Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Archer's Tale - Part 6: The Legacy of the Crooked Stick

As the bow and cloth-arrow gradually gave way to the noise and smoke-filled fury of gunpowder, so did the close-knit Medieval societies that had produced the hardened archers of old pass away to allow the modern world to replace it.  Warfare now belonged to uniformed professionals fighting under the flags of nation-states in which aristocratic warrior classes were gradually becoming nothing more than an antiquated relic.  After the French Revolution, it disappeared entirely.  However, to say that the men of the bow left no further influence on the land that had triumphed so gloriously with it would be criminally incorrect.

England never forgot the weapon that had once made it feared across Europe, and the influence of the archer can be seen throughout English history long after the last cloth-arrow had been loosed in anger.  It has already been covered earlier that England's national flag, the Cross of St. George, was first used as the badge worn by all archers serving in France since the reign of Richard II.  Even after the warbow was replaced by the musket, archery became the sport of choice amongst both common and wealthy classes - and remains a highly popular sporting event to this day.  Presently, England is full of Archery Societies and Clubs who compete locally and internationally and, although the longbows used now are vastly inferior to those that wrought such destruction at Crécy and Azincourt, the official terms and language still in use are those that would have been used by the rough-hewn volunteers that practiced for adventures in France on their village greens in "Merri Englande."  The Queen herself still maintains a Royal Company of Archers that (ceremonially) continues to serve as her Majesty's personal guard ... in Scotland.  One supposes that the poor Scots will never cease to be reminded of the weapon that ended - with such fierce finality - any ambitions of being their southern neighbor's equal!

The Queen's Royal Company of Archers mustered for parade in Edinburgh.
In a much deeper sense, the spirit of those desperate adventurers who found comforting familiarity in the crooked stick also left an indelible stamp upon the English identity.  For many ages after they had exited the battlefield, the archer came to embody the stubborn indomitability of the common Englishman when confronted by overwhelming odds.  Every time the English people faced crisis, memories and tales of the archers always resurfaced.  When the prospect of possible invasion loomed during the darkest days of the Napoleonic Wars, Englishmen began to train with their bows again - and no longer for sport.  Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington and future victor at Waterloo, longed for the return of a weapon that would strike terror into French hearts and actually petitioned Parliament to look into the possibility of raising a company of warbows for his Peninsular Campaigns.  Taking him very seriously, an official investigation was conducted for almost two years, finally concluding, sadly, that "none were left alive who possessed the skill."  Had there still been, one wonders how differently the fate of Napoleon's Revolutionary empire would have been had he faced Englishmen wielding France's ancient nemesis - a weapon that (by its 14th Century standards) still would have outperformed the muskets of the day in terms of effective range and rate of fire.  This memory carried on even into the mud and horror of the Great War - as the British Expeditionary Force fought its first major engagement against the German Empire at the Battle of Mons in 1914AD, rumored sightings of ghostly archers bearing the Cross of St. George firing spectral cloth-arrows into the advancing Germans circulated throughout the trenches and in newspapers back home.  Although one could easily dismiss such tales as pure fantasy, it would be an injustice to deny that the spirit of that stodgy "band of brothers" who had held their ground against overwhelming odds was still present within the young men that faced the terrors of modern mechanized warfare for King and Country.

The "Ghost Archers" of Mons, 1914AD.
Despite ushering its world - and existence - off the stage, Modernity has not been all bad for the warbow.  Due to an incredible increase in scholarly interest over the bow and the men who used it, fascinating archaeological discoveries have been made in recent times that give us a vastly clearer look into the world of the English archer.  One of the greatest breakthroughs came with the 1971 excavation of the remarkably well-preserved wreck of the Mary Rose - the pride of the Royal Navy during the reign of Henry VIII.  In 1545AD, the Mary Rose - a heavy carrack class warship - engaged French galleys in the Solent Channel in Southeast England.  As she turned to face the French fleet, she listed too far to one side, allowing water to pour in through the open gun ports.  Within minutes, the Mary Rose capsized, trapping and drowning around 90% of her crew, to include a large contingent of archers.  There she lay for over 300 years, until amateur divers in the 19th Century began salvaging for historical relics.  None of these efforts yielded much due to the technological limitations of the times and the Mary Rose remained largely undisturbed.  However, with the advent of modern salvage technology, it became possible to fully excavate the wreck.  As divers surveyed the ship, it was discovered that the vast majority of it lay under packed layers of silt that had preserved it almost to a miraculous degree.  Once the Mary Rose was lifted and archaeologists sifted through the largely intact wreck, a veritable treasure trove of artifacts were found, to include some of the best preserved yew bow staves and arrowheads ever found from a period when they were still used in battle.  To say that warbow enthusiasts were thrilled would be an understatement and a furious amount of research was poured into these finds.  From the Mary Rose bows, researchers were able to determine how these weapons were crafted, the materials they were made of, the power of their draws, and other key technical elements of these now-extinct weapons.  Today, the Mary Rose and her artifacts, to include the warbows, are housed in their own museum in Portsmouth.

