The Welsh Warbow - Equipment Rationale
*please note this applies to flight shooting only (accept the Standard Arrow). Roving marks can be shot with any longbow/string
Much of what we know of the medieval warbow come from extrapolating information of the 137 yew bows recovered from the hulk of the Royal Navy Flagship, the Mary Rose. No other bow woods were woods were found. However, if another of Henry’s ships had suffered the same fate it would likely be different, if they survived the immersion. In a Navy inventory in 1514 the Trinity Sovereign carried two chests of yew and ‘witch hazel’ bows. The John the Baptist carried a staggering 151 bows of yew and 84 of wych elm. A galley called The Rose had 55 yew bows and 40 of elm, probably wych elm.
Thomas, Lord Howard wrote to his counsel in 1513 that...
“as touching the received bows and arrows I shall see them as little wasted as possible. And where your Lordships write that it is great marvelled where so great a number of bows and arrows be brought to so small a number: I have enquired the causes thereof: and as far as I can see, the greatest number were witch bows, of whom few could abide the bending”.
It seems that Howard’s archers were of the same opinion as Ascham.
Warbow Wales recognises that self-yew bows are very effective and command a premium price yet white woods are just as deserving of their place in history, without hefty outlay. Indeed a 1542 statute forced bowyers to produce more whitewood bows.
"For one bow of yew shall make four of elm, wych, hazel, ash or other wood apt for the same."
This was to preserve precious yew for military use.
Although these woods are effective they are not at the same level of performance as their glamorous baccata cousins. Roger Ascham, in his seminal book on archery, Toxophilus (1545) has to say of other bow woods.
“As for Brazil, elm, wych, and ash, experience doth prove them to be but mean for bows ; and so to conclude, yew, of all other things, is that whereof perfect shooting would have a bow made.”
Professional bowyer Pip Bickerstaffe concurs with Ascham and states...
“Try making a (narrow) "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.” White woods, such as wych elm were the medieval workhorses, with yew being the preserve of the gentry and military. Yet we see the second tier ‘meane woods’ being effective enough for the battlefield. In 1341, Edward III commanded that his sheriffs of most English counties were to supply five hundred white bows and five hundred bundles of arrows, in readiness for his impending campaign against the French. Edward’s grandson and namesake, Edward IV (1399–1413) commanded that the settlers in Ireland were to be armed with bows of ‘yew, wych, hazel, ash, auborne (laburnum) or any other reasonable tree’. During the zenith -The supply of yew suitable for heavy livery bows was scarce enough to warrant a statute in the reign of Henry VIII limiting its use to gentry and primarily military applications. During the medieval and Tudor period bowyers were obliged to produce four times as many white wood bows such as elm, wych hazel, holly, ash or pay on pain of a hefty fine. For an archer to use a heavy bow effectively years of prior training at the butts must have been undertaken with a livery yew weapon of commensurate power. Therefore, medieval bowyers must have been able to produce whitewood bows, from readily available indigenous wood, as heavy as yew bows. An interesting reference to two holly bows, presumably for military use, is made in an inventory of equipment at Chirk Castle in North Wales. Even the variation in bow wood quality from tree to tree can be marked. An associate of German cultural giant, Goethe, called Johann Peter Eckermann (1792 –1854) wrote some notes about his research on bow woods as stated that “there is a lot of difference from ash to ash” and concluded that hard- grown wood from the shaded side of the bole was the best.
Welsh yew makes excellent bows. The quality of the best British yew can make a superb bow, indeed this is a fact that was well understood in medieval times. It is recorded that Nicolas Frost, Henry V's bowyer, was sent to collect British yew staves for the Agincourt campaign. Interestingly he was forbidden to take yew from ecclesiastical land by the ever pious Henry V. Clearly when native was good, it was the rival of imported yew. It is important to note that modern Italian yew warbows, is from high altitude yew (not just any Italian yew) so like must be compared with like. Master bowyer, the late Chris Boyton, stated that the best yew he has seen came from Britain. In 1436 Nicholas Hisham of York chartered four ships to sail to Prussia to procure yew staves such was the paucity in Britain. It seems that the voracious medieval appetite for yew staves outstripped the supply of native yew and supply from without was needed. Tax had to be paid in the form of bow staves on imported goods from without, such as wine. Contemporary instruction on their quality was even given, Butler’s Zurich letters to Ballinger in 1538. However, he does not seem happy with his staves that he has received!
