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Home > Books > Book of archery > Section X: Of the Shaft, Ancient and Modern
Section X
Of the Shaft, Ancient and Modern
Part 2 of 3

The arrow then, nearly four centuries ago, during the contests of the Roses, one of the most warlike periods of English history, was exactly the length adhered to by Waring for those of modern archers. Yet all this involves no contradiction. We can readily understand that in remote districts of the kingdom, like North Wales, Gwentland, Yorkshire, and Cornwall, a large proportion of archers made their own bows, just as anglers there at the present day, manufacture fishing rods. Poverty and necessity are the parents of invention. Some of my readers may possibly have encountered one of those grey coated, blue stockinged, weather beaten old fishermen, who haunt the silver ripples of Uske or Tave; Teivi or Maes y pandy, with the constancy of a river god. In that section of a walnut shell, which he calls a coracle[11], see him glide down the foaming torrent as if on a voyage to the ocean of eternity. Innumerable flies coiled round the crown of his ragged, battered, shapeless hat, dance in the evening breeze; in his hand he brandishes a rod formed of a couple of hazel sticks rudely bound together; and his line is nothing more than the tribute of half a dozen cows' tails. A cockney would doubtless laugh at such primitive looking equipments, until his visage resembled Falstaff's "wet cloak, ill laid up." No matter. The spring and play of that illshapen wand; and the colour of those coarse looking flies, are worth the whole contents of Chevalier's shop.

Of equally unprepossessing exterior, but similar intrinsic excellence, was the bow of our English rustic; for like this mountain patriarch of the rod, he was frequently too poor or too distant from any market to purchase of the regular bowyers.

To the wooded glens and rocks surrounding his native village, he resorted for the proper material, and always kept a number of yew plants seasoning upon the beams and rafters of his cottage. Master Nicholas Frost, Harry V.'s bowyer, might have laughed also: though I fancy his master owed somewhat, to no inconsiderable number of these home-made bows, on St. Crispin's day, A. D. 1415.[12]

According to his strength and height, the archer equipped himself. The tall and muscular rustic of six feet and upwards, found a powerful bow of seven feet best suited to his purposes; and his arrows were a cloth yard besides the head. His neighbour, to whom nature had been less bountiful, would be satisfied when the former was less than six feet, and the latter only " three quarters," to which he reduced them if originally of the full standard. It appears, indeed, that it was quite usual for the ancient archer to obtain loose arrow heads, and fix them on the shaft himself. I find many statements of persons possessing a number of the former, without any of the latter to correspond; one being a perishable, the other an imperishable material; thus, in an Herefordshire Muster Roll of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, is an entry as follows:--

"John Hughes. An arrow case and heads for a sheaf thereof, but no bow or arrows."[13]

At the battle of Agincourt, says Ascham, the army of Henry V. consisted of such archers that most of them drew a yard. "In my time," observes the author of the "Discourse on Weapons," "it was the usual practice for soldiers to choose their first sheaf of arrows, and cut those shorter which they found too long. for their use." Among that splendid collection of ancient arms and armour, preserved at Goodrich Court, there is a unique specimen of the ancient English arrow. Some of its wooden stele or shaft, yet remains, particularly the lower part, and from its substance, I judge the shaft to have been no more than twenty-seven inches, and only a few years back, I recollect meeting with an iron arrow, probably five centuries old, of exactly the same length. The jet of the argument, may therefore be enclosed in a nutshell. All our ancient armies had numerous bodies of tall picked men, answering to the grenadier companies of modern regiments, whose strength and length of arm enabled them to draw the cloth yard shaft. Of this class were the archers described by Paulus Jovius. The other soldiers accommodated the size of theirs to convenience, or inferior stature. I trust the reader is satisfied: if not, let him hear one, who to a knowledge of ancient weapons offensive and defensive, beyond that of any other man in Europe, adds considerable experience in practical archery; I allude to Sir Samuel Rush Meyrick, author of the valuable history of ancient arms and armour. "With respect to the size of the bow," he observes; "the string ought to be the height of the man, and the arrow half the length of the string. Now, as from that, to the top of the middle finger, is equal to half his whole height, it must be equal also to the length of his arrow; and the left hand, therefore, being clenched round the bow, will leave just room for the arrow head beyond it; from this it will appear, that a man six feet high, must shoot with a cloth yard arrow, and vice versâ."

