Archer’s Quest (1) : Regarding the Longbow
By Nils Visser
Little did I know, and little did I know that total immersion into the world of archery was about to transpose that deficit. In contrast to fictional adventure no one had defined a clear starting position, and it took some time before the realization that I had landed head-first in a bona fide quest. A pursual that would take me to windswept battlefields; famed chalk cliffs; an audience with a King; a humble pilgrim’s way; a proud priory; a former duchess’ abode; Saint George’s Dragon in a castle keep; the majestic splendour of an imperial palace; a swampy marshland filled with mosquitoes and frogs; and a veritable treasure chamber in the depths of a royal citadel. A questing mission of old, an archer’s quest.
The intention had been to avoid the English longbow altogether. Much as I admire the weapon and find great enjoyment in wielding my own, I tend to side with the critics who point out that the overwhelming attention given to the longbow has led to an imbalanced view of medieval archery. Put simply, if it ain’t 1346-1415 (part of the Hundred Years War) and backed up by the Mary Rose (Early Renaissance) then it stands to reason that it cannot be validly 500-1500 A.D. By extension, the same type of thinking leads to the conclusion that if it ain’t English (or Anglo-Saxon if you’re of ex-Colonial persuasion) it can’t shoot –let alone hold- a bow. That alone is almost enough reason for an anti-authoritarian with a somewhat juvenile knack for self-righteousness, such as myself, to decide to write about archery traditions in other nations using other types of bows. To that can be added almost endless opportunities for having a bit of fun at the expense of the “logic” displayed by the rigid constraint of the thinking described above. Last-but-not-least, there’s a bit of realism in there too, scribbles about Longbows are abundant, it’s a very busy field filled with fine folk who have a vast amount of experience in the field of archery and writing. Contrast those numbers to the people writing in English about, say, French archery, and it’s fairly obvious where the least competition is to be found and where I can pose as someone who is reasonably knowledgeable and get away with it.
However, I quickly deduced that it’s nigh impossible to write about medieval archery and not mention the English longbow, or refer to the achievements of those who wielded -and still wield to this day- this awe-inspiring weapon, so here we are. In order not to get lost in the heaps of available sources or simply repeat and paraphrase all that’s been said before, I’ll focus on a more abstract issue and try to address the longbow as a cultural icon. As such I’ll also be able to link it to notable deficiencies in historical awareness for those who ought to know better, and approach the subject from the perspective of someone who doesn't know much at all, for those who would like to know more, but get lost in descriptions such as: "An anti-clockwise twist is best when twisting flax for a 95Lbs.+ tri-lam intended for flight due to the archer's paradox and the mandatory bob-tail fletching" (Aye, ye archers, I know that was probably a bunch of rubbish, I was just nocking some jargon onto my string, I intend to draw but won't loose this one).
One of the reasons that the Battle of Agincourt (1415), an iconic event for traditional archery, still reverberates, is even seen as an inspirational event, in spite of the fact that in reality it was a desperate business of mind-numbing gory violence, is that it introduces the concept of the common man standing up to, and defeating the arrogant upper-class aristocracy, representatives of a repressive system. As such, it still has relevance today, because democracy, or at least our poor imitation of the ideal, is successful at least in that the glorification of the Common Man has reached new heights: Television is full of common folk being locked in houses full of cameras, sent to remote islands, plunged into blind dates and encouraged to excel or become public failures in a variety of talent shows; and news programs and papers seem to prefer the raw primary response of the man in the streets, rather than objectivity of the expert in his cosy chair. Add to this that great leveller: The internet, a revolutionary invention that allows instant communication across the globe and a mighty potential tool for the creative re-invention of the self, which is used mostly so we can “like” the fact that other folks, as common as can be; have just stuck a pizza in the oven, or are looking forward to an evening’s beer. Or, as that hilarious T-shirt caption reads: Sex with your Girlfriend. (74 people like this).
As such, admiration for the Agincourt archers transcends national boundaries, representative as they are of the doomed underdog winning the day against mighty odds, a theme with an almost universal appeal. However, in order to determine the extent up to which these archers are part of the fabric of the collective historical awareness of Albion, the matter of Britain as it were, we first need to bring it back to those misty isles off the West European coast. This may have the added benefit of helping us understand why some Anglo-Saxons are hesitant when outlanders claim to have skills, knowledge and/or expertise about their collective national inheritance, an attitude that is occasionally a source of some wonder for archers in the Netherlands, and the exception rather than the rule, to judge by the helpfulness of the Brits we're going to run into during our quest.
