The Archery Library
Old Archery Books, Articles and Prints
Home > Books > Book of archery > Section VI: The Crossbow
Section VI
The Crossbow
Part 2 of 3

The road is still commonly seen in the shops of the gunmakers, both in London and the north of England. Warrington retains its ancient celebrity for manufacturing the steel part or lathe, whence, or from the Continent, the crossbow makers of London, who rarely made any, had their supply. To the latter kind, there is an allusion in Harris's Ariosto:--

But as a strong and justly temper d bow
    Of Pyrmont steel, the more you do it bend,
Upon recoil cloth give the bigger blow,
    And cloth with greater force the quarril send, &c.

John Paston, writing to his brother, thus expresses his uncertainty of getting some necessary repairs done to some arbalists, which belonged to himself and several other members of his family:--

"Also, sir, we poor sans derniers (moneyless men) of Caister have broken three or four steel bows; wherefore we beseech you, if there be any maker of steel bows in London which is very cunning, that ye will send me word, and I shall send you the bows that be broken, which be your own great bow, and Robert Jackson's bow, and John Pampeny's bow; these three last have cast so many calvys, that they shall never cast quarrils till they be new made." A pun seems here to be intended. To cast calves, means to kill enemies; styled calves in contempt. Quarrils are square-headed arrows.

When the bead, which answers to the sight on the muzzle of a fowlingpiece, is properly set, these modern stone-bows shoot with the greatest nicety. About twelve years ago, an individual at Liverpool made a considerable bet, that he would break a wine-glass with a bullet discharged from one of them, at the distance of sixteen paces. So far the feat involved nothing marvellous. The most singular part of the affair was, that any man could be found sufficiently foolhardy to place this glass upon his head, and stand with his face towards the shooter who aimed at it! The bet, however, was duly won; the glass having been broken into fragments, without the slightest injury to him who acted target. I have myself known persons whom practice had rendered astonishingly expert, even with the ordinary crossbow of ancient times. Such was a late head keeper of Lord de Clifford, at King's Weston, Gloucestershire, who rarely failed to strike down two rooks out of three with the common bird-bolt, shot from a road which appeared to have been made about two centuries ago.

This instrument was well known to Englishmen more than two centuries ago. A traveller who visited the western coast of Africa about that period, relates with considerable glee how he astonished the natives by his expertness with this instrument. "I have," says he, "with my stone or pellet bow, in two hours, killed twenty pigeons, even among the houses, which manner of shooting they had in wonderful admiration."[16] By the exercise of some little taste and ingenuity, the young archer may construct himself, or get constructed, a crossbow entirely of wood, far preferable to one of steel, which shall throw a bolt with effect thrice the distance shot by any common fowlingpiece. It will answer admirably for rabbit-shooting in a warren.

The great military crossbow, introduced into England by the Normans, was never very popular with our Saxon ancestors.[17] Their princes of foreign race, however, held it in the highest estimation. William the Conqueror was an expert arbalister; and it is very remarkable that Rufus and Coeur de Lion, two of his immediate descendants, both equally skilful, should have died by it.

During his expedition to Palestine, the favoured crossbow was Richard's constant companion in the field, and with it he caused many a haughty Saracen to bite the dust, from off the lofty towers of renowned Ascalon. Even when wasted with a burning fever, and incapable of taking an active part in the game of war, he exhibited a singular proof of his predilection for this weapon. Having caused an immense shed to be constructed of strong planks, he ordered it to be pushed forward to the trenches, and thus protected, his engineers continued to work in security. Thither, also, was Richard himself carried on a silken mattress; and there he pointed and discharged his crossbow, killing and wounding a number of the enemy. Observing a Saracen parading the fortifications, clothed in the armour of a valiant Christian knight, he levelled his weapon so accurately that the quarril buried itself in the bosom of the presumptuous miscreant.[18]

