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Saturday 25th of March 2017
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History of the Longbow

By Pip Bickerstaffe

What is the English Longbow? Where did it come from? How did it develop? Why is its accepted form the correct one? Or is it? Why the English Longbow and not just the Longbow, or European Longbow?

The term tends to refer to two distinct and very different types of bow. The Artillery bow, which earned its place in history at such battles as Agincourt, Crecy and Poitiers and a more delicate and finely fmished weapon which came to be known as the recreational Longbow of Edwardian and Victorian times. How these weapons were originally arrived at is far from clear in the historical records. Little physical evidence remains from before the time of Henry VIII and the Mary Rose bows recovered from outside Portsmouth harbour.

These were Artillery bows from the end of their period of prevalence as a military weapon with the early guns beginning to take over. The bow was easy to shoot but hard to master and master it you must if you were going to be able to shoot an Artillery bow effectively. The gun, on the other hand could be handled moderately competently after only a relatively short period of training. Archers were well paid, because they had to be, in order to attract people to take on this demanding role.

Bows depended on high quality imported timber which was getting less easy to acquire and as we upset more and more of our neighbour countries, where it came from, we gradually killed off our sources of good bow woods. Bowyers were established, highly skilled, well rewarded and regarded craftsmen, as were fletchers, much more so comparatively than in recent times. A Longbow today is cheap compared to its historical cost and value.

The move over to the use of guns, therefore, had many advantages which could only grow as the weapons became more sophisticated more accurate and more powerful, and their manufacture made them more plentiful. Another economy of scale was that a good gun would last many years in use where an Artillery bow may last one battle, perhaps even a campaign, but often considerably less. If we look at how many arrows, how many archers and how many bows went to Agincourt, you will realise that at the maximum shooting rate of 12 arrows per minute, we had ammunition for nearly ten minutes continuous shooting. Yet there were a significant number of spare bows available. It was not expected that an Artillery bow in a battle setting would last all that long, and once you had shot all of your arrows it then became a serious encumbrance as the fighting progressed, unlikely to see out the day undamaged even if things went well for the yeoman bowman.

To look back before the reign of Henry VIII and into prehistory we fmd that there is evidence of both flat bows and "0" section longbows from the stone age in the UK and these bows are mirrored by fmds from continental Europe and beyond.

How do the English, therefore, have any right to lay claim to the "0" section yew bow as their own? The fair answer to this is probably that whilst many other cultures have used this type of bow over time, it is very likely that the early Viking raiders brought their own "D" section bows with them into a country where the bow was far from prominent, at that date. It is the achievements of this weapon in the hands of the English which perhaps earns them the right to lay claim to it as their own.

Due to the scarcity of finds in the archaeological record, each new find adds to our understanding of the historical development of the bow. It soon becomes apparent that separate and independent thoughts and ideas were developed at different times and by different peoples.

Skills were gained, shared, lost, relearned, passed on and lost again. In other words the bow does not have anyone clear lineage, in even any one culture. At any given time and place it would seem that a relatively few individual people had learned a lot but often did not manage to pass on their skills before they too entered the history books.

The skills in both usage and manufacture would, therefore, wax and wane in any one culture or area. With poor communications and the desire to hang on to any military advantage that may have been gained, there was little or no incentive for specialist knowledge to become widespread. Hence the development of the bow became as varied as the peoples who developed it; these variations often being governed more by the local climate, the available materials and the uses that the bow might be put to, than by the relative wealth and level of civilisation in which they lived. This would, perhaps, determine just how much time and energy might be available to be put to work designing and developing bows beyond the level required to cover the basic needs of the peoples.

In a hot dry climate, for instance, a self wood bow could become a very light weight, delicate and brittle item. In this climate the composite bow of horn, wood and sinew was developed at a very early age and to a very high level of sophistication. However, in a cold and damp climate like ours, a composite bow, relying heavily on the strength of the glues being used, would be an unlikely line of development when the dampness of the climate would render the water based glues of that era almost useless most of the time.

