In Tudor times there was no standing army in England. Lapford was expected to maintain its own village militia, together with necessary equipment, ready to be called upon by the Crown in a time of need. What sort of village fighting force could Lapford muster?

In Tudor Lapford, Sunday was not entirely a ‘day of rest’—it was time for archery practice! Villagers, already brought together by Divine Service (a compulsory requirement from 1558), probably assembled post-worship on a green somewhere in the vicinity of the church. Close your eyes and imagine the scene: the “fsssh” of released arrows; their “thuck” into butts; the cheers and growns of competitive men and supporters; and merriment from The Malt Scoop doing a roaring trade! This outdoor communal time was probably a drawn out affair; Tudor’s loved the outdoors and would have been in no rush to return to their dark and smoky homes.

On occasion, men may have gone “roving”. This involved selecting a tree, post or other target to shoot at, with the winner selecting the next target and so on’—a little like a golf round! Boys were required to learn archery from an early age and may have been involved in some for of junior practice.

For all its leisurely attributes, the Crown saw archery as a critical activity for national defence; regular practice was required by law. Statute also required men to possess sufficient bows and arrows for their household (including servants and children). Failure to comply carried a fine, even imprisonment.

Football (“Fute-ball”) was strictly banned
in Elizabethan England for fear that it
would distract men from archery practice

Social activities that might have distracted men from practice were banned including early forms of cricket, football, golf, tennis and bowls (with some exceptions made for the gentry classes). Sheriffs were expected to do weekly checks for any signs that the law was being flaunted and were allowed to enter homes to check for evidence of card or dice playing.

Lapford villagers had more than one string to their bow. As well as proficient archers the village had designated pikemen and billmen. 15ft pikes were used in battle to defend positions or to lead charge, where as shorter bills, with their characteristic hooked cutting, were intended inflict injury during infighting. Guns too became a feature of Lapford’s militia. The early pistol-like (h)arquebus required skilled loading of gunpowder and were slow to use. Lapford’s first (h)arquebusiers would have struggled to compete with a skilled archers but the cavalier and later the musket offered great improvements. Bullets could penetrate armour more effectively than arrows and by the end of the Tudor period trained Musketeers were in demand and archery skills were in decline. The law requiring men to practice archery was slowly forgotten and wasn’t formally repealed until 1863!

Whilst all Lapford men born in the Tudor age were taught to use a longbow from an early age, only a few would have received training in military tactics or in the use of pikes, bills and firearms. Lapford was not a wealthy village and training costs normally had to be met out of the same parish funds as poor-relief. Military training would, consequently, have been limited to a few select men for a few days a years. Lapford’s “Trayned Bande” would have received money from the parish to compensate them for lost income during training. There was no legal requirement for trained men to train others but the expectation was that they could quickly pass down knowledge if a conflict arose.

Around every three years Lapford’s “able” men were required to journey for a gathering of local militia. These ‘musters’ were called by The Privy Council who were, eager to know what national resources were available to them in the event of a war. This was then logged and certified in a muster roll. The gathering would also have provided opportunities for Lapford men to take part in exercises with other village militia. The number of musters increased in the later part of the C16 as unrest with Spain and Scotland mounted.

The national muster of 1569 was particularly well recorded in Devon and a record survives providing, by parish, the names of 17,778 able men, aged 16-60, together with some equipment details. The Muster roll is the earliest surviving document to list the names of ordinary families living in Lapford. Many of the family names recorded remained familiar to the village several centuries later. In particular the families Cholashe (Challice), Cornewe (Cornwall), Densham, Drake and Killand or Kyllande (Kelland).

Lapford Militia, 1569:

The roll only names about half of the adult male population of Devon. The obligation for ‘able man’ to bear arms was locally interpreted enabling selection of an affordable number of men based on ability, and possibly social standing.

Some of the equipment for Lapford’s small army of men had, by law, to be provided by wealthier individuals in the parish. Just four men from Lapford had sufficient wealth to be obligatory providers—
Andrew Bridge, Thomas Cornewe, John Kyllande.Thomas Milford

These same four yeomen also happen to be named as Lapford’s ‘presenters’ in the 1569 roll. trusted with the accurate presentation of the facts to be entered for the parish. They each owned assets valued between £10-£20 (the lowest band of wealth requiring a person to provide equipment) so their wealth was only moderate. They were not gentry landowners and probably derived their wealth from rights to sub-let land from Lapford Manor. Their combined equipment contribution was 4 bows, 4 sheaves of arrows, 4 steel caps, 4 bills (the minimum legal requirement) with Andrew Bridge and Thomas Milford each providing a gun in addition. Lapford villagers were, collectively, also required to contribute some equipment and the Muster Roll records a combined contribution of a corset, a pike, a harqubut and a murrion.

… there was one helmet to share between three dozen men!

So, in total, records suggest that Lapford’s 9 gunmen had 3 guns, its 16 pike and bill men shared 1 bill and 1 pike and its 13 archers had about 7 arrows each but just 4 bows. There was one piece of body armour and 1 helmet to share around three dozen men! It can only assumed that other equipment sources may have been available to Lapford men if the were called to fight!

Some villages benefitted from the residency of large landowners with obligations to provide large amounts of equipment. In 1569 Lapford was still a manor but the once grand manor house had been left to decay. The lord and land-owner, Alexander Arundell was no longer resident in the parish, so was not obliged to support Lapford’s militia.

So, what would we make of Lapford’s village militia if we could meet them ? Would they pass muster?
It is easy to assume an under-equipped, under-trained group of agricultural labourers with the misplaced enthusiasm of a “Dad’s Army” homeguard. But I suspect the many decades of village archery practice are more likely to have honed a proud, competitive bunch of men with skills and professionalism that would probably surprise us.

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