Sunday, 2 June 2013

Longbows, Mary Rose and Robert Hardy

I've been sadly neglectful of this blog lately - it's been the Hay Festival, our busiest time of year, with so much going on around town that I haven't had time to think about writing anything.

Then, this morning I was listening to Broadcasting House on Radio 4 before I went off to work. There was a serious story about sleaze and Tory MPs - and then a delightful piece about longbows to celebrate the opening of the new Mary Rose museum.
I remember the wreck of the Mary Rose being lifted out of the water for the first time, in 1982. It was on Blue Peter! I was an archaeology student at the time, so the whole thing about preserving a huge wreck like that was fascinating. (You have to keep the wood wet, and there's some sort of preservative that gets pumped into the wood over time.)

A few years ago, I went down to the Portsmouth Dockyards and saw the old museum. By that time, I was a practising archer, and I've always had a love of Robin Hood, so it was the longbows that I wanted to see. Once I got inside, though, there were so many other things to fascinate me, like the brick oven that had been built inside the ship, and the reconstruction of the surgeon's tiny cabin. There was a re-enactor there, too, talking about the cannons. His kit was excellent, and he was one of those people who make a thing fascinating by communicating their own enthusiasm for the subject - he got me interested in the guns. I noticed that the gunners even decorated the sticks that held the slow matches to light the cannons - everything being hand made in those days.

Back to Broadcasting House, and they sent a young woman reporter to interview Robert Hardy. She clearly knew absolutely nothing about archery, which meant that she was asking the sorts of questions most of the audience would be wanting to ask, too. She was surprised, to start with, that the bow itself was so light. Robert Hardy gave her a bow with a 45lb draw weight to hold - the Mary Rose bows can be three times that, or more - basically, they are a stick and a piece of string, but the bows with the larger draw weights can shoot arrows that pierce steel armour. A 45lb draw weight, by the way, means that when the archer draws the string back with the arrow on it, they are pulling the equivalent of a 45lb weight back, and that force is then released into the arrow to enable it to penetrate what it is aimed at.
First, though, he had to string the bow. "A bow with a loose string is like a wet dream," Robert Hardy said, as he looped the string around the horn nock at the end of the bow, "no use to anyone!"
He didn't demonstrate shooting the bow, as he'd recently had an accident while filming something and hurt his ribs, but he did talk about the different injuries peculiar to archers. Several of the skeletons retrieved from the wreck could be firmly identified as archers, and study of the remains showed the stresses their bodies had suffered. It's a very unbalanced weapon to use - one arm is always stiff and straight, and the other has to pull a heavy weight, and this can lead to collapsed shoulders and tight tendons in the neck, and even paralysis of the fingers that curve round the bow string. Robert Hardy said that the pathologist working on the bones used to ring him up to ask about sporting injuries in archery, and said that she was finding exactly that evidence from the skeletons, including deformed spines. As the Warwick Archer said when I saw him re-enact the entire Battle of Agincourt single handed: "We archers are not as other men!"
"Women can't do it," Robert Hardy went on, and as feminists throughout the land drew in their breaths at this blatant sexism, he went on to explain that female musculature differs from male musculature, because it was designed for a different purpose - the strains on the body that come with pregnancy. "I've known some excellent women archers," he added, "but not with the heavy bows."
The reporter then asked about the noise the arrows make in flight. "It's a sort of whispering noise," Robert Hardy said, and added that some arrows were made with a bit of feather that would make a whistling noise in flight - I've seen these being shot, and they are quite impressive. "A thousand arrows whistling down at you makes you feel very wobbly," he said. "A thousand arrows anyway makes a hell of a noise!"

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