What can you say about a stick and a piece of string?
Quite a lot, as the local branch of the Devonshire Association discovered last week, after arranging a talk on The Medieval Longbow by Plymouth-based craftsman Chris Thomas, a maker and collector of archery equipment and a bow for hire in historical re-enactments for films and tv.
The English longbow was just a bow to our ancestors, he said. But Victorian collectors gave it a special name, to distinguish it from all the bows which are not made from a single stick.
In its fighting form, it was probably originally Welsh. The Normans had a terrible time in Wales in the 12th century and came home with stories about enemy arrows penetrating oak castle doors and pinning a knight in full plate armour to his horse – through both legs, in fact, after he turned around to flee.
The conquerors set about bringing the English up to speed on the technology and they mastered it to a level which is hard to reproduce today. Until lately, most archery students thought it was impossible for an old-fashioned arrow to penetrate steel. But there are plenty of accounts of it happening, over distances up to 300 yards.
Mr Thomas said he could put 80lbs of pull into a bow at his best but he had seen men manage 150-190 lbs in competition. And the archers of old were bred all their lives to the job. Even their skeletons were probably different, like old sailors who spent their lives in the rigging and evolved ape-like torsos.
But it was not just a matter of strength. To do what they did, every inch of both bow and arrow had to be tailored to perfection. A drawn bow is a delicate balance of stresses, waiting to explode in your hand, but only effective when nine tenths of the way there. An arrow needs a tip designed for the job, whether to penetrate chain mail or disable a horse. It needs a fletcher with years of practice to fix and trim flights of goose feathers, all taken from the same side of the bird, and to bind the stalk so it will balance both ends and not bend too much.
Our kings ordered arrows by the quarter million and went through millions fighting France. They must have sub-contracted the job down to cottage industry level and the best an archer was likely to get was a rough average arrow which needed to be adapted, by instinct, to bow, bowman and job in hand.
There were sloppy archers who were not much use. Edward 1st came home from Scotland complaining about mercenaries who claimed their coin, fired the only arrow they had in the approximate direction of the enemy and went home. But there is plenty of testament to men and machine firing with maximum deadliness and Mr Thomas believes it.
For several hundred years, he pointed out, the bow was a far more efficient killing machine than the gun. The gun became the military standard because it became easier to give a man a metal tube and some shot and powder than to equip and train a “warrior athlete”. But you needed a lot more men, because they basically had one shot each, effective over no more than 60 or 70 yards. The gun, paradoxically, meant armies became much bigger.
As everyone knows, the best bow sticks were yew – cut and whittled to give a layer of flexible yellow sapwood at the front of the bow, putting the bend on a layer of tougher brown heartwood which can take a lot of compression. But as any former schoolboy knows, the average English yew does not easily yield the right branch. Yews were planted in English cemeteries to drop poison and encourage the locals to keep their livestock off the graves, said Mr Thomas. They generally grow bushy and thin here and yew sticks were bought in from the hills of southern France, Spain and Italy, where they farmed them into shape until the aristocracy stopped them, because of some nervousness about what the peasantry could do with bows and arrows.
Elm and ash were common home-grown alternatives and he had seen mention of hazel, though he hadn’t managed to make it work himself.
The string would usually have been made from strands of hemp, twisted and coated with glue.
* Chris Thomas has a Facebook page under his business title of Christophus Leather & Trading and can be contacted by email at email@example.com/