The Welsh Warbow
(Above) An iconic replica yew warbow replica on display at the Medieval History Center of Azincourt (Centre Historique Médiéval d'Azincourt) made by Master Bowyer, Jeremy Spencer
Even before the days of Henry V, South Wales had a strong archery tradition that the North of the country did not enjoy. Gerald of Wales, writing in 1188 about his journey through Wales, recounted feats of archery prowess from South Welsh archers in his Itinerarium Cambriae.
“The people of Gwent in particular, are more skilled with the bow and arrow than those who come from other parts of Wales.”
He goes on to describe the equipment used by the Welsh archers and interestingly is explicit about the bow wood used. Surprisingly, this is not yew, which was the favoured wood of English armies of the Hundred Years War and early Tudor period. All of the137 whole longbows found on board the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII, were made of yew.
“The bows they use are not made of horn, nor of sapwood, nor yet of yew. The Welsh carve their bows out of the dwarf elm-trees in the forest. They are nothing much to look at, not even rubbed smooth, but left in a rough and unpolished state. Still, they are firm and strong. You could not only shoot far with them, but they are also powerful enough to inflict serious wounds in a close fight”
To further demonstrate the brutal power of the Welsh bow, Gerald tells of a Welsh attack on English held Abergavenny Castle. The arrow...
"penetrated an oaken gate which was four fingers thick, in memory of which deed the arrows are still preserved sticking in the gate, with their iron piles seen on the other side"
In order to produce this sort of penetrating force a needle bodkin arrowhead, a type only used for war, is needed. It is obvious that the Welsh archer must also have shot this type of arrow from a powerful, high draw weight bow.
Gerald also graphically recounts the terrible effect of an expertly shot arrow upon animate objects, an English knight and his horse, during the Anglo-Welsh wars...
“In the war against the Welsh, one of the men of arms was struck by an arrow shot at him by a Welshman. It went right through his thigh, high up, where it was protected inside and outside the leg by his iron cuirasses, and then through the skirt of his leather tunic; next it penetrated that part of the saddle which is called the alva or seat; and finally it lodged in his horse, driving so deep that it killed the animal”
Being of Anglo-Norman and Welsh origin, Gerald would have been familiar with the crossbow with its yew prod. This was the main missile weapon in the English armies and clearly the Welsh longbow compares very favourably. Indeed, such was the fear of the Welsh warbow, in comparison to the inferior Anglo-Norman crossbow, that Welsh men were barred from bringing their weapons across the border.
For any medieval history or longbow enthusiast, Monmouth will always be associated with Henry V, born in its Castle in 1387. Less well known is that it is likely he spent his formative years at the Courtfield Estate in Welsh Bicknor. The estate is reputed to have originally been called Greenfield and was given the ‘Court’ prefix in his honour. Henry cut his military teeth fighting Owain Glyndwr. During the battle of Shrewsbury, between Glyndwr's ally Henry Percy (better known as Hotspur), he was badly injured by an arrow strike below his eye. However, he refused to leave the field until the day was won.
The Monmouth cap is mentioned in Shakespeare’s stirring Henry V. Fluellen says to the King…
“Your majesty says very true: if your majesties is remembered of it, the Welshmen did good service in a garden where leeks did grow, wearing leeks in their Monmouth caps; which, your majesty know, to this hour is an honourable badge of the service; and I do believe your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon Saint Davy's day.”
The King replies…
“I wear it for a memorable honour; For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman.”
Monmouth has the good fortune of being next to the Wye, which made exporting goods easier. It is also a short distance away from Archenfield in Herefordshire, which was noted for producing outstanding felting wool from Ryeland Sheep.
On a role of soldiers, who fought at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, is Thomas Capper. The surname is derived from the makers of the knitted caps who enjoyed membership of a craft guild. An original 16th century Monmouth cap can be seen in the town’s museum (centre). Leading expert on the cap is Kirstie Buckland, a Monmouth resident. She still faithfully knits the caps of which the author is a proud owner.