"For, whereas each bow- stave ought to be three fingers thick, and squared, and seven feet long, and to be got up well polished without any knots, scarcely one of them answered to this pattern and description."'
(Below) A number of yew rafters in the thatched roof of a Tudor barn at Tatton Hall. They look to have been repurposed from substandard bow staves. Note how the bark and cambium have been removed and the sides squared. It is unlikely that these measures would be taken for barn rafters. (Image by kind permission of G. Anderson)
The fact that Wales has been making its own archery equipment for millennia is obvious given the plethora of indigenous fine material and aptitude of its inheritance. This must have been a specialist industry by the time of Howel Dha, or the Good, as his just laws fix the price of a bow at penny. However, Warbow Wales also allows the use of imported period woods for distance achievements because its use is documented in the medieval period. Davyth ap Gwilym, a mid 13th century archer bard, writes poetically of that favoured Welsh guerrilla technique, the an ambush!
“I aimed between my hands with a valuable yew bow, which came from foreign lands, intending to send a keen arrow from the forest, dark headed, to dye his hair with blood. I drew, oh - Unlucky shot! It passed by his head altogether; alas! My bow is splintered into 1000 pieces.”
It is interesting to note the phrase “I aimed between my hands”, meaning a long distance and, therefore, elevated shot. The origin of the bow wood is uncertain but may well have been Spanish at this time or even Italian. Perhaps he would have been well advised to stick with the excellent timber growing on his doorstep.
Pactical tests shown that if made appropriately white wood can perform effectively. Whitewoods are very tension strong but have comparatively less compression strength than yew. However, if made slightly wider and squarer, the belly (the weak link) has more working area and can cope with the strain. Making whitewood bows wider does not increase production time at all. Walk around a deciduous woodland and within ½ an hour a multitude of suitable whitewood staves can be identified. Recent experiments by talented Norwegian warbowyers have shown that very high draw-weight bows can be produced by replicating a yew bow section but even these are routinely heat-tempered with hotair guns and impregnated with resins for around eight hours to further toughen the wood in a process called malming. Clearly many types of bow wood were being used in the medieval period but were these commonly belly-tempered with dry heat, as seems to be the case these days? It is likely that we will never have a definitive answer but there is evidence that it was not done as a matter of course with tension strong white woods. A Tudor act, in 1566, required bowyers to be prepared produce a minimum of 50 bows of witchhazel, elm or ash in a 20 day period which is more than 2 a day. Given that heat belly tempering takes time to do and often requires the tiller to be re-balanced after treatment. Many modern bowyers have found that the bows also need time to re-hydrate as the moisture content drops to a bow back threatening level. All these processes take up precious time. We are still very much at the steep end of the learning curve about the ‘meane’ woods and this is why Warbow Wales holds records and data for each species. Whether this was a practise carried out by medieval and Tudor bowyers is open to debate. There is no real evidence apart from a cryptic reference by Ascham, again in Toxophilous.
However, it could just be advice to store a bow inside so the moisture content of the wood does not get too high and make it sluggish of cast.
Juxtapose the abundance of whitewood staves in most woods against finding a suitable yew stave. As any bowyer will tell you a fruitless day of searching is very likely! This highlights how precious yew was and how a design that maximised the number of staves per log, often of small diameter, made sense. Yew was precious and obtaining the maximum bows per log made sense. Yew wood possesses inherent properties to deal with a narrow rounded cross section design that white woods do not. Picture the different designs a bronze and steel sword necessitates yet both made of metal. Try to replicate the design of the medieval iron/steel two-handed sword in bronze and the reason a xiphos is so formed will become clear.
Hugh Soar, longbow historian and author, is arguably the world authority in his field. Of longbow sections he has this to say in his excellent publication – 'Coaching Long-bow'.
“Historically, a number of cross-sections have been used. The more important are the elliptical, or ‘ogival’ and the square, or ‘rectangular tapered’. Each is of considerable antiquity and should not be rejected at Long-bow Society Meetings.”
Warbow Wales looks to his trustworthy guidance. It is interesting to note there are no known medieval or Tudor period specifications for warbows.
