Longbows of the Mary Rose

I couldn’t say for certain that it was the exposure the Mary Rose got that started me off in archery, I think more likely it was the interest I had always had in the romantic notion of a band of English Longbowmen, out numbered, with no hope of victory and only the certain knowledge that soon they would be slaughtered. Instead of running before their foe, or seeking to surrender, they stand steely eyed and grim faced, their trust in God, each other and their mighty warbows. Time and again this scene was played out across Europe and in particular France in the 14th and 15th century.

Place names such as Azincourt, Crecy, Potiers and Verneuil are but a few of the incredible victories won by such characters with the English weapon of mass destruction – The Warbow.

The Mary Rose is significant in many ways, but for the world of archery and most notably longbow archery it is the only physical link to an age when the bow and the men who shot in it were perhaps the mightiest warriors on the battlefield.

For decades or more before the treasures of the Mary Rose were brought up, a debate had raged between scholars, historians archaeologists and archers themselves… Just how powerful were those bows ? and were the men who used them somehow larger than life ?, were they physically bigger and stronger than even the “normal” men of that time who themselves led hard lives filled with hard labour ?

The facts as far as we know them speak for themselves, smaller English armies whose make up was up to 75% Lonbowmen defeated larger armies time and again, it would be ridiculous to say that those victories were not as a direct result of supreme skill with the bow, or that the bow in question wasn’t itself an extraordinary development and departure from “normal” bows.

It would seem that now we have physical artefacts in the form of Warbows and arrows (even skeletons of the men themselves) this particular argument must surely now be put to bed, one way or the other.

There are several bows and arrows on display at the Mary Rose museum but as we discovered in last months edition there is space enough for just 6% of the artefacts which is why the trust is raising funds so that more of the finds can be put on public display. Later in the year the official book recording all the treasures and hopefully drawing conclusions as to the size of both the bows and arrows will be published, with input from many of the most respected names from the world of Longbows archery it is hoped (by the waiting audience) that this will be the definitive study.

For the vast majority of us studying an artefact which is safely tucked behind a glass cabinet is not quite the same as the hands on approach the authors have taken.

However, last month Andy and I received an invitation to come down and take a very up close and personal look to draw some conclusions of our own, we were offered access to the 172 bows and over 2303 arrows and 7834 arrow fragments.

The team led by Alex Hildred are exceptional, Alex herself has been with these bows from day 1, she was a diver on the wreck and has seen the development of the whole project, her approach is very measured and with a knowledge that would put most “experts” to shame she is the ideal companion for us to discover some of these treasures.

I am Longbow through and through, the fact that I shoot all manner of bows takes nothing from the fact that it was the Longbow which inspired my initial interest in archery and to stand with a bow in my hand that is over 400 years old and was perhaps last strung on the deck of the Mary Rose with the intention of being used for it’s only purpose… as a weapon of war… is something quite awe inspiring and not a little humbling.

The level of preservation really deserves a mention at this point, I have bows that look in worse condition than many of the Mary Rose warbows, so good in fact is the condition of the one in my hand that I feel as if it could be strung and shot right now. The bows I am looking at and touching are nothing like the Victorian target bows that most of us shoot today. These bows are long, longer in fact than I had expected, most are over 6’6″ and many approaching what appears to be 7 foot – I am 6 foot tall and although many bows are much taller than I am, there are others that are just 6 foot in length. The shape too is quite menacing, no slender limbs tapering to an elegant nock, these bows are pretty chunky all the way to almost the tips, where they taper to accept a side nock, the lighter cap denotes where the tip was for so long protected by the horn which has since disintegrated, small grooves show where the side nock was notched into the wood through the horn. These warbows were designed to bend through the handle and come full compass, indeed the phrase “shooting in the longbow” is not meant to imply that you would get inside it, that would be a recipe for a very uncomfortable day out, no, the phrase means that from the side profile you would “look” like you were inside it,  as the top limb would be above your head and the lower limb some where around your shins, thus utilising every once of power the bow could deliver.

What is a surprise is the variety of bows, I had expected for some reason that they would have been of a uniform size, having made bows myself I know that a stave will deliver only what it can in terms of bow and there is no doubt that the skilled bowyers of the time knew their craft. The surprise was that there should be such an obvious difference in draw weight from one to the next, regardless of what weights you believed them to be it was clear that some were much heavier than others. The other remarkable thing was that a majority of the bows exhibit a “reflex” in the handle, whether natural in the grain of the wood or designed in during production by the use of heat – we don’t know. The bows are brought to vivid life when you notice the makers marks on the center sections of many bows – chevrons and dashes can be clearly identified.

I am accustomed to Yew bows and own several, the bows I own feel bulky for the weight, first sight of them would make you think they drew at least 10 to 20# more than they actually do.

My initial reaction was that the bows didn’t look as if they would be more than 120-130# in draw, and that was the biggest, it seemed that there were plenty sub 100# bows and even some as low as 80-ish#. Any archaeologist or scientist needs objectivity and patience, above all patience and there I was making assumptions on the basis of my first few moments with the real Warbows.

