In days of old it was a huge honour to be chosen as captain of the line to lead the nations’s troops into battle.
This honour was decided by firing an arrow into the air from a longbow – whomever caught the arrow upon its return to earth would win the prize. Some knaves without armour did try and use their hands to catch the arrow but didn’t appreciate its speed of flight and ended up with it embedded in their head, which meant they couldn’t lead anything as they were dead. This is why knights were always heavily favoured to win the honour.
This tradition has led to two different annual events in separate parts of the English Midlands.
In the Derbyshire town of Matlock Bath, the arrow firing event takes place on Mad Wednesday the first Wednesday after Easter Sunday. The general idea is that pubs from all around the Matlock area send teams to the event and if their team gets the arrow back to the pub before sundown then the pub wins a 110-gallon barrel of beer from the local brewery.
At 9 a.m. the long-bowman stands in the middle of the town park and fires the arrow into the air. Each pub team is allowed to have one member in full armour who stands near the long-bowman and watches the arrow and tries to catch it before anyone else when it returns to earth.
Once the arrow is under the control of one of the knights the judge shouts “Held” and then everyone else involved in the contest is free to try to wrestle the arrow away from whomever has control of it. What normally happens is that a knight catches the arrow and runs off with it in the direction of his pub; he is then tackled by another knight and there’s a huge scrum of metal bodies thrashing around on the ground. These are pulled away by other team members before the knight with the arrow is exposed and then pounced on.
If the arrow sticks into a knight instead of being caught the judge shouts “Injured,” the knight is replaced by another team member, and the arrow is fired into the air again.
In the Staffordshire Moorlands the event is run differently. On Walpurgis Day on Cannock Chase the long-bowman fires many arrows into the air, one every thirty seconds for two hours, but all the individual contestants vie to catch the arrows on their own handheld targets. These are archery targets and the closer the arrow lands to the centre of the target the more points are awarded to the contestant. The winner is awarded a 30-gallon barrel of beer, which they must drink before the week is over.
Most contestants wear armour to reduce their chances of severe injury but some others, called whippets, wear no armour at all, which means they are far speedier around the playing area should the arrow be caught by a sudden gust of wind. They run a far greater risk of being injured but there are ambulances standing by to take the wounded to hospital.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker