After 300 years, the captain is bringing the Silver Arrow home

After 300 years, the captain is bringing the Silver Arrow home

The trophies of the Ancient Scorton Silver Arrow

First published in Echo Memories The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Deputy Editor

History is made on Saturday when the world's oldest recorded sporting event returns to its roots in North Yorkshire. The celebration of more than three centuries of archery is supported by The Northern Echo.

THIS weekend, the world's oldest recorded sporting event returns to its North Yorkshire roots for its 300th annual competition. Blown by a freak gust of wind and a historical coincidence, archery is coming home.

The Antient Scorton Silver Arrow was first shot for in 1673 - so long ago that they felt justified in spelling 'ancient' in the old way. How the competition began, no one really knows, although a forbidden love is probably at the root of it.

The ancient laws, drawn up in that first year, forbid swearing and demand attendance at a two-hour dinner. They also order that this year's winner hosts next year's tournament.

As competitors come from far and wide, the Scorton Silver Arrow has only been contested in its home village, between Richmond and Darlington, on 14 occasions.

That the 15th occasion should be the 300th recorded meeting is a bullseye in terms of historical coincidence.

Last year's tournament was in Hull, and the winner - who is crowned Captain of the Arrow - was Drew Stapleton, a 57-yearold Scorton archer who has only 30 per cent sight due to macular degeneration.

"A stray puff of wind blew my arrow in, " says Drew modestly.

"My right eye has some vision in the right place, but it comes and goes, so it's hit and miss as to whether I can see the target 100 yards away."

The winner of the Silver Arrow is the first archer to hit the three-inch black spot at the centre of the target.

"I couldn't believe it, " says Drew. "I wandered up to the target and saw there was an arrow in the black. I walked past the target and saw it was mine, and thought 'oh ******'."

He caught his tongue and saved himself the shilling that the laws order all cursers to forfeit.

"I skulked round the back until the judges demanded to know whose it was, " he says.

"I was half excited and half absolutely shocked."

Now the weight of history lies on Drew's shoulders. He is organising Saturday's tournament in the village with the help of the Scorton Feast committee.

It will be held in the village in which he has lived since escaping the City of London rat race 11 years ago, and the village in which the arrow was first competed for 335 years ago (due mainly to wars - First, Second and Napoleonic - the tournament has not been held on 35 occasions).

A record 140 archers will compete, and they come from around the world: four from the Republic of Ireland, two from the Netherlands and one from Australia.

During the intervening 335 years, the origins of the arrow have become lost.

Cobbling together a couple of stories, we may begin with Roger Ascham from Kirby Wiske, 15 miles from Scorton.

In 1548, Ascham, who attended Cambridge University from the precocious age of 15, was employed by Henry VIII as a tutor for his daughter, Princess Elizabeth.

Ascham became a great favourite of the future queen (he even died, two days before Christmas 1568, having caught a chill sitting up all night composing Her Majesty a New Year's poem).

Ascham was a keen archer, and his first book, published in 1545, was called Toxophilus (Lover of the bow). It was dedicated to Henry VIII. Henry loved the book, partly because of the flattery and partly because he wanted to encourage bowmanship among his population so they were ready for war.

Ascham taught Elizabeth the art of the longbow and she presented him with a silver arrow which was shot for in a tournament.

Perhaps it was this silver arrow which John Waistell Jnr proudly won when he was a student at Cambridge in the 1650s. His family had from 1616 to 1748 lived in Scorton Manor (its site overlooking the lovely village green is where the former St John of God Hospital is today). His father, John Snr, was an eminent lawyer, Justice of the Peace and a Master in Chancery.

John Jnr returned to Scorton Manor in triumph with his silver arrow, and fell in love with a maidservant. Obviously, a Master in Chancery couldn't have his son cavorting with a lowly maidservant, so John Snr forbade the romance.

John Jnr and the maidservant eloped, leaving the arrow behind. John Snr disinherited them.

In St Mary's Church in the neighbouring village of Boston on Swale, there is a memorial dedicated to John Snr (died 1659), his wife Ann (died 1665), and their eldest son Leonard (died 1664).

There is no mention of the disinherited John Jnr.

Amid all this death and disgrace, someone cleared out Scorton Manor. Somehow, the silver arrow came into the possession of Sir Henry Calverley - although, because of its sordid below-stairs secret, he made a solemn promise never to reveal its origins.

Sir Henry was born in 1630, in Eryholme Manor, opposite Neasham on the Yorkshire bank of the River Tees.

He was MP for Northallerton from 1678 until he died in Paris in 1684. In 1673, he offered the arrow for competition in Scorton. A committee drew up the rules of the shoot.

It decided that the tournament should always be held within six miles of Eryholme.

It banned swearing, saying: "Forasmuch as the exercise of archery is lawful, laudable, healthful and innocent and so that God's holy name may not be dishonoured, it is agreed that if any one shall that day curse or swear, he shall forthwith pay down one shilling, and so proportionably for every oath, to be distributed by the Captain, to the use of the poor of that place."

The football authorities are apparently looking at introducing this rule into the Premier League next season.

The archery committee also decreed: "And lastly, all the company of archers shall dine with the captain and lieutenant, and if any of them shall refuse, or neglect to do so, shall pay one shilling to the Captain."

The first tournament was held in Scorton on May 14.

Twenty-two archers competed.

Sir Henry himself won.

For the rest of the 17th Century, the tournament was held in the villages to the south of Darlington: Barton, Croft, Melsonby, Middleton Tyas, Eryholme and Piercebridge. Then the radius was widened to include Richmond and Darlington. In 1765, the tournament was held in its most northerly venue - Ferryhill.

HOWEVER, during the 18th Century, the numbers of competitors rarely reached double figures.

In the 19th Century, they rarely got above 20.

The radius was widened to attract a new audience: Thirsk, Doncaster, Leeds, York and Sheffield all played host to the Scorton Silver Arrow.

Between the wars, it was even allowed over to Lancashire, although since peace in 1945, it has not been allowed out of the county of Yorkshire.

And since peace in 1945, the numbers entering have steadily and healthily increased.

In 1948, for instance, there were 38 archers - the highest for nearly 70 years. Yet it was won by the youngest winner of all time.

Ben Hird - a seminal figure in the history of the arrow - recalled: "When we gathered round the target, to everyone's amazement the arrow had been shot by a boy of 12 years old, Michael Leach, of Heywood, Lancashire.

"He had come to the meeting with his father who, before it had started, had asked if his son could take part. After looking at the boy, it seemed doubtful that he could reach the 100 yards so the committee gave their permission, if his father looked after him, never expecting this remarkable result."

Over the course of the centuries, the Scorton Silver Arrow has acquired plenty of similarly unlikely stories.

Like the target being set at the height of the average Frenchman's heart. Like the arrow being stolen in Leeds and only recaptured after a long chase. Like the winner once falling on hard times, and the committee buying the arrow back from a pawn shop.

Like the winner once celebrating so comprehensively that he left the arrow on a park bench.

And how in 2007, the winner had only 30 per cent sight yet he managed to bring the world's oldest recorded sporting event home for its historic 300th tournament.

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