A wealthy civilisation could be defined as one where sufficient food for a large number of people could be supplied by a very small percentage of the population, working co-operatively for the good of the civilisation as a whole. In such a society surplus time, energy and thought could go into developing more elaborate and efficient bows and, coincidentally art is also seen to flourish under these conditions. Both could be used as a measure of the level of a civilisation attained by a culture. In a much smaller and poorer community a more basic and simple weapon would be employed, initially to bridge the gap between hunger and self sufficiency. The next steps are to use this weapon as a means of defence, and/or attack on neighbouring peoples as the need arises.

The wealthy civilisation was in a far better position to employ the services of an army in order to expand its sphere of influence and to acquire further wealth from neighbouring peoples, and in empire building.

The value of the bow amongst all of the other weapons in use, frequently proved its worth. The more efficient and powerful the bow became the more powerful the reputation of the army, and many references to mighty bows, which only one man could master, appear throughout history. To underestimate the importance of the bow is a failure to appreciate what drove the ancient world. It is easy to see how, in the right circumstances, the pressure to develop highly sophisticated and powerful weapons could and would come about.

To understand the many factors and variables covered in the above brief statements could form the basis of a very dry treatise indeed. However, an overview of these factors does help to interpret and understand why certain bow designs emerged in one area and not another and, therefore, why the self yew Longbow worked well in England and did not appear much outside Northern Europe as a whole, at the time.

In our wonderful climate, in order to develop a bow into a powerful weapon, we were not really faced with too many options. We could not rely on the glues of the day to be sufficiently waterproof, nor were the available surface treatments particularly water resistant either. So our list of available design routes was limited to what could be done with the self bow of wood. Being a simple one piece bow it had to be made long to accept a long arrow, and of a heavy draw weight in order to launch a heavy arrow. As the draw weight increased then again so must the length in order to spread the stress load on the wood far enough for the fibres to be able to withstand them.

A recreational Longbow of around 72- 74" in length will withstand the draw of an arrow up to 30 -32" at draw weights up to around 100lbs. The bows found on the Mary Rose were often somewhat longer and potentially heavier than this, in order to shoot arrows of only the same length. This was one of the design requirements of the materials in use. It would not be too long before a bowyer would stop trying to make heavy bows at 72" or less after he had made a pile of firewood which would last him a while. There is nothing quite like having a bow or two explode to help you to appreciate the error of your designs; it can be quite dramatic!

To accept the English as a nation presupposes acceptance of the fact that the English themselves have a much broader European origin with many invasions over very many years creating a far from clear provenance. Some of us are fond of our Viking ancestry whilst others are keen to be Celts, Saxons or Normans. Few can really be certain enough to claim to be descended from the Angles though we do know that they occupied East Anglia, Mercia, West Anglia and Northwards coming originally from somewhere between Frisia and Saxony, we believe.

To consider the oldest bows found to date in the UK we must look at the Rotten Bottom bow from south west Scotland which is in fact a self yew "D" section Longbow around 6000 years old and of a typical short range hunting style and weight.

The Aschcott Heath bow at 4660 year old and the Meare Heath bow at 4690 years old from Somerset were of quite different designs although they were also made of yew, but the Rotten Bottom bow in spite of being the oldest is in fact the closest to our idea of the modern Longbow.

These bows were all of hunting weights, which would not preclude them from any form of warlike activity as man is, after all, only another animal to be hunted, if not necessarily eaten.

To go back to the Vikings we do know for certain that they were using bows well before they came to England and references are made in the sagas; at the battles of Maldon 991AD and at Stamford Bridge l066AD where Harald Hardrada is said to have been killed by an arrow. At the same time, roughly, the Saxons used bows widely for hunting and William Rufus was said to have been shot during a hunt which suggests that the hunting and war bows of the period could well have been very much the same item in a different context.

