Medieval Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers and Arrowsmiths

Fletcher

Fletcher

Four different crafts were involved in equipping a medieval archer to go to war. His bow was made by a bowyer and the bowstring by a stringer. His arrows were made by a fletcher and the arrowheads by an arrowsmith.

During the Hundred Years’ War (1337 to 1453) there was a huge demand for bows and arrows. Edward III had many made for his archers, breaking the tradition that men going to fight for the king took their own weapons, arrows and spare strings. Archers still did that, of course, but Edward III provided equipment to some of them.

Every county in England had to supply its quota of bows and arrows when required to do so. Given that they were made all over the country, maintaining standards was impossible. During the fourteenth century guilds for bowyers and fletchers were established and one of their responsibilities was to ensure that bows and arrows were only made by men who had been trained properly and could achieve the necessary standard.

There were guilds in towns across England. The Company of Bowyers in London was created before 1363, when it was first mentioned in the records. It wasn’t long before the fletchers formed their own guild in London: the Company of Fletchers. Bowyers and fletchers were prohibited from working at night, because making good quality bows and arrows needed good light.

Like most craft guilds, they operated a system of apprenticeship. Apprentice bowyers were taken on for seven years. They had to be honest, able-bodied, free born and English by birth. Before they could start work for their master, they had to be approved by the guild. In the fourteenth century the apprenticeship began at 14.

Whilst bowyers and fletchers were men, it is probable that some stringers were women, as it was work that required a great deal of manual dexterity. The strings were wound from hemp.

Here is a video showing how bowstrings might have been made in the Middle Ages. It’s definitely a fiddly business.

The preferred wood for arrows was aspen, but ash and birch were also used. First the wood was split and cut to the right length, then it was planed, first with a flat plane and then with a rounded plane. That’s what the fletcher in my photograph is doing. Then it was smoothed with sandstone or dogfish skin, the medieval equivalents of sandpaper. A notch was cut at one end for the bowstring. It was filled with a bit of cow horn or deer antler to prevent the arrow splitting when it was placed against the bowstring under pressure.

The feathers were cut from the quill and glued to the shaft, often with glue made from rabbit skin. That was just to hold them in place while they were bound with linen or silk thread. As the fletcher explained to us, there were only three feathers on an arrow. The side that was going to be in contact with the bow had to be featherless. Feathers were mostly taken from the wing feathers of geese, but swan and peacock feathers were also used. The other end of the arrow was shaped appropriately to fit into the arrowhead, which was heated red-hot so that it would be attached firmly. Arrowsmiths produced the arrowheads. Unlike the bowyers and fletchers, they were allowed to work at night. The final part of the process was to add a compound to keep away feather mites.

Arrows were supplied in sheaves of 24 arrows. A sheaf of arrows cost 16d. Archers were paid 3d a day, which illustrates the importance of good quality arrows.

Whilst some arrows damaged after being used could be repaired and reused, it usually required the work of a skilled fletcher, so an English army going to France needed to take hundreds of thousands of arrows with them. In 1359 850,000 arrows were delivered to the Tower of London, where arms purchased by Edward III were stored. 500,000 were delivered the following year.

The preferred wood for bows was elder, but there wasn’t enough in England to keep up with demand. It was imported from Spain, the Baltic and the Adriatic. Wych elm was also used for bows, as were other types of wood.

It would take almost a day to make a bow.

Bowyers employed taskemen who were paid a set rate for working on one part of the process on 100 bows. These stages were:

  1. Chipping – cutting the piece of wood that was going to be the bow with a hand axe so that it was roughly the right shape.
  2. Thwyting – scraping away the excess wood on the back of the bow.
  3. Dressing – working on the other three sides.
  4. Bending – bending the bow.
  5. Horning – attaching horn to the bow or nocking the ends to allow the bowstring to be attached.
  6. Clensynge uppe – making everything smooth.
  7. Afterbending – bending the bow for a final time to make sure that the shape is correct.
  8. Polysyng and skynnyng – polishing and sealing the bow with linseed oil or wax.

Although bows and arrows were made all over the country, many bowyers, fletchers and stringers settled in London, due to the large numbers purchased by the king for storage in the Tower of London, the main store for arms. Bows and arrows could also be sent to the port from which troops were going to leave for France. Export of bows and arrows was forbidden and some craftsmen weren’t allowed to leave the country in the service of their lords.

