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:
- 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.
- Thwyting – scraping away the excess wood on the back of the bow.
- Dressing – working on the other three sides.
- Bending – bending the bow.
- Horning – attaching horn to the bow or nocking the ends to allow the bowstring to be attached.
- Clensynge uppe – making everything smooth.
- Afterbending – bending the bow for a final time to make sure that the shape is correct.
- 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.
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.
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