The now-preserved bowstaves from the Mary Rose
Although the discovery of the yew bowstaves in the Mary Rose had been a Godsend to warbow scholars, there were still some key questions that had yet to be answered - mainly, who were the men that wielded these incredibly powerful weapons and what were they like?  Researchers were amazed at the size and draw power in the bowstaves they pulled from the silt in the Solent and deduced that it must have taken immense upper body strength reinforced with life-long training regimens to have wielded such weapons effectively.  With only a few vague references to firing techniques from writers of the time to go from, what the men of the bow would have looked like was still mostly a guess.  However, another key breakthrough came when, in 1991, an English construction crew stumbled upon human remains in what appeared to be a mass grave.  The location was just outside a small town called Towton.  Having unwittingly uncovered a mass grave from the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, archaeologists and historians descended on the site en masse.  The remains were remarkably well-preserved and the complete skeletons of 43 individuals were identified in the 6m x 2m pit.  As the remains were meticulously researched, it was noted that all were male, the ages varied from teenaged to around 55, and all had died from violent wounds - mostly in the head and face.  Forensics experts called in to analyze the remains also noted that some of the individuals had the same sort of peculiar bone development in the shoulder and back region - denoting an overdevelopment of the back and shoulder muscles of those individuals from a particular sort of constant use and stress.  Warbow experts immediately recognized the sort of activity that would have given an individual that sort of development - a lifetimes-worth of training and combat with the 110-120lbs draw weight of the English warbow.  At last, the archer had been found and now we could see what he would have looked like.  Today, the Towton Mass Grave Project continues to research artifacts found within the battleground site and has made substantial contributions to the study of Medieval warfare in the period of the Wars of the Roses.

Excavating the Towton Mass Grave.
Armed with this new and intimate knowledge of the warbow and its archers, numerous individuals have taken up recreating them for the sake of posterity.  Numerous warbow reenactors and craftsmen can be found today, mostly in England, displaying not only the deadly power of the once-feared weapon, but also the lives and mannerisms of the archers who helped make their nation's story.  One that I know personally is The Free Company of Aquitaine, founded in 2011 and headed by warbow enthusiast Nick Birmingham of Southampton and London.  At the risk of sounding like an endorsement, Nick and his fellow reenactors have done superb work bringing to life the world of the English archer and display some beautiful handcrafted specimens of authentic warbows reconstructed in the style of the period.  Currently, Nick is producing a video series in which he will craft a yew warbow in the fashion that they would have in the Medieval period.

As I finish this series, the immense importance of historical identities upon the nations they helped create impresses itself upon me.  Yes, while the archer has come and gone from the hectic clashes of the battlefield, his character survived in his descendants through the centuries to help them and their country survive the various crises that the passage of time would bring.  That is the real legacy of the men of the bow, who picked up their meager belongings to set forth and make Europe tremble with their "crooked sticks" and "grey goose-wings."  It is a story well-worth retelling, for - as author Bernard Cornwall rightly put it - the longbow's story is, in large part, England's story.  Were you to somehow tell the archer this, I imagine his only response would be to crack a wry grin before laying down amongst the red poppies and closing his eyes for some badly needed rest.

Sources Referenced:

Robert Hardy, Longbow - A Social and Military History, Haynes Publishing, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. I keep meaning to write and let you know what an amazing reference your series is. These are fantastic, and you should seriously look into getting them published somewhere! Thank you for all your hard work!