My last two posts about Royal Hunting Forests and Outlaws have triggered a strong yearning to shoot my longbow, something I haven’t managed to do over the past few months. As the Tingewick Parish Council have kindly given us permission to set up on the village playing field, and the weather was fair yesterday morning, we seized the opportunity to shoot some arrows. And boy it felt good – a bit of archery satisfies my medieval cravings, it’s a good way to relieve stress and vent frustrations, and it’s also great fun.
I adore my longbow. It’s a thing of beauty. It was made for me by a supremely talented bowman called Steve Ralphs who crafts movie bows. He’s consulted and made bows for all kinds of productions, including Game of Thrones, Gladiator, Braveheart and Robin Hood with Russell Crowe. In fact, I’ve even been lucky enough to shoot one of his ‘celebrity’ bows which featured in Kevin Costner’s film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, so my bow comes from good stock.
As I draw and shoot, with that satisfying whoosh as the arrow bursts from bended bow and (hopefully!) thuds into the target, I feel a connection with the people who depended on them in the Middle Ages as a weapon of war, as a hunting tool to catch supper or just for sport. In many ways the bow was a big part of life. Archers were a vital resource for medieval warlords, and in 1252 King Henry III introduced the first Archery Law, making it compulsory for all Englishmen between the ages of 15 and 60 to equip themselves with a bow and arrows, and later in 1363 a second law made it obligatory that all Englishmen practice their longbow skills every Sunday.
But there was, of course, more than one type of bow. Aside from the traditional longbow there was the other, more controversial crossbow. Discovered by Christians during the crusades, crossbows became a leading and powerful weapon of the Middle Ages. On the plus side, they were easy to use, they could pierce armour and they had a good range, but they also had a lower ammunition output owing to their more cumbersome method of loading. As a killing machine they were much frowned upon because crossbows played havoc with the social order. The trouble was, anyone could learn to use one with just a couple of hours of basic instruction, whereas a longbow required considerable training. That meant that any low-born peasant could kill a mounted knight, or even a king, and that just wasn’t on. And this did happen. Richard I, the Lionheart, that famous bloodthirsty king, hero of the crusades and countless wars throughout his 10-year reign, was in the end killed not on the battlefield, but by a lone young crossbowman who shot him in the shoulder one evening from the walls of a French castle he was besieging. Despite trying to remove the arrow back in his tent, the wound festered and led to the king’s death. The crossbow was so scorned that medieval people believed it had been invented by the Devil, and in 1139 the Pope banned the use of crossbows among Christians. But they were too effective a weapon to keep down, so they were soon in widespread use on battlefields across Europe and beyond.
With all this use of bows and the necessary practice they entailed, it’s no surprise that there was the odd accident, and there were some interesting remedies for arrow wounds. These ranged from an ointment made from nettles crushed and boiled in unsalted butter, to a more complex concoction of holly bark, elder and mallow boiled in equal quantities of lard and wine. The resulting liniment then had to be spread over a cloth and applied to the wound, together with a healthy dose of divine intervention, as the remedy states: “by the help of God it will be healed”.
Perhaps the most bizarre treatment, however, is found in a Welsh manuscript, which advises that an arrow wound can be treated effectively by applying a red cockerel’s posterior to the affected area “until the bird be dead”. Quite how long this process would take is somewhat puzzling, as is how on Earth it was expected to work. Luckily, no-one got shot during our archery session yesterday, so no chickens were required, but nevertheless I don’t think I’ll be taking my longbow on my Welsh Castle Quest this summer…