Richard owed his death to a singular accident. A vassal of the crown turned up a golden statue of Minerva, whilst ploughing a field in the province of Compeigne. Willing to secure a portion of this valuable discovery, he divided it into halves, and sent one of them to the king, who, as superior lord, conceived he had a right to the whole, and despatched a haughty message to the French nobleman, commanding its instant surrender. The order not being obeyed, Richard went over to Normandy, and having assembled a body of troops, laid siege to the castle of Chalus, where he understood this treasure was concealed. Whilst riding alone round the walls, to ascertain where the assault might be commenced with the best prospect of success, he was aimed at from a turret, by Bertram de Jourdan, a famous crossbowman, who formed one of the garmon. The practiced ear of Richard enabled him to distinguish the twang of the bowstring. He instinctively bent forward over his horse's head, in the hope of avoiding the shot; and but for this precaution, the arrow would have struck his head, instead of his shoulder. In itself, the wound was not dangerous; but the square pyramidal head of the quarril rendered its extraction an operation of great skill and patience. Unhappily, there was no regular surgeon in attendance, and the individual who attempted to cut it out, So rankled the wound, that mortification ensued. Whilst thus lying in the agonies of death, word was brought that the place had been carried by assault. Richard instantly ordered the archer who had shot him to be singled out and brought into his presence, and writhing in agony, turned round to demand what injury he had done him, that he should seek his life.

"You slew," retorted the captive, "with your own hands, my father and my two brothers, and you intended to hang me. I am now in your power, and my tortures may give you revenge; but I shall endure them with pleasure, happy in the consciousness of having rid the world of a tyrant."

Liberty and a munificent present were the return made by the hero for these bitter taunts of his destroyer. But De Jourdan was never permitted to enjoy either; for Marcadee, a brutal mercenary, who commanded a portion of the besiegers, enraged at this unlooked-for termination of the expedition, ordered the poor crossbowman to be flayed alive, and then

Hanged to feed the crow,
Spite of his arrows and his bow.
But see the man whose mad ambition gave
A waste for beasts, denied himself a grave.
Stretch'd on the land, his second hope survey;
At once the chaser and at once the prey.
Lo, Rufus tugging at the deadly dart,
Bleeds on the forest like a wounded hart.

That the King fell by the hand of Sir Walter Tyrrel, his bowbearer, is a fact pretty generally known. The following details of that catastrophe, chiefly derived from tradition, may by their novelty amuse the reader.

Charningham, one of the wildest and most romantic portions of the New Forest, is, by oral and written testimony, assigned as the spot where Rufus received his death wound. Here, until within a little more than the last half century, stood the de" cayed and mutilated remains of that ancient oak from which the fatal arrow is said to have glanced towards its victim's breast. Almost every visitant to this tree endeavoured to carry off some fragment in memory of his having been there; and it seemed probable that the spot would be eventually forgotten, unless some more lasting memorial were raised.[19] With this view, the then Lord de la Warre, forest-ranger, living in one of the neighbouring lodges, caused a triangular pillar to be erected, bearing the following legends:--


Here stood the oak tree, on which an arrow shot by Sir Walter Tyrrel at a stag, glanced and struck William II., surnamed Rufus, in the breast; of which stroke he instantly died, on the 2nd August 1100.


William II. being thus slain, was laid in a cart belonging to one Purkiss, and drawn from hence to Winchester, and buried in the cathedral church of that city.


That the spot where an event so memorable occurred, might not hereafter be unknown, this stone was set up by John Lord de la Warre, who has seen the tree growing in this place.

Of all our princes of the Norman race, none more rigorously enforced the laws of the chase than the Red King, or more cruelly persecuted his English subjects for their transgression: even his father had been less unrelenting; and the poor Saxons had no revenge but that of contemptuously styling him, " Woodkeeper," and herdsman of wild beasts. No man of that despised origin could enter the royal forests with dogs, or weapons calculated to destroy game, except at the peril of his life.

