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Home > Books > Badminton > Chapter VIII: Archery Tackle in the Middle Ages
Chapter VIII
Archery Tackle in the Middle Ages
By Viscount Dillon
Part 1 of 2

OF the actual bows and arrows used by the English soldiers at the time when these weapons held the first place in our armies as arms of offence there are few, if any, specimens. There are bows at the Tower and in the Museum of the Royal United Service Institution, recovered from the wreck of the 'Mary Rose,' and heads of arrows have been occasionally dug up in various parts of England. It is from these materials, assisted by contemporary drawings, often not carefully executed as to details, from various Acts of Parliament, and orders issued to and by the sheriffs of the various counties, that we have to reconstruct, as it were, the ancient bow and arrow.

The bows were made of yew, basil, wych elm, ash, hazel, &c., and were about 6 ft. 4 in. long. From a very early date foreign yew was recognized to he the best material; it was imported from Spain, Italy, Portugal, and other places, and on several occasions these countries are found forbidding the export of bowstaves to England.

The price of bows varied at different times. Thus, in 1341, white bows are mentioned at 12d. and painted bows at 1s. 6d. In 1470 Roger Staunton of Canterbury supplied 'five sheaf of arrows and twelve bows de Whythe' for 12s. 4d. Ten years later, John Symson of London receives 20s. for ten bows and 34s. 8d. for twelve sheaves of arrows, the red leather arrow cases costing 9d. and the belts 2d. each. In 1482, by statute, longbows of yew were not to cost more than 3s. 4d. and in 1541 the bowyers of London supply fourteen bows at 8d. each but these must have been very common ones, for in 1518 we again find bows at 3s. 4d., and the sheaf of arrows and furniture at 5s. 4d. Again, in 1525 bows at 7d. occur, 3s. 4d. seems to have been the regular price all through the reign of Elizabeth, though in 1572 there was a petition from the bowyers of London, stating that within forty years of that date two Stillyard men, one of whom, Melchior Mellin, was then living, had got the whole trade, and raised the price from 40s. per hundred to 6l. 10s. 'which was the price given by Henry VIII. for those selected for his service and yet not good, so he sent two men of science into the country where they grew , who chose 10,000, which were marked with the crown and rose and were the goodliest ever brought into England.' This evidently refers to the bowstaves as imported, and not to the finished bows.

In 1510 is mentioned part payment of a sum of 400l. made to the bowyers of London for making 10,000 bows, and the same year Henry VIII. applied through Piero di la Pesaro for leave for his agent to import from Venice 40,000 bows. Permission was granted for a part of this order, though it was stated to be contrary to the law, and a payment of 762l. 15s. for bowstaves es to Anthony Baveryn probably refers to this purchase Many similar instances of bows purchased abroad are to he found at this time. IIn 1518 5 I the weapons for the King's Guard are mentioned ret bows 3s 4d. and furniture 5s. 4d.

In the 29th year of Henry VIII., Henry Pykman, Thomas Bolley, William Rucksted, John Snodon, and Robert Patty, received 200l. 13s. 4d. fur making 6,000 bowstaves into bows. This was at the rate of 8d. a piece, but: H. Dicker for similar work on 758 bowstaves got only 7d. each. Ten years later the price paid to certain bowyers of London was 8d. In 1561 bowstaves were obtained from Naples at 9l. the hundred, and bows ready made, except the horns, at 3l. 10s.; these bowstaves were 6 ft. 6 in. long. In 1562 the following prices were paid: for a bow of yew 2s. 8d. bowstrings 6d. a dozen, livery arrows 1s. 10d. the sheaf of 24. In 1570 bowstaves 2l. per hundred, bows 3s. 4d. each, and arrows 2s. the sheaf, bowstrings being the same price as before. In 1436 Nicholas Hisham of York had license to sail to Prussia with four ships in quest of woods for spears and bows, there being a scarcity of such wood in England. We are not told their actual provenance, but in 1448 the King of Portugal sent a present of 4,900 quarters of yew for bows. Perhaps the climate of Portugal was equally favourable to the growth of the wood with that of Italy.

96. Archer shooting at a sphere.
96. Archer shooting at a sphere.
(Chronicle of John Gore; Cotton MS. Tiber. A. H. f. 9b. Middle of fifteenth century)

At the Royal United Service Institution is preserved a longbow, recovered in 1841 from the wreck of the 'Mary Rose,' sunk in 1545. At the Tower of London, also, are two of the same store of weapons. The more perfect of these in the Tower is 6 ft. 4 3/4 in. in length, and the following measurements will give some idea of the substance of the bows. At a distance of 1 foot from either end, which is roughly pointed, the girth is 3 1/4 inches, at 2 feet it increases to 4 inches, attaining a maximum of 4 1/2 inches at about 2 ft. 10 in. from each end. At this thickest part of the bow the wood is some 1 1/2 inch across, with a substance Of 1 1/4 inch. The section is a flattish arc on the outside, and an almost semicircular one on the inside. The wood of which these bows are made is of close grain with knots at about four to five inches apart. There is no notch on tile extremities, nor does there appear to have been any leather or other 'arming' at the part where the how was held in the left hand.[1] The action of the sea water, while fairly preserving the substance of the wood, has left a number of small slightly raised spots about 6 inch in diameter, as though these parts had been less acted on by the water than the remainder of the bout Fig. 97 is a good representation of one of these bows.

