In these days of Title IX when young women can participate in pretty much any sport they choose, it’s easy to forget that not much over a hundred years ago, anything much more strenuous than a decorous horseback ride in Rotten Row, a gentle game of tennis or maybe—maybe—a few holes of golf was frowned upon by the medical profession and society alike. Girls, move freely and break a sweat? How un-lady-like!

But there have always been a handful of sports to which young women have been given grudging access…and one of them was archery. Here was a sport at which it was unlikely you might become overheated or over-excited. It was a sport you could do while wearing a corset (in fact, wearing a corset might even help!) And it gave you a chance to order adorable new clothes, like the archery suit from 1829 worn by this young lady at the right.

Archery was a reasonably popular sport in 19th century England, due in no small part to the important role it played in English history. In the middle ages, English bowmen were famed (and feared!) in warfare. English longbows could launch an arrow capable of piercing plate armor, which of course did not make French knights very happy. Several kings passed laws requiring all able-bodied men over the age of 17 to own a bow and arrows and establishing mandatory weekly shooting practice.

This fell by the wayside once firearms became widespread, but interest in archery never died…and indeed, recreational archery enjoyed a resurgence with the foundation of the Royal Toxophilite Society in 1781. Toxophilia (isn’t that a dreadful sounding word?) means “love of archery”, and several prominent members of the nobility became members of the society, most notably the Prince of Wales (who later became Prince Regent and King George IV). They established a permanent clubhouse and shooting range in 1833 in Regent’s Park in London where practices and in-club competitions were held weekly in season…and, unusually for this time, they held an annual Ladies’ Day invitational competition every July with prizes given by the society. Go girls!





Toxophilia — 6 Comments

  1. One always recalls Gwendolen Harleth of Daniel Deronda, who rides like a man, loves the gaming tables and, unlike at the the gaming table, is very good at archery.

  2. Female involvement with Archery dates back to the Greek legends of the Amazon warriors. In European Middle Ages, noble women had to learn archery to help defend their castles while the men were off at war. All women living and working within a castle had to learn archery for the time of need, regardless of class. Noble women were expected to organize and lead.

  3. The other advantage to archery is that (unlike, say, small-sword training) it is no good in close quarters, thereby leaving the young woman utterly and adorably defenseless in the presence of a Villains with Bad Intentions. This leaves room for a man to be suitably heroic…

    • Oh yes, but I’m also I’m sticking to the “giving modistes a way to sell yet another category of costumes to the rich” idea.

  4. There’s an enjoyable Kipling story about a women’s archery contest in India. It’s too lat at night for me to remember the title, of course.

  5. At least those gals were allowed to do something interesting for a sport! There’s a cute scene in the Gwyneth Paltrow version of “Emma,” in which she, indeed, sports a lovely archery outfit and when startled almost manages to hit one of Mr. Knightley’s hounds.