In consequence, it soon became a popular superstition among the Saxons, that the devil frequently appeared to their tyrants, under the most appalling circumstances, whilst they were recreating themselves in these hunting grounds[20]. Reports so consonant to the feelings and prejudices of a barbarous age, received a most extraordinary confirmation from the chance which made hunting in these English forests--the New Forest especially--fatal to the descendants of the Conqueror. Richard, his eldest son, there received an arrow in his heart. In May 1100, the nephew of Rufus, son to Duke Robert, was also killed here by an arrow discharged inadvertently[21], and, strange to say, about three months afterwards, the Conqueror's other son fell by the same weapon, in the same place, in the manner I am now about to describe.

The scene of this event is a lovely secluded hollow, exposed to the sun only on the west, where a small portion of the heath slopes gently downwards to meet it. A beechen grove rears itself on the east, and clumps of various trees of irregular growth form a shelter on every other side. Among these, winding avenues of greensward afford access to every part of the forest; and it is altogether just the situation where a hunter might be tempted to repose, when heated and fatigued with the chase.

That was already concluded, and William, dismounting from his horse, had thrown himself upon the verdant turf, with his crossbow on one side, and faithful hounds on the other. So he appeared when found weltering in his blood. A stag suddenly dashed across the heath. The king turning towards it, lifted up his hand to shade his eyes from the sunbeams. At that moment he received the arrow, and as it was found buried up to the feathers in his breast, there can be no doubt but he died instantaneously. Now the common belief is, that when Sir Walter Tyrrel levelled the crossbow, he was not aware of his vicinity to his master. At first the deer had approached at full speed, but not seeing any enemy halted, and began grazing quietly just behind the oak. At that moment the arrow of Tyrrel, who lay in ambush,[22] coming in contact with the body or a branch of the tree, some say it grazed upon the back of the stag,--flew off at an angle towards the spot where the king was sitting. A good arrow is always worth the trouble of looking for; and when Tyrrel found that he had missed the game, most probably he went in search of his. The King's horse, feeding at large, first attracted attention, and then the horrible truth soon became apparent. Terrified at the accident, he lingered not upon the spot; but, setting spurs to his horse, galloped to the sea-side, embarked for France, and joined the Crusade, just then setting out for Jerusalem.

Such is the substance of a tradition, partly furnished by the descendants of the very man who found and conveyed away the King's body in his cart. The accounts of contemporary chroniclers differ from it only in being less circumstantial: they perfectly agree as to the principal facts. Yet, plausible as the tale appears, it suggests more "historic doubts" to the archer, than even that famous question respecting the alleged deformity of our crooked-backed Richard.[23]

I allude to the arrow and the oak, which, from all antiquity, has been assigned as the direct and indirect occasion of Rufus's death. By what means could it possibly be ascertained that the former was turned from its course by glancing on the latter ? The King was alone. He never spoke after receiving the fatal wound. Had he even lingered, or been surrounded by the companions of his day's pastime, neither he nor they could possibly have known that the weapon struck upon any thing in its course. It was unexpected and invisible, until it penetrated the King's body. An arrow glancing from a tree, leaves no mark behind, because the wooden shaft, and not the head, comes in contact with the opposing body. As the sportsman of our day cleans his fowlingpiece, and refits it with a new flint previously to going into the field, so the ancient archer made the steel points of his arrows perfectly keen and sharp on every similar occasion.[24] If one of these struck a tree, it would certainly go no further, but remain sticking in the bark. The oak, therefore, could furnish no evidence, and Sir Walter Tyrrel died in the Holy Land; independently of which, it is very improbable he would recur to an event, whose consequences he had fled from England to avoid. Admitting, however, that he had returned, it would be exceedingly difficult, after the lapse of years, to recognise, among all the trees of that portion of the forest, the particular one which is said to have turned the course of his arrow.

