When my sister and I were in England to research a novel, on the outskirts of many a quaint village we saw signs that read “The Butts.” Needless to say, this caused much speculation. Walking around Shaftesbury in Dorset, we met an elderly woman outside her stone cottage, and joined her as she watched workmen re-thatch her roof.
“That’s a woman who appreciates tradition,” I thought. I asked if she knew the significance of The Butts. Of course, she did!
In 1363, a law was enacted requiring all men to own a bow, and to focus on their archery skills every Sunday, so the king might call upon each village for archers in time of war. This law forbade “on pain of death, all sport that took up time better spent on war training, especially archery practice.” The places assigned for this were called The Butts, after the mounds of earth they leaned the targets against. To avoid accidents, The Butts were usually situated just outside the village. But wherever there are weapons, there are accidents. King Henry I passed a law absolving anyone who accidentally killed someone during target practice.
The longbows were made of the strong flexible wood of the yew tree. In every churchyard there was a yew. One of many explanations for this is that in a churchyard the yew would be protected until many new longbows would be needed to defend the kingdom. But the yew trees are still there, shading the churchyards. Nowadays there are so many better ways to spend a Sunday, and so many better things to focus on.
c2013 Naomi Baltuck