Butts Close: A monument to medieval Hitchin

Butts Close, Hitchin

Butts Close, Hitchin - Credit: Friends of Butts Close

Tony Riley from Friends of Butts Close explains the historical significance of the park as a medieval archery site and more.

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Tony Riley from Friends of Butts Close, Hitchin - Credit: Friends of Butts Close

We walk across it, drive past it and visit it for circuses and fairs without realising that Butts Close is our largest monument to medieval Hitchin.

In 1363 a royal statute required common land to be used for mandatory longbow practice, and the name derives from archery – butts is the correct name for the targets.

The first written record is in the 1492 will of John Sturgeon, who provided armaments for the forces of King Henry VI. He left £10 to make repairs to the ‘lane leding from Tilehouse Striete unto the buttes’.

But records show that Hitchin’s archers fought in wars long before that. It took years to become proficient with a military strength longbow, and every Sunday archers would practise and compete on the Close.

We thought of re-enacting this, and approached a longbow archery association, but they concluded that it would be just too dangerous!

Butts Close, Hitchin

Butts Close, Hitchin - Credit: Friends of Butts Close

Fast-forward to the last century and bows and arrows make a sudden comeback. In 1904 Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show entertained around 24,000 people on the Close. His entourage of over 700 people and 400 horses arrived by special train from St Albans and set up camp.

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His trick shooting was the biggest draw, and Simon Walker of Hitchin Historical Society recalls that his grandmother went to the show as a child, and came home with a penny which had a hole shot straight through it. I often wonder who cleared up after the horses left...

After the First World War, Hitchin was presented with a tank and two field guns which were set up on the Close by Fishponds Road. The tank was called the ‘Fearless’. But it turns out that a good number of tanks were presented to towns across the country and many were also called the ‘Fearless’. It was sold for scrap in 1937.

The inter-war years saw a number of military parades, and even a civil defence exercise where a mock cottage was set up and an aeroplane flew over and dropped a supposed bomb on it.

The cottage caught fire and someone inside called for help – the firemen and police ‘rescued’ him with a ladder. I don’t think the Health and Safety Executive would approve that now!