“Of the making of the bow, I will not greatly meddle, lest I should seem to enter into another man's occupation, which I can no skill of. Yet I would desire all bowyers to season their staves well, to work them and sink them well, to give them heats convenient, and tillerings plenty.” Roger Ascham 1545
The square (or flatter curved) section is a good choice for tension strong/compression weak woods, like ash, as more belly area is available to share the stress. Ash and elm warbows readily suffer compression failures on the belly if too stressed or less than perfectly tillered. Wood from small staves, as many of the yew Mary Rose bows are, have a naturally crowned back which places it under more stress than a bow from a larger stave as most of the stretching is done by its highest point. Back failures are usually catastrophic, not idea in any situation, let alone during action. It makes sense, therefore to round the belly more to take more pressure off the back. It's better for a bow to take a little more set than explode. Yew cope with this ogival section as it is so elastic and , constructionally, it is easier to rough-out and tiller in this shape as the hand-tool cuts are only shaving in point-contact. The modern sub 5/8ths width to depth ‘D’ section is a Victorian concept that is more suited to a genteel York round on the vicarage lawn than a heavy whitewood warbow. Some of Mary Rose bow do not meet this criteria so it seems unlikely that less elastic wood longbows would have either. Indeed, the Mary Rose bow in the National Museum of Wales is outside the BLBS rules and has a flat belly in places
All bow cultures produced designs that maximised performance within their working environment and the materials to hand. It seems unlikely Anglo-Welsh bowyers did not do the same for whitewood bows.
Therefore Warbow Wales has arrived at the following conclusions (for flight shooting only)...
a) Only selfbows made from woods available to Welsh bowyers during the medieval and Tudor period are eligible for flight records.
b) The arrow pass of the working handle section must be the widest and deepest part of the bow and the limbs taper from handle
c) Yew bows must have a section and length somewhere between the extremes of a Mary Rose bows, see link
d) Due to complete lack of evidence all bow sections are acceptable for other woods
e) Nocks - self, horn and antler nocks are acceptable. Side nocks are encouraged. For more information, see links below
Warbow Wales will hold distance achievements for both natural and synthetic strings
a) Any synthetic string material is acceptable
b) Natural strings. Only strings and servings made from natural materials available to Welsh stringers during
the medieval and Tudor period are eligible for flight records.
Currently the string is the weak link in the archer/arrow/bow/string delivery system. Hemp and nettle fibres can grow long enough
to allow for an unbroken strand in a bow string. However, good results have been obtained from Irish linen thread up to 130lbs and exceptional
results from hemp. Warbow Wales archers have successfully used hemp strings on bows over 150lbs in draw weight as thin under 2mm for many shots. Either a flemish twist or double-looped string is acceptable, an example of the latter is illustrated in the famous butts shooting scene in the Luttrell Psalter,
Using modern Kevlar and Fast Flight synthetic strings has, somewhat, skewed the research as a vital link in the chain has been circumvented.
A good indication of string diameter is the size on arrow nocks of the Mary Rose and varied to some degree but none seem larger than 4mm (including a possible serving).
a)The arrows to be shot for distance shall be the Mary Rose Livery x 2, Westminster Abbey Arrow x 2 per bow
Construction rationale and specifications available on the Mary Rose Livery Arrow page, see the link here
b) Only the arrows to be shot must be taken to the shooting line and have personal identification
c) If additional arrows are inadvertently shot the shortest arrow scores
d) All the shooting equipment must be made available for scrutiny at the shoot
e) All arrows will be visually scrutinised by the shoot organisers and put to side arrow that fail to meet the specifications. Any arrow that makes a record distance achievement will be measured and the Standard Arrow weighed.
2. Shooting ground and measurement.
a) The distance is to be measured at right angles to a centre-line down the flight corridor
b) The flight corridor should be marked at a minimum of 50 yard intervals and ideally be largely flat and free from obstructions
c) A marked shooting line must be visible with the archer's feet behind it
d) The fight corridor should allow the current record + 50 yards of overshoot for whatever arrows are to be shot and have safe flank margins either side
e) Care should be taken to avoid shooting into unsighted ground or when public access areas are near, like footpaths for example
d) Distances will be taken with a laser rangefinder (+ or- 1% accuracy) and verified against pre-laid out pegs at 20 yard intervals
a) All shots must be off the fingers but not with a thumb ring. Tabs and gloves are acceptable.
The use of any types of longbow (including laminated staves and bamboo backed) is acceptable for accuracy and the shooting of the Standard Arrow