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Poitiers Supper, Wednesday 19th November 2014

Thirty six Bowyers and their guests met in the snug surroundings of Davy's Bangers Bar & Grill, 2-12 Wilson Street EC2, for the annual Poitiers Supper. Anna Triay of King's College London, the current holder of the Bowyers MA Scholarship, attended as a guest of the Master.

The Upper Warden, Tony Kench, presented a very entertaining illustrated talk on the origins of the longbow and the early days of the Company of Bowyers. There is a popular myth that the longbow was Welsh in origin and that the famous battles of the Hundred Years War were won by Welsh archers. Shakespeare played a role in promoting this myth by the prominence he gave to Captain Fluellen, the garrulous Welshman in 'Henry V' who reminded the king of the service of the Welsh in the brave battles in France. Tony set out to put the record straight.

He began by describing the use of the bow from ancient through to early medieval times. The Saxons, Vikings and Normans all had bows, and they remained significant weapons for the Normans. Their bows were however not very strong, and not lethal beyond short distances, as evidenced in 1138 at the Battle of the Standard at Northallerton when the Scots were described as "running away, stuck like hedgehogs" indicating that they had been hit but not fatally.

The Normans ventured into Wales early in the 12th Century. They found willing allies amongst the South Welsh, whose archers had short and crude but quite strong bows made of wych elm, which were effective for short-range use, typically for ambushes. The Normans found them useful to deploy against Irish spearmen in their subsequent conquest of Ireland. However, in battle-deciding terms the bow was still only a secondary weapon; Edward I, in his Welsh wars of the 1270s/1280s, placed much greater reliance on the short-range accuracy of his Gascon crossbowmen.

A significant change of tactics took place, however, during the 1290s. To put down the Welsh rebellion of 1295, Edward I for the first time put his English archers in the front battle-line, interleaved with cavalry. The strategy was for the archers' arrow-storms to disrupt the enemy formations, for the cavalry to then ride them down. This was decisively successful against the North Welsh rebels.

Edward then turned his attention towards Scotland. At the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, the same battle-line strategy was used with equal success. 14,500 English troops had been raised from the Northern and Midlands counties, including 2,500 archers, together with 10,500 Welsh mercenaries of whom 2,000 were archers. The Welsh troops were not used on the day as there had been some brawling with the English, so the battle was again entirely an English victory.

During Tony's researches it had become clear that the earlier 4'6"-5' bow was developed into the 6' longbow specifically between 1300 and 1320. Court records had previously described bows as being 4'6" in length, but now began to mention 6' bows with 36" arrows. In illustrations around this time, figures of archers started to be shown drawing the bowstring to the ear, whereas the shorter bow had been drawn only as far as the chest. The sockets on arrowheads of the period also increased in size, indicating larger, heavier and more lethal arrows. The driving force had been the English Army, through the central orders it placed; by the early 1330s, 6' bows and 36" arrows had become the standard.

Edward III became King in 1327 and took full power (aged 17) in 1330. It was in the light of the emergence of this powerful new weapon that in 1337 he made claim to the French crown, thus starting the Hundred Years War. He had clearly seen in the longbow a weapon that at last had the power to defeat the armoured French knights. He set new battle-line strategies accordingly, interleaving archers with dismounted men-at-arms forming a shield-wall, which met with a succession of victories against Scotland and France between 1332 and 1340, leading up to the massive defeat of the main French army at Crecy in 1346, the greatest longbow victory of all.

In 1341, in preparation for the war in France, a massive block of orders had been placed for 9,000 bows and 380,000 arrows. The work was spread around the major cities of England (none from Wales), with London being required to make 2,500 bows and 24,000 arrows. Assuming from current Craft Guild estimates that a skilled man could make one bow or 24 arrows (one sheaf) in one day and that he would work 250 days a year, the order would require 14 man-years. Assuming a lead time of 4-6 months (we have no dates), there must have been in London at the time at least 20-30 full-time bowmakers and 8-12 arrowmakers. Our Company records have never given any idea of the number of bowyers in London in the 14th century, so this was a new contribution to our historical background.

In 1351 there was no mention of a Bowyers' Company in a City election summons, implying that it did not then exist; the first known mention of the Company is in a taxation record of 1363. It is likely therefore that the Company was formed sometime between 1351 and 1363 (about 40 years after the longbow was developed). The Black Prince's victory at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 apparently receiving much greater publicity back home, and seems likely to have been the catalyst that led to the formal recognition of longbow-making as a craft and to the formation of the Bowyers' Company shortly thereafter. Summarising as to whether or not the longbow was really Welsh, Tony's conclusion that the 6' longbow was firmly an English development, in the large-scale context of the English Army between 1300 and 1320. The power of the short Welsh bows must have been an influence, but so was the 1290s advent of the springier self-yew bow, from England, not Wales. The famed Welsh archers who fought in France were in fact paid mercenaries, shooting English longbows.

The Master, Rev John Hayton TD, thanked the Upper Warden for his entertaining talk and for the fascinating insight it had given into the origins of both the longbow and the Company. Some interesting questions followed and two members active in the craft, Richard Head and Mick Manns, were able to offer supportive comments from first-hand experience. The company then turned to concentrate on the wine and supper, and a great evening was enjoyed by all.

Simon Leach

View the full text of Tony's talk, with key illustrations

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