Supplies for archers weren’t just stored in the Tower, they were also made there. Some bowyers, fletchers, stringers and arrowsmiths were based there. There was a similar operation in Bordeaux to supply English armies in Gascony and, after Edward III took it in 1347, another in Calais.

If you’re interested in seeing the outcome of all of this, here’s a video of an experiment about the extent to which bows and arrows used at Agincourt might have been able to pierce armour.

Sources:
Arrowstorm by Richard Wadge
The Great Warbow by Matthew Strickland and Robert Hardy
War Bows by Mike Loades

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

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Copyright © 2020 aprilmunday.wordpress.com– All rights reserved.

 

36 Comments

Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War, Medieval Life, Medieval Warfare

36 responses to “Medieval Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers and Arrowsmiths

  1. I had read that the English Longbow was made from Yew and used to good effect at Agincourt, interesting to read and see the processes.

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Loads of info here. Might try making my own. Might have to! Always loved the word Fletcher…and also that surnames once indicated a trade. Thanks for another great post April.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Craft time, anyone? Fascinating post, April!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Showing my stupidity, I thought all bows were made with yew. What an art form this is!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. That arrows versus armour video was fascinating. All those splinters and arrowheads flying around. And I’d never seen anything about jupons (Sp?) before – outside of medieval illustrations, that is.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I know. I love that kind of video. Unfortunately, most of them don’t go quite far enough back for my taste.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Totally agree! I also remember seeing some paintings of the era; most show only the most important men wearing jupons, while most of the armed men sport bare metal. Jupons must have been very expensive.

        They also were embroidered with heraldic symbols. Perhaps it was another way for soldiers to identify leaders?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Heraldic arms were important for identification on battlefields. Years ago I wrote a post about heralds, whose job it was to identify everyone on each side from their arms.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Didn’t heralds also have the very somber responsibility to tally the dead and injured after a battle? If they did, did they work with the opposing army’s heralds?

            Liked by 1 person

            • My sources didn’t say. This is what I found out about heralds when I wrote the post four years ago.

              Heralds didn’t have a job description and it’s not easy to tell today exactly how the herald served Sir John. Heralds’ tasks seemed to vary depending on the position of the herald’s master and what was going on at the time. Heralds were supposed to be experts in heraldic identification; they could identify knights from their banners alone. This was a particularly useful skill in a battle, when it was the only way of telling the difference between friend and foe. The herald might also be a minstrel, a musician or a barber, some of whom were also surgeons. Heralds were used at tournaments to announce the names of the participants to the crowds. They were frequently used as messengers, carrying letters from their masters, but also word of mouth messages. They were supposed to receive immunity in war, since they carried messages from one side to the other as part of peace or surrender negotiations. Heralds were also criers at public events.

              Liked by 1 person

              • WOW! And they had to wear those heavy tabards encrusted with their lord’s arms. Must have been worth it.

                What class did heralds typically come from?

                I love this topic, so I’ll try to rein in my inquisitiveness after this. ☺

                Liked by 1 person

                • They wouldn’t have worn anything that was too heavy when it came to fighting. I don’t know what class they came from. The only one anyone really knows about is Sir John Chandos’s herald, and that’s because he wrote about the Black Prince’s campaigns. Since he could write, and write well, I assume that he was a noble of some kind. He ended up in the service of Richard II, so he was very good at what he did.

                  Liked by 1 person

          • Could you please provide a link to that article? Thank you!

            Like

  6. Gill Otto

    Fascinating! I haven’t looked at the videos yet, but can you answer a question about sourcing feathers for flights? I read they were the flight feathers – were the birds alive, dead or in the moult when the feathers were taken?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. The making of the three ply bowstring was fascinating to me. How sore would your fingers be doing that all day? Those poor apprentices must have suffered until calluses developed. Great, great post.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Skilled trademen the world needs more perhaps not to make bows but other wood products would be great.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Eagerly awaiting your next journalistic foray! This is fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Medieval Embroiderers | A Writer's Perspective

  11. Pingback: Medieval Shoes and Pattens | A Writer's Perspective

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