Wych elm was often used for warbow throughout the Middle Ages but are inferior to the excellent Welsh yew when made into a narrow ‘D’ section longbow. However, when made into a flatter wider bow the woods tension and compression strengths are more balanced as the wider belly has more wood to share the strain. Therefore, is it that the English longbow can be said to be evolved from that of the Welsh bow that Gerald described? Certainly they were effective and the Welsh archers were of a high calibre. Shrewd military hawk Edward I was quick to see the benefit of such men in his army, the Welsh campaign had taught him some hard lessons. Welsh archers played a significant part in his many victories over the Scots. It was said that a Welsh archer, serving in an English army, carried twenty-four dead Scots under his belt. Twenty-four corresponded to the number of arrows an archer carried ‘under his belt’. This number of arrows is known as a sheaf and the word is derived from the Old English word for a bundle of wheat. Welsh archers could strike from very long range. A notable period anecdote of the distance that Welsh archers could shoot has been committed to paper for posterity is that of Lleweyn of Nannua during the War of the Roses. From a vantage point in Carnarvon Castle Llewelyn managed to find his mark, in this case the unfortunate Parson of Disserth some 800 yards away across the river Conway on the other side of the town. When one investigates the elevated position of the archer, the exceptional quality of medieval Welsh archery, Welsh yew and the strong winds that blow in from the estuary one can start to understand how such a feat was performed. Given that well after the zenith of military archery in 17th Century England, recreational archers were still recorded shooting at marks some 400 yards yonder the the account is by no means implausible.
However, the yew longbow design is not, of itself, Welsh and has existed for thousands of years. In Somerset the ‘Ashcott Bow’ was excavated and dated to 2665 BC and is found in a number of unrelated cultures across the world. Ötzi the Iceman had a yew longbow on him when he died in the Alps of his wounds 635 years earlier. He and his equipment were frozen and preserved until they were discovered in 1991. Despite the huge time gap, Ötzi would have recognised a Mary Rose bow, as it was so similar to his own.
No country can really lay an exclusive claim to the longbow but Wales and especially Monmouth has an indisputable place in archery history. It is true that the Men of Gwent that used the heavy bow to such devastating effect in a military application.
Perhaps we should leave the last words on the subject to Iolo Goch (1320-1398) or Iolo the Red in English who was a medieval Welsh bard and composed poems addressed to Welsh nobles, including Owain Glyndŵr.
“Supposing I were in yonder sloping wood opposite, and in my hand a bow of red yew ready bent, with a tough, tight string, and a straight round shaft with a well-rounded nock, having long slender feathers of a green silk fastening, and a sharp-edged steel head, heavy and thick, and an inch wide, of a green-blue temper, that would draw blood out of a weathercock. And with my foot to a hillock, and my back to an oak, and the wind to my back, and the sun towards my side; and the girl I love best, hard by, looking at me; and I conscious of her being there; I would shoot him such a shot, so strong and far-drawn, so low and sharp, that it would be no better there were between him and me a breastplate and a Milan hauberk, than a wisp of fern, a kiln rug or a herring-net!”
Clearly, Iolo was a man who knew the effectiveness of the Welsh bow with its 'far-drawn' battle shaft against the harness of the English knight, perhaps even personally! For it was the Welsh who showed the English how to shoot 'in-the-bow'.
A crude drawing of a Welsh archer, approximately contemporary to Giraldus’ description, drawn in the margins of a record. He is lightly armed with a short, characterful bow and a broadhead arrow which was often used for hunting but also deadly for guerilla type warfare. However, broadheads would be very expensive for sustained shooting.
Whether the Welsh bow depicted in the illustration is in scale to the archer is a matter for debate. The late Dr. Gad Rausing believed the Welsh bow to be short and flat but most experts, including Soar and Hardy, think it of longbow design. However, this would have been flatter and far more powerful than today’s recreation longbows. Why he has one shoe is not known. It has been suggested that it is for extra grip on slippery ground but surely two bare feet would be better in that case? It remains enigmatic.
C/O Public Records Office
(Right) A slightly stunted statue of Henry V was placed below the clock face of the Shire Hall in 1792.
The figure seems to resemble Shakespeare’s villain Richard III more than Henry himself. (Left) Strategically located at crossings of the River Wye and River Monnow, only a few fragments – ruins of the 12th-century Great Tower and 13th-century hall – remain of this once-important castle. It was founded in the 11th century by Norman lord William fitz Osbern, and by the mid-14th century was in the hands of Henry of Grosmont, who modified the tower with large decorated windows whose outline can still be seen in the east wall. Edward II briefly was held prisoner in the castle before he was transferred to Berkeley Castle where he died. The castle was a favourite residence of Henry Bolingbroke, later King as Henry IV. It was here that in 1387 the future King Henry V of England was born, to Bolingbroke's first wife Mary de Bohun on 16 September 1387. The occasion is commemorated at Monmouth’s Agincourt Square.