Under the date 1574, among the Hatfield Papers, is a document which affords some slight information as to the source whence these weapons were derived in Queen Elizabeth's reign. This paper states that there were then four places from which bowstaves were obtained--namely, from yew-trees which grew in or about the Bishopric of Salzburg, being conveyed down the Rhine and Main to Dort, and thence shipped to England. This trade was formerly in the hands of the Nuremberg merchants, who had a monopoly from the Emperor Charles V. In 1574 these bows were sold in London at the Stillyard at 15l. to 16l. the hundred. The next kind were those from Switzerland, above Basle, and their price was some 3l. or 4l. less than the first. A third kind came from the East countries, such as Revel, Dansk, Polonia, and all countries cast of the Sound. These were worth at most 4l. to 5l. per hundred, being of hollow wood, and full of sap by reason of the coldness of those countries. The fourth class came from Italy and were brought over by the Venetians These bows were of the 'principall finest and steadfastest woods by reason of the heate of the sun, which drieth up the humiditie and moisture of the sappe.'

(From the 'Roman de la Rose'; Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 4425, f. 18b. About 1500)

In one of the Zurich letters from Butler to Ballinger occurs the following:--'Each bow stave ought to be 3 fingers thick and squared, and 7 feet long; to be well got up, polished, and without knots.' These appear to have been the bowstaves in the rough, and they must afterwards have been trimmed down to the dimensions of the ' Mary Rose' examples. It may be noted that there are instances, besides that already mentioned of bows being marked with a rose and crown for Henry VIII., of such marks being placed on bows, as those made at Cambray were stamped with an eagle, while at Lille the arms of that town were painted on them. The 'Mary Rose' bows show no signs of any mark, but that may be due to their long submersion.

Sir John Smythe in 1590 mentions that the bowstrings used in his time were made of very good hemp, with a kind of waterproof glue to resist wet and moisture, and being also whips with fine thread they very seldom broke, though in such case the archer always had ready two more prepared strings.

It is not certain that any of the arrows used in war by the English archers now exist. Sir S. R. Meyrick describes[2] an arrow in his possession as being the only old English arrow known; it was found in the moat of Clifford's lower, York. Leland says this fortress was in ruins in his time, and from this Sir S. Meyrick assumes that the arrow must date from the fifteenth century. The place, however, was put into a state of defence in the time of Charles I., and it might therefore belong to this later period. This arrow[3] appears to be 'barrelled,' and like an Eastern one it swells at the nock, which is without horn. The head has originally been lance-shaped, with a socket for the end of the wood to fit into.

Mr. A. J. Kempe says[4] that in 1825 he saw at Cotehele, in Cornwall, some arrows which he believed to be old English. They were 3 ft. 2 in long, and it is a curious coincidence that Hall says that the Cornish archers of the rebel party who defended the high road at Deptford Bridge in 1446 shot arrows 'in length a full yarde.' Unfortunately, these arrows are no longer at Cotehele, nor is anything known of them.

In the Chapter House, Westminster Abbey, there is an old arrow 30 1/2 inches long which was found some years ago in a tower of the Abbey. The nock is plain, and cut at right angles to it there is a slit which extends some way up the shaft; possibly it was intended to receive a slip of horn to strengthen the arrow at this point, though it seems too narrow for the purpose. Silk or thin thread appears to have been wound spirally round the end to fasten on the feathers, and to have been afterwards covered with pitch or some similar substance. The head has been barbed, but seems hardly strong enough for a war arrow.

There is, however, no certainty as to any of these examples, and we must therefore, so far as the wood and the feathers are concerned, rely on what we can gather from writings. With regard to the wood, the French proverb, 'Faire de tous bois flêches' --to make any shift--probably applies to English arrows as well as to others; but, judging from the statute of Edward IV., forbidding the patter-makers to use timber called aspe, it seems that this was the favourite material, at least in the fifteenth century.[5] In 1368 letters to the sheriffs specially forbade the use of green wood, which was doubtless used by some of the unprincipled arrow-makers. Dry wood was necessary to avoid warping, and the expression straight as an arrow referred to the object itself, not to its flight, which was not in a straight line.

Drayton, in his 'Polyolbion,' mentions arrows 'with Birch and Brazill peecèd to flie in any weather.' And in the play of 'Albumazar,' 1614, one of the characters says, 'I'llinform against both, the fletcher for taking whole money for peic'd arrows.'

As to the length of the arrows, it has generally been said that the war arrows were a yard long, and, taking the arrow at half the length of the bow, which was to be of the archer's height, we must suppose that only some men used such arrows. Peacham, writing in 1638, speaks of 'those arrows of a yard or an ell long which hang by the walls in many places of the north and most part of England, which the owner's grandfather or great-grandfather left behind him for a monument of his loyal affection to one of the Roses under whose conduct he served as an archer.' Both this writer and Hall rather suggest that arrows of such a length were peculiar to certain parts of England and, we may suppose, were not the invariable custom. In 'The King and the Hermit' we read of 'an arrow an elle long,' and in many other poems a like dimension is given; but allowance must be made for poetical license, and it is probable that these arrows varied in size as much as the archers themselves and their bows. In a patent roll of 12 Edward I., arrows an ell long, with steel heads and four strings to each bow, occur.

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