The following is a list of the several kinds of wood made use of by ancient fletchers.

Alder. Black Thorn. Sugar Chest.
Asp. Elder. Service Tree.
Ash. Fustic. Sallow.
Brazil.[14] Horn Beam. Turkey Wood,
Birch. Oak.

To these should be added, deal, or the wood of our British fir-tree, though unnoticed by Roger Ascham. An old English traveller in the Levant, describing the amusements of the Turks, observes, "they were admirable archers; and that he saw, among other trophies, at the gate of Belgrade, a head piece, which they held to be petronel[15] proof. It was nevertheless shot clean through on both sides, and, as they asserted, head and all, with one of their bows. The arrow, he tells us, was still sticking in this helmet, and resembled, " as all theirs do, one of those little red ones, which our children use."[16] I have seen many Turkish arrows; they were all of red deal. In an apartment of the Castle of Cauca, in Crete, still or very recently a portion of the Turkish empire, arrows lie strewed in scores upon the floor. The good natured Turkish centinel will allow you to carry off any number for the consideration of a handful of pares, perhaps about one shilling sterling.

Brazil, sugar-chest, and fustic, are West India woods not now used. The black-thorn and elder grow in every hedge; and I think the former would make nice arrows, if procured of a proper thickness to be sawn into lengths. Respecting the latter, Ascham does not mean the hollow shoots filled with pith, of which school-boys make their pop-guns, but those immense butts, of half a century's growth, which are entirely solid. Elder possesses the qualities of lightness, toughness, and elasticity in a very remarkable degree. I make exquisite fly rods from it; and, generally speaking, all wood suitable for that purpose is equally well adapted for arrows, nearly the same requisites being indispensable in both. Hornbeam grows plentifully in our copses. The service tree bears a species of fruit much eaten in the country; but though all these woods are now likewise obsolete, let the archier campagnard amuse himself by making occasional experiments with them. A piece of well seasoned, unbarked easily procured perfectly straight, makes an exceedingly good and strong arrow for rough usage. In shooting rovers, over a country much covered with thickets and brambles, arrows are frequently lost Those of home manufacture will not be so much regretted, and can easily be replaced. Remove the bark with a file, just where the feathers are to be glued, and head them with small iron ferules.

The woods used for modern arrows are lance-wood, lime, asp, deal, and poplar. Of the last the French and Flemings make theirs, and call it arbele. Lance and lime are confined to roving shafts. Of deal, the fletcher chooses the lintels, doors, and wainscotting of old houses, in preference to new timber. I once saw some very beautiful arrows, which Waring sent into the country, with a note, stating they were made from deal upwards of a century old; yet the white wood he commonly manufactures is so truly excellent, that it leaves nothing for the archer to desire.

In early ages they seem to have preferred asp for making war arrows. The poet Spencer, when enumerating the different kinds of trees indigenous to the British Isles, and the uses to which their timber was applied in his time, speaks of

The sailing fir, the cypress death to plaine,
The shooter eugh, the aspe for shaftes so faine.

The vast consumption, indeed monopoly, which the public service thus created, was productive of a very droll contest between the fletchers[17], and another class of men, of a somewhat less romantic calling, viz., the "poure patyn makers of London." In the early part of Henry V's reign, the former presented a memorial, praying that these patten makers might be altogether prevented from using asp, which it appears, they had gradually been substituting for willow, alder, &c.; and, in consequence, aspwood was become so scarce that sufficient could not be procured for arrows, which had been greatly increasing in price.[18] Independently of its fairness, a request of this nature might be expected to awaken the fullest sympathy in the breast of the warlike Henry. Little more than a twelve month had elapsed, since, at the head of his yeomen archers, he