An authority recently quoted[25], a different, and, in my opinion, a much more probable version of the story, although it obtains little credit, solely because no mention whatever is made of Rufus's oak. He tells us, that Henry the king's brother, a Norman baron called William de Bretail, and several other chiefs, were invited to accompany him in that day's chase. Early in the morning a workman brought six crossbow arrows, exceedingly well made, and keenly pointed, as a present to the King. William, having examined them, greatly praised their workmanship; and keeping four for his own use, delivered the other two to Walter Tyrrel, saying, "Bon archier, bonnes fleches."[26] Walter Tyrrel was a Frenchman, the inheritor of large estates in Ponthien, and being a most dexterous archer, became on that account the chief favourite of his victim.

On arriving at the forest, each of the attendants took up his respective stand, according to the mode of hunting pursued in those days, which was to lie in wait for the game, and shoot as it passed[27]. Tyrrel alone remained near the King, opposite to whom he was stationed. Both held their crossbows bent, with an arrow upon the nut.[28] Suddenly a large deer, driven by the foresters, whose duty it was to windlass up the game, passed between them. William drew the trigger of his crossbow; but owing to the string breaking, his arrow fell short. The animal startled at the noise, stood still, gazing around him on all sides, as deer are wont to do.[29] At that instant the King motioned Tyrrel to shoot; but the latter did not obey, not observing either the game or the signal. Rufus growing impatient, and fearful the stag would escape, hastily exclaimed, "Tirez donc, Walter! Tirez donc! comme si même c'étoit le diable."[30] Scarcely had the words passed his lips, when an arrow, either that of Tyrrel or some other person, struck him on the breast. He instantly fell, and expired without uttering a word. His favourite rushed to the spot, but finding life utterly extinct, fled towards the sea-coast, as before stated.[31]

The body of William the Red, thus abandoned, as the Conqueror's had been, was found lying on the turf, which had become saturated with his blood. A man named Purkiss, and his sons, first made this discovery, in returning home through the forest from their daily occupation of charcoal burning. Ignorant of the rank of the deceased, and considering his fate a mere hunting casualty--as indeed it was,--they placed the corpse in their cart, wrapped in a piece of old linen, with the arrow still sticking in the wound, and in this sordid condition, were the remains of the second Norman king conveyed towards the city of Winchester. On its arrival there, not one of the splendid cavalcade who had ridden so obsequiously at his side to that morning's chase, was found to assist in performing the last duties of humanity. On the first rumour of his death, each fled to his respective residence, to place it in a posture of defence, fearing lest the royal succession might be decided by an appeal to the sword.

It is remarkable that when the late Duke of Gloucester was head ranger of the New Forest, a cottager named Purkiss still resided upon the spot occupied by his ancestor at the period of this history.[32] His calling and condition of life were in all respects similar, having suffered no alteration during a lapse of more than six centuries. It seems that a wheel of the identical cart used to convey the body of Rufus to Winchester, had descended as a heirloom from father to son. When this came to the knowledge of his Royal Highness, he desired to become its purchaser, and application was made to Purkiss, who expressed a perfect willingness to part with the relic, had it been still in his possession. But the previous winter was a severe one; fuel proved scarce and dear; the ancient wheel shared the fate of some old palings surrounding the hovel,--having blazed upon the chimney hearth!

But to return. It was doubtless very judicious policy in the English legislature to discourage the use of any inferior weapons, which withdrew men from the exercise of the long bow. Yet even this motive can scarcely account for the vigorous measures adopted to suppress them, which, upon the whole, appear exceedingly absurd. Whilst thousands of crossbows, with all their necessary appliances, occupied our public armories, the clerical councils repeatedly denounced them as "instruments hateful in the sight of God and man." Several acts of parliament were also passed, rendering it penal for persons of a certain rank to have them in their houses; the qualification being limited to such as possessed a hundred marks annual income. The preamble to one of these statutes declares, that many wicked and dissolute persons were accustomed to ride along the public highways with crossbows ready bent, and quarrils fixed thereon, committing wanton outrages on the properly[33], not unfrequently on the persons, of his Majesty's peaceful subjects. Here was certainly good reason for legal interference; but the same crimes might have been committed with the long bow, an instrument far less unwieldy, more rapidly discharged, and, if of small dimensions, equally capable of concealment.