Last week (3rd of August 2017) we lost a great British actor, historian and toxophilite. Like many people of my age, Robert Hardy first came to my attention as the slightly intimidating Siegfried Farnon in the 1978 BBC production All Creatures Great and Small. I admired his acting in film and television many times after that but only quite recently did I realise what a leading light he was in the world of the longbow.
Four or five years ago, after thinking about it for the previous twenty, I bought my first longbow. Way back when I was a boy of eight my parents bought me what I now know was a flatbow. We lived in a beautiful English village surrounded by fields and I spent the long summer days roaming with my bow, shooting the sky, hay bales and old tree stumps. Happy memories.
The passion for the longbow stayed with me and re-emerged as part of a general life reboot, one of my new list of eclectic things I wanted to finally do, along with learning to paint, dive and use sea kayaks. And with the bow came the research into its history, the Hundred Years War of course, and the role of the bow beyond that through the Wars of the Roses and into its twilight years in the Tudor period.
And within that reading and Internet searching I started to encounter Robert Hardy; what a surprise to discover that not only had he an interest in the subject but that he was an internationally-recognised authority. I was also very fortunate to acquire a copy of the book that adorns so many shelves in the homes of archers, ‘The Great War Bow’ by Hardy and Strickland, signed by the great man himself.
Robert Hardy became enthralled with the longbow and if you ever get to see a real one up close it’s not difficult to understand why. A traditional longbow is also known as a self-bow, meaning that it is made from a single piece (a ‘stave’) of wood. Although self-bows can be made from a variety of materials ranging from British ash to the more exotic bamboo, arguably the most famous material is yew.
In my view, a solid yew longbow is as much a piece of art as it is a tool or weapon. The curve of the wood – yew bows are often referred to as ‘crooked sticks’ – and those glorious colours. The darker wood is part of the heart of the tree, powerful fibres that strongly resist compression forces. The lighter, cream-coloured fibres are from the outer sap wood which is excellent at resisting extension and stretching. Together they form a natural laminate and work in perfect harmony to deliver immense power at the moment of firing. The French in the 14th and 15th centuries came to greatly respect and fear the archers of the English army, with their yew longbows and linen bags of bodkin-tipped arrows. The battles of Crécy and Agincourt (Azincourt) have now passed almost into legend as a result, although they bear some careful research if you want to strip away much of the hype.
The natural laminate of yew can be compared with modern laminated longbows which can deliver more power for a lower weight and narrower profile. Modern glues and resins weren’t available in the 12th-16th centuries making laminating difficult at best and impractical in the main. Hence yew was such a sought-after material to the extent that the import of yew staves became a form of tax to international importers – yes we’ll buy your Italian wine and leather, but you need to bring 100 yew bowstaves with you as well as import tax. Hey, maybe we can resurrect that as part of the Brexit deal?
The bows in the images above are not fairly matched. The yew selfbow draws (requires an effort to draw it of) 76lbs while the laminate draws about 40lbs these days. And therein lies one of the problems with wooden bows – they lose power. My laminate bow was 46 lbs when I bought it and I could barely draw it to my chin. Admittedly my physique has changed over the years – I now have muscles across the top of my shoulders, back and base of my neck I never had before – but nevertheless the bow has diminished. These days I hardly notice when I draw back that lovely Bickerstaffe laminate. Not so the yew bow. As practiced as I am with my original longbow I still struggle to draw the yew to my ear, warbow-style. (The laminate is built for a 28″ draw, the yew for 32″.)
Also, the laminate is as sweet as can be on the release, a constant joy to shoot. The yew bow, though I love it dearly, is a bit of a beast and kicks like one. It takes about a dozen arrows to warm it up and quieten it down and until then there is a noticeable amount of hand-shock on the release. Make no mistake though, the target at the other end feels it more. It still amazes me to think that the great yew war bows were 130-140lb draw weight weapons, essentially twice the draw of my own yew bow. Very few people then or now can draw and use such a beast safely, if at all. But if you want to punch an iron arrowhead through the plate steel breast armour of a charging French knight, that’s the sort of power you need.
Nowadays everything has of course moved on. A modern compound bow, though unlikely to be described as a thing of beauty, is astounding to watch in action. To hit a target at 100 yards with a longbow requires aiming at the sky and trusting partly to luck. With a compound bow the pencil-thin, carbon-fibre arrow travels an almost flat trajectory and thumps reliably into the target with impressive force. Had they existed six hundred years ago they would have changed the fortunes of any army to possess them.
No disrespect to any modern target bows, but I’ll keep to my laminated and crooked sticks thank you, and remember Robert Hardy when I use them.
If you are interested, I offer the following as recommended reading and viewing:
- The Great War Bow, Hardy and Strickland, Sutton Publishing; 1st Edition edition (23 Feb. 2005)
- The Mary Rose: A Timewatch Guide (2015) (Documentary) – Features Hardy assisting with analysis work
- The Medieval Archer, Bradbury, Boydell Press 2013
- The Crooked Stick: A History of the Longbow, Soar, West Holme Publishing, 2004
- Secrets of the English War Bow, Soar et al., West Holme Publishing, 2006