I first became aware of the longbow when I was very young. Saturday evening, just after the wrestling on ITV came Robin Hood. Our family were living in North London at the time and once every other month we would travel to Borehamwood to visit my grandmother. As a little boy I soon realised that our bus had to pass Elstree Film Studios. Here, nestling amongst the trees were plaster and wood medieval buildings. Back home all it took was the jolly 50’s theme tune and the blurred passage of the arrow on the television screen and I was transported to another time.
This is a theme that has seemed to follow me throughout my life.
I can remember at the university film club the film credits for ‘The Adventures of ‘Robin Hood’ (1939) rolled and to a man as the lights went on, imaginary swords were brandished and a mass battle broke out as the world and his girl fought their way to the bar. Errol Flynn has still remained my favourite Robin Hood.
Little did I realise that what was a life long love of film, soon led me to ‘Henry V’ (1944) with Laurence Olivier, it’s beautiful staging and cinematography with it’s ‘drawn on’ arrow showers still stay with me.
Bringing things more up to date..I will have to mention Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Henry V’ (1989, With Derek Jacobi’s stirring commentary and the extremely life-like battle scenes.
So there we have it , from romantic memories to realistic glimpses back into history….
But what was it really like….
Although a very long history previously, the Longbow starts to make a name for itself in the 13th century. Many references to Robin Hood start at this time.
1363 Royal decree stated that:
“…that every able bodied man on feast days (including Sundays) when he shall in his sports use bows and arrows, pellets or bolts, and shall learn and practise the art of shooting, forbidding all and singular on pain of imprisonment to attend or meddle with hurling of stones, loggats, or quoits, handball, football, club ball, cambuc, cockfighting or other vain games of no value….
After church on a Sunday men and boys from the age of six practiced at the local butts. (where were ours) By law a father had to provide his son with a bow and two arrows. (rights of passage? Sense of community?).
Blunts were used when firing at the butts.
“ My poor father was as diligent to teach me to shute, as to learne any other thing….he taught me how to drawe, howe to law my body in my bowe, and not to draw with strength of arms, as other nacions do, but with strength of body…………I had my bowes brought to me according to my age and strength, as I increased in them; so my bowes were made bigger and bigger; for men shall never shute well, excepte they be brought up to it “.
‘Shooting at the wand’, ‘roving’, ‘clout shooting’, ‘shooting at the marks’ and ‘shooting at the popinjay’ were all types of practice techniques.
Popinjay for instance is associated with practicing for archery at sea
Loose – letting the arrow go after bringing the bow to full draw.
fast – the command to stop, given loud and clear and repeated by all archers in an emergency. Derivation in Medieval period and standing for ‘holdfast’. In Old Norse the word ‘fast’ stands for ‘firm’.
‘playing fast and loose’ – as a phrase is felt to have had it’s origin in regular archery practice such as that which took place at Finsbury Fields, London.
‘Keep it under your hat’ – another phrase having it’s origins in archery. A bow string had to be kept dry so a handy place was under the archer’s helmet or woollen hat. Also a place for a spare string.
Traditionally the wood of choice has been yew, the best of all coming from Italy and Spain, but other woods have also been used such as elm.
Tax – every tun (cask of 252-gallon capacity) had to be imported with four bow staves.
– then ten staves for every butt (cask of 126- gallon capacity).
‘garballed‘ a bad mix was of good and bad staves was called garballed.
Forbidden to make bows and arrows at night, bowyers and fletchers were fined if caught.
The yew stave contains both sapwood and heartwood. The sapwood found just below the bark is resistant to compression and the heartwood resistant to tension thus providing a natural spring.
Mary Rose – where were you when Henry VIII’s flagship was finally brought to the surface it was brought to the surface ? Close to 200 bows discovered on this ship have yielded much information. Beautifully made but still carrying all their natural characteristics ; bends, twists, knobbles.
Draw weight – stored energy , the power you need to propel the arrow from the bow. A normal medieval bow was in the regions of 150 lbs, even going up to 200lbs. Bows went up in draw weight as armour became harder to pierce !
Arrows – were tipped with different heads for different puroses eg, broadhead, swallowtail, bodkin, incendiaries, bodkin, crescent etc. One theory suggests that these were stuck head down in the ground for ease of selection but also as a form of biological warfare.
Surnames – Fletcher, Arrowsmith, Bowyer, Stringer (?), Stringfellow (?)
Costume – it become the role of knights to raise troops from amongst their own lands. Costume would have varied depending on the status of the archer, the poorest looking to strip the dead of precious armor, boots etc at their next battle.
Pewter guild badge – it was a custom for archers to belong to guilds such as St.Sebastian ( bit ironic !) and St. George.! As a result they wore pewter badges signifying which fraternity they belonged to.
Helmets – were often of Milanese design and called open-faced sallets..but this again would depend on the status of the archer and the nature of it’s acquisition.
Pay – 2d / 6d a day. Possible to go to war and come back very well off. Then of course there were ransoms from the capture of wealthy prisoners.
Longbow or crossbow ? – a long and intense debate has been waged about the various merits of longbow versus crossbow or vice versa. Rate of fire, different distances you choose which side you are on. For me it is longbow ( but you knew I was going to say that !) Interesting subject though, and worth looking into.
Two dozen arrows – were provided for every archer at the start of a campaign, then central stores.
Chevauchee – the use of mounted archers sent of a rampage through the landscape, setting fire to villages was a terror tactic that proved very effective.
Tactics – The use of archers with men at arms also proved extremely effective.
Sir Roger Vaughan – Bredwardine..knighted on the field of Agincourt by Henry V
Sir Rowland Lenthall – had a command at Agincourt. Captured so many French ransoms that he had enough to build Hampton Court, Herefordshire.
Sir Robert Pemberton – alabaster effigy in Hereford Cathedral, next to his wife, feet on lion. Fought at Crecy etc.
Medieval Soldier Database : look up your surname on this website and find out if it appears on the recorded muster rolls.
So the ‘golden age’ of the longbow had lasted from 1270 – 1500
There were later attempts to use the longbow in the English Civil War.
Winston Churchill was of the opinion that the in terms of efficiency and accuracy the longbow was not superceeded until the American Civil War with the introduction of rifling in gun barrels.
What of archery today ?
The sport underwent a resurgence in Victorian times with one of the oldest clubs in being found in Cheltenham. This renewed interest was greatly helped by Queen Victoria who was an extremely enthusiastic archer.
The sport is administered by ArcheryGB today with clubs across the country.
In Herefordshire there are four clubs :
Bromyard Bowmen, Lugg Valley Archers , Hereford Company of Bowmen and Ledbury Archery Club.
The opportunity is there for individuals from any walk of life to shoot in competitions, or against themselves and their last personal best.
Archery is very much a social form of exercise and a good method of de-stressing and relaxing.
13/8/17 Pete Dobson