On a calm summer day in 1545, a French invasion fleet lay at anchor off Portsmouth, poised to attack England. On that day, Henry VIII’s favourite ship Mary Rose sailed into her final battle. As the king watched from the shore, she heeled over and sank, taking with her seven hundred men. The Mary Rose was lost for more than four centuries.
Millions of people from around the world held their breath as she finally surfaced again at 9.03 am on Monday October 11 1982 to the sound of cheers and klaxon blasts from the spectator fleet-and a single gun salute from Southsea Castle. Her rediscovery and raising had been a ground-breaking feat in the history of nautical archaeology.
The hull of the Mary Rose
I visited the Mary Rose in the late 1980’s. The exhibition was amazing, there is such a wide variety of artefacts that have survived the ravages of time, including Tudor longbows.
Until recently there was only one arrow in existence thought to date from the Tudor period. The Mary Rose discovery changed this situation dramatically.
According to contemporary records, the ship was stocked with 250 bows, 400 sheave of arrows and 6 gross of bowstrings. The bowstrings have not survived, but 168 bows and around 3,000 arrows have been safely recovered.
The English longbow was quick to shoot, unlike the powerful, accurate but cumbersome crossbow. A skilled archer might have been capable of shooting twelve arrows a minute, a rate of fire not equalled until the development of semi-automatic firearms in the 19th century.
Mary Rose bows-mostly found stored in chests measure between 1.84 and 2.06 metres in length. Each is fashioned from a single piece of yew, cut to exploit the natural laminate which occurs in the living tree. The sapwood formed the ‘back’ and the heartwood the ‘belly’, theoretically giving the bow increased performance over any bow made of heartwood alone. The longbow could pierce armour at ranges of more than 250 yards. The bow stave was shaped into a D-section from a half cross section of a tree or branch. The string of the longbow was made from hemp as it was the strongest and least elastic fibre available which was soaked in glue as some protection against moisture. The longbow arrows, called bodkins, consisted of a straight shaft with a sharp point on one end. Long Bodkin point arrows were used for piercing chainmail and Short Bodkins were used for piercing armour plate. Demand for good bows led to a search for high quality yew staves throughout Europe.
Reconstructed Tudor Rose Arrows
Experiments show that the bows have around 50 per cent of original strength. The draw weight was probably between 40 and 80 kg at a 76 cm draw. Many of the arrows were made of poplar and were around 76 cm long and 13mm in diameter. The iron heads have been lost. So have the flights, but there are traces of the glue and binding thread.
“The English are the flowers of the archers of the world.” So said the Frenchman, Philip de Commines in 1580. Even though the gun was gaining in importance, the longbowmen of Tudor England were still a force to be reckoned with. The English Archery Law of 1363 had made it obligatory for Englishmen to practise their skills with the longbow every Sunday. Longbow training included much practised commands and motions which could be carried out automatically in battle. The Mary Rose archers would have been strong to be able to draw the bow. This was confirmed by the examination of the 200 skeletons which were found on the Mary Rose. Nearly all of the skeletons were of young men in their twenties with an average height of 5 foot 7 inches. Many of these men would have been skilled with the longbow as there was a marked skeletal shoulder development which had been accentuated by their skill in archery - wide shoulders were common amongst the Mary Rose Archers.