue singular commendation of the Ar∣cherie of England.

    – – –

    Certainly, it has been made clear we cannot trust you to give an unbiased account of the history, with you going so far as to cut out major details, and twisting quotes to make false contradictions, then claiming your sources were eyewitnesses when they were not.

    The irony being, if there were a contradiction, Smythe would be the one to trust over Holinshed, and possibly over Neville–but their accounts are pretty much in agreement, with minor differences in perspective and personal views (emphasizing the rebel’s or the royalist’s victories).


  4. Can’t edit posts, so I’ll add this: This is an older article, and you have pointed out to me that you were frustrated in the past, and so your past writing does not necessarily reflect you. So while I think it was necessary for me to point out the problems of this article, I don’t want to hold this over you.


  5. I was too critical of Smythe in this post and ended up making some mistakes myself. His contemporaries were very critical of him and Leicester even said that he thought he might be insane. I’ve reformed my opinion of him over time and I think that I understand him better now. Smythe was a traditionalist disgusted by the effects of modernization. I don’t think that bows were the real issue for him. He was sympathetic to the common people and spoke up when he saw them oppressed. He starts his Military Discourses off with an accusation that officers are mistreating their soldiers and turning them into rogues, or even killing them on purpose to collect their dead pay. The Kett and Prayer Book rebels probably had Smythe’s sympathy, and their weapon was the bow. They were crushed by foreign mercenaries armed with muskets and pikes. The bow was associated with church attendance, manliness, and the better times of the past. The musket was associated with foreigners, demons, and perhaps also the wealthy (who were once the only ones allowed to shoot firearms) and a centralizing state.


  6. Fair enough to have your perspective coloured by contemporaries, and it’s fair enough to be critical at times.
    As you say, many people were associating the growing societal issues of the day with stuff like muskets, directly or otherwise. But… to put his opinions solely that would just be dismissing him as a sentimental madman.

    I haven’t memorized Smythe’s works, but the opinions expressed around this subject were certainly not extreme or mad, and his coverage of the rebellions in question was quite reasonable. The bows served well, to the point where Spinola apparently commented as much. That doesn’t mean the musket served poorly, and Smythe doesn’t really say it did, but makes the point the bow had proven effectiveness in his time, and could likely have been deployed even more effectively. At least in theory… in practice, I figure the bow was becoming untenable in the social and economic situation.

    Notably, the fact wealthy mercenaries were using the gun is probably why they could shoot straight.


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