Cropped the fleurs-de-lis of France,

and made its monarch a tributary of the British crown. The fletchers were, therefore, protected, by a penalty of 100s. on every pair of clogs thenceforward manufactured of asp-wood; but as this regulation was very severely felt by the traders in these articles, which, it would appear, the miry condition of London streets in the fifteenth century rendered indispensable to both sexes, the "poure patyn makers" got up a counter petition, in which their grievances are thus pathetically enlarged upon:--

"Mekely beseechen unto your noble wisdomes, the pouere felship of the crafte of patymakers, piteously complayninge of the grevous hurtes and losses that other persons, sometyme of this oure crafte, now cede, and alsoe your beseechers have of long tyme borne and sustained. It is soe, righte worshippfull sirs, that the sayde tymbre of aspe is the best and lightest tymbre to make patyns and clogges, and most easiest for the wear of all estate gentile, and all other, the king's people, of any tymbre that groweth. And there is much tymbre of aspe that will in no wise serve the fletchers to make arrowes of, which is as sufficient, able, and accordinge to make into patyns and cloggs, as is the remnant of the said tymbre to make arrowes."

The privy council contrived to keep the peace between both litigants. They issued an order, allowing their petitioners the use of all such asp-wood as, from its length, knottiness, or cross grain, was rejected by the rival craftsmen.

Though piecing the stele seems to have originated in the wish to preserve a favourite arrow, which had been broken, in Ascham's time it was done for the sake of ornament also. Modern fletchers frequently foot arrows with dark, heavy wood; but they are not so durable as those made from one piece; for the earth's moisture, dew, &c., will inevitably destroy the glue. I never could discover the qualities of an arrow to be at all improved by this process, though our ancient archers were much in favour of it.

Their arrows finely paired, for timber and for feather,
With birch and brazil pieced, to fly in any weather.[19]

Robert' misunderstood the following directions of Ascham on this subject. "In piecing," says he, "two points are sufficient to prevent the moistness of the earth from penetrating into the piecing, and so loosening the glue." "Two points," observes his commentator, " must be taken to signify the length of two piles or arrow-heads." Not so: he is alluding to the shape of the joints only; and many modern fletchers cut them into four points, as Ascham describes, "for gainess;" so that the union of the dark and light woods, may form a regular indentation all round the arrow. Ascham recommends a joint of one single deep notch, like the insertion of the fore-finger of one hand between the two first fingers of the other.

The bard Gwilym, who has, I trust, already found favour with my readers, alludes in one of his poems to

An arrow of quarter'd birch,

using the remarkable Welsh phrase, pedr-yollt, "four split," which has, I think, clearly a reference to the fashion above described. I may add, that his countrymen seem to have been fond of shafts wholly of this sort of timber. David Ranmor, in his ode to Rydderch ab Jevan Llwyd of Gogerddan, speaks of a sheaf of birchen arrows, observing that "out of his handful, not one broke into fragments."

I shall here close my remarks on the stele, by observing, that for very long flight shafts, those curious unjointed canes, of which Guiana Indian arrows are made, answer beautifully. The original nock, which is of hard wood, very neatly inserted, will serve when a little deepened; but their extreme lightness requires a proper counterpoise at the head. I may add, that our adventurous countrymen became acquainted with these weapons at an early period. An emigrant to the New World, upwards of two centuries ago, in describing an attack upon his little party by a band of Indian archers, says, "We picked up eighteen of their arrows, which we have sent to England by Master Jones, some whereof are headed with brass, others with hartshorn, and others with eagle's claws. Many more, no doubt, were shot, for these we found almost covered with leaves; yet, by the especial providence of God, none of them either hit or hurt us, though many came close by, and on one side; and some coats which hung up in our barricade were shot through and through.[20]