There is evidence to suggest the existence of bows as far as 10,000 years ago, in Denmark, so presumably it was a well established weapon and hunting tool long before it became seen as an Artillery bow. Hunting weight bows would tend to be up to around 60lbs draw weight, which would be capable of taking most game and equally would be perfectly capable of killing or seriously injuring a lightly armoured man at that date, at relatively close ranges. The requirements of a hunting bow are accuracy, control and the ability to respond quickly but shooting over short distances. It mattered that you could kill an animal effectively, if you did not want to spend too long tracking down an injured animal. It does not take a heavy bow to do this, more an ability to stalk your prey effectively to enable you to get close enough to be certain of your shot.

The Viking and Saxon bows all tend toward the "D" section, that became more familiar later, and a study of these older bow designs is a useful education for the bowyer. When you start to get too cocky then try making a replica of the Hohngard bow and you will appreciate just how clever that design really is as the arrows shoot out of it at near recurve speeds. The Hohngard bow is in fact not at all dissimilar to some of the American Indian bows and the flat bows used by more recent Americans in the early part of this century.

It has often been quoted that the English Longbow was a development of the Welsh Wych Ehn bows. There may be some truth in the sense that the Welsh were using this bow in Guerilla type warfare and were using a heavier version of their hunting bows for this purpose. The effectiveness of these bows at close range against armour would have probably stimulated the English military strategists to look for a more powerful weapon of war. In doing so they went back to the "D" section Longbow and built it both longer and heavier. The Welsh Wych Elm bows were probably what we would describe as flat bows. If you don't believe me, try making a "D" section bow of Elm and as it fails miserably to meet your expectations and becomes just so much more firewood you will appreciate that it is the concept and not the design which lead to the English Artillery bows.

In 1544 Roger Ascham wrote his famous book Toxophilus; an unusual book in many ways in that it was the first serious work to be written in the English language rather than in Latin as was prevalent at the time. He quite clearly states that a good bow will be made of Yew and not Brazil, Elm, Wych or Ash. He also maintains that tillering a bow is an art that he knows nothing about yet he can describe well what to look for in a finished bow. As he was only 26 at the time and the bowyers were all Craft Guild members it was almost impossible for him to have known anything of the art of tillering bows. This knowledge was jealously guarded and only passed on to apprentices who would be expected to use and guard this knowledge, and in their turn pass it on with the same care and reverence.

The problem is that those who knew and understood the art of making bows both could not write and would not have written about it if they could. Those that could write would know nothing of the making of bows. The closest that we have come to bridging this divide is this work by Roger Ascham which is why it is so important, giving as it does, our best look at the archery world at a time when Artillery bows were still in use and recreational archery was a growing interest.

It is clear from the text that this distinction between war bows and recreational bows is being made and that the recreational bow is the one which he feels we need to consider in such detail as to require him to write the book. Typical war bows were of weights up to around 160-l80lbs draw weight whilst the recreational bow would most likely be no heavier than we use today at around 50-60lbs. The yeoman bowman would train hard before going into battle to build up the muscles which, with an adrenaline boost, would see him through the battle. Unlike today, many more people would be working manually and the levels of strength required to shoot such bows were not uncommon, whereas the nobility, who would shoot recreationally, would be more similar to our own society where, with practice, 50- 60lbs was manageable.

This passage was kindly given by Pip Bickerstaffe and is a section from his book. "The Heritage Of The Longbow".

His workshop is not 40 miles from the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest. It is an old brick building from the 1850's which was originally used to make stockings for, amongst others, Queen Victoria. It is situated in Kegworth which is only 5 minutes from the village of Isley Walton where most of the houses carry the crest of the Bowyers Company, a clear reminder of the original main trade in the village. The other local village of Diseworth is also significant in that it was the centre for arrow making in the area. This is also confirmed by the fact that a very high proportion of the people in Diseworth are called Fletcher.

With this Heritage it is highly appropriate that a Bowyer should be successfully practising his craft in this area!

Edited by Kim Gayton-Pollard.

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