 A huge step back was required, as much to recover from the sheer wonder of actually holding a “real” bow as from the surprise of them not being as I had expected. To be honest I am not sure what i expected, I have seen plenty of heavy weight bows and I think I expected them to be somehow larger.

Even the biggest bows that I have shot always felt that they were not giving the sort of power that they promised, looking at these Warbows, the differences are apparent, these bows were made to do one job – kill. The bowyers had hundreds of years of knowledge to draw upon, so if the bows don’t look like what I expected then that says more about my knowledge of warbows than of the skill of the makers.

Whilst taking my step back, I can now take a closer look at the bow wood, of exceptional quality and mostly very clean, although there are a some bows with pins the majority show straight clear grain, not all are super close grain but this is wood the like of which we are not likely to see again. Having said that there is a supply of high altitude yew coming in and being made into Warbows, although I have not shot one, these too exhibit the same characteristic of not being as bulky as much of the “ordinary” yew tends to be. Those that have shot them claim less wood is needed to produce more powerful bows – so the bows should not necessarily be judged by their girth. The design also will influence both the draw weight and cast and these bows being made a little thicker through their length and bending full compass will of course achieve greater cast.

With this in mind a second look reveals that these bows are more than they might seem to an eager and impatient eye, certainly there are many of considerable weight here, what 400 years underwater may have done in terms of shrinkage and the salvaging process may too have altered the appearance. The closer I look in to the detail of the bows, the size the shape, the “feel” and as I recall conversations I have had in the past with those who know more about wood than I do, I start to get the feeling that these bows are indeed much heavier than I had thought.

The arrows too gave pause for thought, with the draw lengths ranging from 28″ to 30″ ( the ratio was more in the 30″ length by a factor of about 4.5 : 1)

With Poplar the most prolific arrow wood at 80%, Birch and Alder representing 20% and others being Willow, Hornbeam, Elder, Hawthorne, Walnut and Ash. Given the huge quantities of arrows required where ever Longbows were to be employed it was also interesting to note the time and effort put in to arrows –  most of the arrows were “bob-tailed” ( tapered from point to nock), the next most popular were “parallel”, then “barrelled” and finally even “breasted” ( tapered from nock to point and described by Ascham as ” fit for him as shooteth right afore him” – IE to be used at point blank range). Of course they would know the dynamic efficiencies of tapered shafts, but to be using them on a mass scale when a parallel shaft would have been very much easier to produce tells us something of the regard in which the bow was held as a weapon. Imagine putting horn inserts in to a million arrows. Surely we must think again about the bow as just a weapon used for massed artillery effect and see also that if the technology of arrow making is pushed to the limit then so also must the bow making skills and technology… why then stop even there, were not the archers too the final link in this chain of performance enhancement. In order for all this sophistication in weaponry to be truly effective the operator himself, the archer, absolutely must have been crucial in making the Warbow the battle winning weapon it so obviously was.

We are fortunate right now to be in something of a renaissance as far as Warbows are concerned, with some well known archers able to shoot weights that most thought inconceivable some years ago, I myself am no Heracles but have been known to shoot 120#, there are many folk out there shooting 135# plus and a considerable number shooting up to 150# and beyond. It should be no surprise that the men of the Mary Rose period would be able to do at the very least the same and probably even more.

There are some great bowyers out there now producing bows to the specifications of the bows they have measured at the Mary Rose Trust and by using wood as close in quality ( high altitude Italian yew) as they can get they are coming up with very heavy bows. By producing these bows and by shooting them too you would think that the draw weight conundrum is now an open and shut case. There are however still folk out there who just won’t have it.

Having seen and touched the bows I have learned a great deal, not least of which is that the folks who are responsible for these items bear a colossal weight on their shoulders, they know how important it is to be sure of facts before making rash statements, by engaging experts and listening to their opinions, even when those opinions are at odds they try to bring together all the information to make a judgement. I thought I might envy their jobs but in fact I don’t – what I am sure of is that in Alex Hildred we have a great custodian in whom we can place these prized and unique Warbows.

As regards my romantic notion of heroic warriors, standing with their bows braced for the enemy’s charge….. having seen and handled the warbow, I have an even more profound respect for the men who wielded it – it would be hard to overplay the weapon which more than perhaps any other shaped the world we live in today.

The Mary Rose Trust needs you ! if you shoot a bow then this collection is part of your heritage and we should all play a part in making sure that it is available for everyone to see. The Trust has several ways in which you can help raise funds for the new museum where much more of it can be put on view. One of the most exciting is the Trust’s Mary Rose 500 public appeal, an important part of the final funding drive towards the £35 million needed to complete this historic project, it is seeking 500 individuals, schools, businesses and organisations to symbolically become the ‘new crew’ of the Tudor warship. Each new crew member is asked to raise £500 towards the Mary Rose 500 appeal’s £250,000 target. Why not hold a shoot or special event, you will find all the forms and loads of help on how to join the Mary Rose’s ‘new crew’ or for further information

Archers Review is dedicated to carrying on the great tradition of sharing archery knowledge, in many ways we are still re-discovering the skills of our forefathers, unlike just about any other competitive sport, in archery the learning never stops, as we grow as archers the enjoyment increases, so we invite you to share with us all the skills, tips and hints that will help us all to be the best archer we can be.