The nock[21] of English arrows, for a century past, has been a piece of taper horn glued into the wood. When Ascham wrote, it was merely a notch in the stele, left rather large and round there, as we see in Persian and Chinese arrows. That curious relic preserved at Goodrich Court, furnishes an interesting specimen of the old English nock. The difference of size between European and Turkish arrow nocks did not escape the attention of a shrewd old soldier named De Broquière, who wrote an account of his adventures, "to animate all noble gentlemen to see the world.[22]" He evidently traversed the Turkish empire with no other motive than that of "spying into the nakedness of the land ;" for on his return, he very gravely set about calculating the number of troops and peculiar weapons necessary for reducing it under the dominion of his master. "I would have," says he, "first, from France, gens d'armes, archers and cross-bowmen, in as great a number as possible; second, from England, 1000 men-at-arms, and 10,000 archers; and from Germany, as many as possible of gentlemen and their mounted bowmen (crennequériers). Assemble together from these three nations, about 25,000 or 30,000 men, and having first invoked the blessing of God, I'll answer for leading them from Belgrade to Constantinople. I shall add, that, in case of need, our archers could make use of the Turkish arrows; but they cannot use ours, because the nock is not sufficiently large, and the cords of their bows are a great deal shorter than ours, being made of sinews."

The feather, a very important part of the arrow, next presents itself to our attention. "Unfledged arrows," says Roberts, "cannot fly far, and are greatly affected by the wind." The latter part of this assertion is correct; the former, experience disproves; but although I can shoot an unfeathered shaft eight. score paces, beyond ten or twelve, it flies off at a tangent. But among various savage tribes, whom necessity instructs in every practicable degree of skill, this distance has been greatly surpassed, as the following anecdote will show Mr. Gore, who accompanied Captain Cook in his voyage round the world, was considered a very dexterous archer, and whilst the ships lay at one of the South Sea islands, he challenged Tabourai Tamaide, a distinguished warrior, to a shooting match. The chief, accordingly brought his bow and arrows down to the fort, supposing it to be a trial which could cast an arrow furthest, as he does not appear to have valued himself on being a marksman. Mr. Gore, on the contrary, did not greatly affect flight shooting, so that no exhibition of skill took place between them. Tabouri Tamaide, however, to gratify those present, drew his bow and shot an unfledged arrow to the distance of two hundred and seventy-four yards, which is something less than the sixth part of a mile.[23]

"Neither wood, horn, metal, parchment, paper, nor cloth, but only a feather, is fit for a shaft," says Ascham: the latter being sufficiently plentiful every where, we are not compelled to resort to any of the former. Paper and cloth I should not greatly affect; parchment might serve; that horn, wood, and even leather, were once used for winging cross-bow bolts, is proved by a better authority than his; I mean the collection of ancient quarrils[24] preserved in the armoury of Goodrich Court.

We form a prodigious idea of the ancient consumption of goose feathers[25], on reflecting that at least twenty thousand sheaves of arrows, requiring nearly a million and a half of feathers, went to the equipment of one inconsiderable armament.

The fact that the "grey goose quill" was in small request, save for the feathering of a shaft, ought, indeed, to be placed as a set off against this calculation. If men in those merry days rarely steeped its point in the inky fluid, we well know they often dyed its feather in the heart's blood of their country's foes.

And every arrow an ell long,
   With peacock well y dyght.

Ascham notices the use of this feather, only to condemn it. "And certainly," says he, "at short butt, which some are accustomed to, the peacock feather cloth seldom keep up the shaft either straight or level, it is so rough and heavy: so that men who have taken them up for their gay appearance, laid them down again for the sake of utility." The expressions, "gainess and roughness " lead one to conclude he means the beautiful eye of the peacock's tail feather. Yet, as it could never be applied to an arrow, I suspect he had never seen one fledged with peacock's feathers, and entirely mistook the kind used by fletchers. The Flemings still use the wings of that bird with great success. They are of a fine reddish brown, but neither very rough, nor very gay; and I prefer them to the goose feather. In the reign of Edward II. arrows thus winged were worth one penny each, as appears by the following entry in that prince's Wardrobe Account:--

Pro duodecim flechiis, cum pennis de pavore, emptis pro rege 12 den.
"For twelve arrows with peacock's feathers, purchased for the king, 12d."[26]

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