Me and my longbow: aiming for the Middle Ages

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.

Archery draw.JPG

Taking aim during the warm up

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.

Target with arrows.JPG

Haven’t lost it then, the ones in the middle are mine!

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…


41 thoughts on “Me and my longbow: aiming for the Middle Ages

  1. Just go careful with those things. Look what happened to William Rufus, and presumably that was just an ordinary bow and arrow. Another interesting post..I look forward to reading them. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    • Funnily enough, I was thinking of William Rufus as I was writing. They can’t have had any chickens to hand that day! Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, John. I’ve tried using a modern version, with all its gadgets and gizmos, but I couldn’t get on with it. Give me a traditional longbow any day. Thanks for reading.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. the nettles poultice and the other herbal one probably worked but the poor cockerels! 😦

    I started off on the club’s longbow when I first started archery – I loved it. I’ve a feeling it was just a fibreglass one though. Then I switched to the normal recurve. Haven’t done any archery for ages though although there’s a club fairly near me at Maryport. My mother was a brilliant archer – put both me and my Dad to shame – streets ahead of us she was…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Ratmobile Adventures and commented:

    We didn’t get up to too much this weekend owing to the weather and the need to drive out to Peterborough to replace our pushchair.

    We DID get a chance to do some Archery however, as my rather wonderful wife explains in here blog – please do take a look.


  4. Wow! That was so interesting! This is a whole new world for me, so thank you for sharing. The chicken thing is just bizarre. But I particularly found the laws concerning longbows and the thoughts about the crossbow fascinating. And a neat tie-in with Richard the Lionhearted. Very cool! Stuart said you were a great writer! I’m glad he led me your way! Thanks! Look forward to reading more.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello and Welcome Lindsay! Thank you so much for your very kind comments, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. If you’re interested in medieval laws, my account of Savernake has a brief account of the Norman forest laws which may appeal. It seems as though you had the same kind of ‘light bulb’ moment just as I did, and that’s something very special and profound. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to swapping stories and keeping in touch.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Interesting post. My brother is currently doing a Robin Hood play and they had an archery group visit them, showing them longbows and the proper techniques to holding the bow. Is it still true that you can practice archery on a Friday afternoon?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope the play goes well – great subject! As for practicing archery, I think it depends where you are at the time, but nowadays I’d never shoot anywhere without insurance and permission. However, there are all sorts of funny laws still hanging on from the past. Technically, you can still shoot a Scotsman with a bow and arrow in York, as long as it’s not on a Sunday. Conversely, you can shoot a Welshman in Chester, but only on a Sunday after midnight. And bizarrely, it’s got to be with a crossbow, that Devil’s weapon and scourge of medieval popes! Thanks for reading, and I’m so pleased you enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think we can if we do enough research to re-learn the way their minds did work… with the symbolism and the earth-rooted ‘superstitions’ that made up so much of their folk medicine.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely – I find that fascinating. I studied early modern medicine in my module last year, much of which rolled on from the medieval era, and it was completely fascinating. Despite having some ideas that would seem bizarre to us today, they did actually give some sound healthy lifestyle advice. Some of the folk medicine must have worked though, and I sometimes feel we threw the baby out with the bathwater with the advent of conventional medicine. Thanks for your welcome comments.


      • I agree. I’ve used herbal remedies for decades… started treating my Dad’s racing pigeons in my teens when they got a cold!… and so many of the modern synthetics are mimicking compounds found in plants.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s so true. I have a lot of faith in herbal medicine and have had great success with it myself. I didn’t know you could treat birds with it too though – that’s amazing! How lovely to have grown up with racing pigeons. That must have been fun.


    • Thanks Kathy, archery is indeed great fun, especially with a proper longbow. I can recommend it – and it’s great for alleviating stress! Thanks for reading. 🙂


  6. Your reference to liniment reminded me of something which sounds similar – ‘poultice’. My grandmother would concoct these as a remedy for swounds when I was a child (quite some years ago now). Though we had chickens, thankfully she obviously did not know of their healing qualities!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just as well, I imagine! Yes, poultices were widely used and were supposed to help with all kinds of wounds and complaints. Sometimes I think we threw the baby out with the bathwater when we made the move to modern medicine, as there were some excellent natural remedies – apart from chickens, of course! Thanks for reading, Albert, and for your great comments. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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