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The V-sign

The Archers' V-sign: an urban legend

The rude V-sign is widely seen as a gesture of English defiance, supposedly originating in the archers who fought in the 100 Years War against France. Our nominator, Catherine Cooper, wrote, "It was a means of telling your opponent that you were still capable of drawing a bow string back, as you still had two fingers!"

Battle of Crecy, 1346
Battle of Crecy, France, August 1346
© TopFoto.co.uk/HIP
The greatest victories of the 100 Years War, at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415) were all won by English (and Welsh) longbowmen, raining tens of thousands of arrows down on charging French knights.

In each battle, the English army was vastly outnumbered, yet the French threw away their numerical advantage. Due to their deeply ingrained code of chivalry, they believed that the honourable way to fight was using a frontal charge, followed by hand-to-hand combat with English knights, who were their social equals. The French knights viewed the humble archers with contempt, and so they died in their thousands. Read more about the English longbow here

According to a story, which can be found in many places on the internet, when the French captured English archers, they chopped off their first and second fingers, which were needed to draw the bow. The prisoners, now harmless, were then freed. English longbowmen knew what would happen to them if they were captured. So before battle, they enjoyed taunting the French lines by sticking two-fingers up at them.

Urban legend

Longbow archers, 1580
Longbow archers, 1580
© TopFoto.co.uk
The archers story is an urban legend - a story, usually false, which appears mysteriously, spreads quickly and is widely believed to be true. In 1968, when the term "urban legend" was invented (by US folklorist Richard Dorsen) such stories spread by word of mouth or through newspapers. Today, thanks to the internet, they can travel much faster and further.

We have several good reasons to distrust the story of the archers. It does not appear in any contemporary account of the Hundred Years War, nor in any academic history of the period.

The story is inherently unlikely. During the Hundred Years War, the only prisoners taken were nobles, protected by the code of chivalry, or those rich enough to have a ransom value. The lives of people outside the chivalric code were seen as worthless. In 1370, for example, Edward the Black Prince, victor of Poitiers, ordered the massacre of 3,000 men, women and children in the French town of Limoges. Yet the Black Prince was seen by both English and French as a ''flower of chivalry".

Like the people of Limoges, English longbowmen were not protected by the code of chivalry, and had no value as prisoners. Why would the French go to the trouble of amputating their fingers when they could just as easily kill them?

In the 1970s, anthropologist and author Desmond Morris made a detailed study of the history of the rude V-sign, and came up with ten possible explanations for its origin. His 1979 book, Gestures, Their Origin And Distribution, has a whole chapter on the sign, yet he does not even mention archers. This suggests that the story was invented after 1979.

The power of myth

A story may be a fiction but, like the legend of Robin Hood, it can still capture the public imagination. It was in the 1990s that the story of the defiant archers spread. This was a time when many English people felt threatened by the European Community, and hostility to the French in particular was encouraged by the right-wing press.

In November 1990, The Sun newspaper ran a famous front page featuring a picture of a two-fingered salute with the headline, "UP YOURS DELORS!" This was aimed at Jacques Delors, the Frenchman who was then head of the European Commission. The paper was full of hatred directed at the French, described as people "who INSULT us, BURN our lambs, FLOOD our country with dodgy food and PLOT to abolish the dear old pound."

Readers were urged to "tell the feelthy French to FROG OFF" by gathering throughout Britain the following day, facing France and at 12 noon shouting "Up Yours Delors!". Two pages carried a town-by-town guide telling readers in which direction to face so that they could aim their anger towards France. People living on the south coast were told to "face the sea and turn steadily to the left until they SMELL the garlic."

Icon of Englishness

The archers' V-sign, then, is seen as an icon of England, a gesture of defiance aimed at our neighbours. Actor Tim Bentinck (who plays David in The Archers) sent ICONS this comment:

The V Sign in both its meanings - the Churchillian victory sign and, reversed, defiance. They are both at the heart of English nature. "You can only stop me by disabling me, and you haven't yet so here's my two fingers"... Come on, admit it. There's nothing sweeter than flicking a V sign at a Frenchman on the Champs Elysees. And that's English. (English mind you, not British - 7000 Scots fought against us at Agincourt under Sir Alexander Buchanan, so we were dissing the Scots there too) Give a vote for the V sign. A quintessential English Icon. My alter ego David Archer would approve too!