Skip main navigation

Examining an English longbow

In this video, Anne Curry interviews Thom Richardson, deputy master at the Royal Armouries. They examine and discuss a genuine medieval longbow.
ANNE CURRY: I’m delighted to be here in the Mary Rose Museum. We’re very grateful to the Mary Rose Trust for allowing us access to their reserve collection of longbows. And I’m equally delighted to have with me Thom Richardson, Deputy Master of the Royal Armouries. Of course, these longbows, Thom, really are the key to understanding the battle of Agincourt. It was the power of what I think was about seven thousand archers at the battle that really caused so much havoc amongst the French. But seeing them in here, they look pretty harmless objects.
THOM RICHARDSON: They’re, they’re amazing things, really. It wasn’t until the Mary Rose excavations that we really got a sense of what the English war bow was like. And then we found this amazing group of bows preserved like this one. Absolutely perfectly, as if it was made yesterday.
ANNE CURRY: So these were from a wreck of 1545, but I think I’m right in saying that they’re the earliest surviving longbows that we have. We do not have any medieval longbows. No longbows surviving from 1415.
THOM RICHARDSON: That’s right. There are no longbows that we’re sure of. There are a couple of other longbows surviving in other places than the Mary Rose. But those too, are probably 16th century. So from the Middle Ages, apart from the Mary Rose group, we don’t have anything material to look at.
THOM RICHARDSON: And that’s why the excavation of these things was so important. And of course it led to a complete reassessment of the way the English war bow worked, because making reconstructions of these bows. The bows are self bows, that is they’re made of a single piece of wood. And I think you can see that one side, the rounded side, the belly of the bow, the side of the bow towards the archer, is slightly darker heartwood, and the back of the bow is the paler sapwood on the outside of the branch. And those two together, are naturally occurring, form a natural spring and make the bow extremely powerful for its weight and size.
And it was that weight and size that was a revelation. When we started to reconstruct these bows from the Mary Rose, we realise we had the draw weights of medieval bows completely wrong. Instead of having a range of draw weights around 50 pounds, maybe going up to 90 pounds, we discovered that the lightest war bows had a draw weight of about 65 pounds and they went up to a staggering 160 pounds. One thing we can’t see at the moment, are the ends of the bowstave, which were all fitted with horned nocks to attach the ends of the string, string loops, onto.
And apart from one of them, those have all perished, but we know they were there from the ends of the bowstaves. But they were very, unlike modern archery target bows, they’re very simple things. There are no leather grips or anything like that, there. Just a stick with a string on it.
ANNE CURRY: Did you tell me there were bowyers’ marks on them that we can perhaps hazard who might have made these?
THOM RICHARDSON: Well, yes, that’s fascinating. There are bowyers’ marks here on this bow. We can see a little stamped mark from an unknown bowyer. But we do know the names of hundreds of London bowyers. In the 14th century, bowyers had clustered together in London to supply the Tower of London with armaments for Edward III’s war, wars with France. And most of the bow-making capacity of England had become concentrated in London, and remained there until the 16th century, until bows went out of use.
ANNE CURRY: So these were probably made in London, but I think it’s a misapprehension that the timber is English.
THOM RICHARDSON: The timber isn’t English. Yew doesn’t grow particularly tall, quick and straight in English church yards, contrary to popular opinion. And timber for these yew bows was imported, especially from the Mediterranean, for centuries. And that was one of the sort of weaknesses of relying on this weapon, that we didn’t have a home made source of raw materials for it.
ANNE CURRY: So the timber would’ve been imported as sort of tree trunks, so to speak, and then the splitting and the formation of the bow happened in England.
THOM RICHARDSON: Yes, that’s what we think happens. And we find bowstaves being supplied to the bowyers.
THOM RICHARDSON: And sold, and indeed taken into the Tower quite often for manufacture into bows there.
ANNE CURRY: I see there is an arrow here. It’s in a case because it’s terrifically fragile, but maybe we can move on to saying something about the arrows.
THOM RICHARDSON: Yeah, the arrows are very fragile compared to the bows because they’re so much lighter pieces of wood. But you can see, from the preserved examples on the Mary Rose, they’re mostly made of aspen, poplar, thought there’s nine different woods used. You can see the area towards the nock, where the fletchings, the goose feathers were glued and then bound down with thread. And you can see the tapered end off the arrow shaft where head was originally glued. And of course, like all the objects on the Mary Rose, the iron objects have survived very, very poorly. So none of the arrowheads have survived, but all the wood, normally very, very fugitive, has survived in fantastic condition.
So an amazing group of medieval, or just post medieval English arrows to study. Where, before the excavation of the Mary Rose we had but one.
ANNE CURRY: At first sight, it looks longer than I imagined.
THOM RICHARDSON: They come in two sizes, 28 inch and 30 inch, and we don’t know why they come in two sizes. Um, likewise, there’s a huge range of draw weights of the bows, and normally nowadays you would have your arrows spined exactly to the weight of bow you were drawing. Whereas It’s very clear from medieval accounts and from the way that things were stored on the Mary Rose, that they were used really quite indiscriminately. You took a sheaf of 24 arrows and a bow and a bow string, and none of those were made to go with each other, but they all had to work together. And they’re all made by independent craftsmen.
There were separate guilds of fletchers, longbow string makers, bowyers, all making their own individual product which had to work with the products of the others.
ANNE CURRY: You mentioned sheaf of arrows. I’m right in thinking that there are no quivers in this period. How would the 24 have been bound together?
THOM RICHARDSON: The 24 arrows were bound together like a sheaf of corn with hemp twine. And when they reached the battlefield that could then be unwound, retied, and tied around the archer’s waist, so the packing material became the equipment to carry it into battle with.
ANNE CURRY: So we must imagine that every archer had at least 24 arrows. Maybe there were other supplies they could have drawn on?
THOM RICHARDSON: The records in the 14th century show that the issue of one bow, two sheaves of arrows, and five bow strings to each archer for a campaign seems to become standard from very early on. And it’s quite likely that an archer would have to manage with that for a campaign. Whether an archer would have two sheaves or one sheaf of arrows on the battlefield is debatable, but there’s almost no probability they would have any more.
ANNE CURRY: So how long is a longbow?
THOM RICHARDSON: Well, a longbow is normally a man’s height, and if we have a look at this longbow, you can see, I’m six-foot-one and that’s how long a longbow is.
ANNE CURRY: Well, thanks very much, Thom. I think that’s been very revealing and given us new insights into the actual practise of archery at the Battle of Agincourt. Thank you very much.
“The longbow is the key to understanding Agincourt…”
In this video, Anne interviews Thom Richardson, deputy master at the Royal Armouries, at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth. They examine and discuss a genuine medieval longbow and its arrows.
The Mary Rose was a Tudor warship, which sank near Portsmouth in 1545, in the reign of King Henry VIII. The wreck of the ship was raised in 1982 and years of conservation work and archaeological study have resulted in the creation of a wonderful museum, in Portsmouth, UK. Here you can see the wreck of the ship, alongside a treasure trove of artefacts from the Tudor period.
The archaeological discoveries made by the Mary Rose Trust transformed our understanding of English longbows. Prior to the discovery and raising of the Tudor warship, no original medieval longbows were in existence and only one arrow from the period.
After watching the video, tell us what new or surprising things you discovered about English longbows.
This article is from the free online

Agincourt 1415: Myth and Reality

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education