Anyhow, if longbow archery was to be taken back to England, someone needed to bring it there, and I volunteered. This may seem reasonably ambitious, but do consider that the Netherlands is a miniature country, an hour’s drive from the centre of the country will take you across the border into Belgium to the south. Belgium itself can be traversed in less than two hours, after which it’s a forty minute drive to the Port of Calais in France, from which England can be seen on a clear day, and reached by slow roll-on roll-off ferry within two hours. In short, the South-east of England (including the city of London) is as accessible to a Dutchman as Dallas, Texas is to an inhabitant of Oklahoma City.
In order to imbue the journey with a bit more mystique and reinforce the medieval context of my tale, I decided to add as much of the Middle Ages to the road trip as I possibly could. Ye Olde This and Ye Olde That may seem corny and cliché to the locals, but even in normal circumstances I can hardly get enough of it, and this time I seemed to have a genuinely good excuse to linger in the past at leisure. My long-suffering partner Zoë, who does her utmost to indulge me in these odd fancies, consented to this particular trip as I promised to include some of her own ancestral history in the itinerary, and, being English, any reason to visit old Blighty is fairly acceptable to her.
Thus a fine sunny day in May found us on the deck of one of the gargantuan car ferries that plies its trade across the English Channel, at the stage of the journey where the considerable bulk of the ship starts to become dwarfed by the White Cliffs of Dover. Sentimental attachment to those towering chalk sentinels dictates my preference for the ferries. I’ve used the Chunnel (Channel Tunnel) a couple of times, and to be sure, it’s a technical marvel. However, for me it’s no substitute for the sea journey. On the train, one’s barely aware of travelling at all, just the occasional barely perceptible light sway, and then all of a sudden: Folkestone, wham bam thank you ma’am. The ferry offers a different experience. The ships themselves are monstrosities, kitsch collections of shiny aluminium, mirrors and plastic poorly disguised as fancy building materials, a far cry from anything resembling the nautical experience of a sea journey. But the decks are brilliant, be it sunny, windy, wet, warm or cold. There’s always a thrill when those cliffs appear, either starting as anonymous dark smudges on the horizon till the decreasing distance yields colour and detail in order to reveal the cliffs’ individual characteristics, or looming out of the mist like silent menacing giants, their appearance sudden, unexpectedly close after being cloaked by fog. Over the years those cliffs have become old friends, the first to bid a welcome.
The second thrill of the approach to the Port of Dover is the castle. The cliffs do a fine job of imposing a sense of awe as it is, but projecting into the sky above them are the inner and outer curtain walls and towers of the huge and magnificent castle complex, exuding an unmistakable demand for obeisance. Though the position is elevated, “perched” would be an inadequate description for the manner in which the castle occupies its cliff top, for “perched” invokes the association of a bird’s nest precariously balanced on a branch or outcropping. Instead I will opt for “squats”, that choice suggestive of something unequivocally solid that’s hunkered down and much averse to shifting. Moreover, in adjective form it also suits the broad and stocky outline of the walls and towers, Dover Castle doesn’t have the soaring and lofty decorative elegance of a fairy castle, it scoffs at fancy frills, it’s a no-nonsense fortress with a clear military function, the defence of the Realm.
In A Discourse of Sea Ports Sir Walter Raleigh wrote: “No promontory, town, or haven in Christendom, is so placed by nature and situation both to gratify friends and annoy enemies as Your Majesties town of Dover.” Benedictine Monk and chronicler Matthew Paris described Dover Castle as “The Key and Lock of the whole Realm”.
Successive invaders understood the importance of Dover Castle. William the Conqueror made a point of capturing Dover before advancing on London in 1066. When the Dauphin’s father, King Philip Augustus, a warrior king who had insisted that Louis capture Dover first and foremost, heard that his son had set different priorities which had caused a vital delay in the siege of Dover Castle, he cried out: “Then he has not taken one foot of English land,” even though Louis had occupied Canterbury, London and Winchester.
It is practically impossible to wander around the large grounds encompassed by the outer curtain wall of Dover Castle and be oblivious to the flow of history contained here. The hill has been occupied for a long time, and always it was a stronghold, a fortress, Britain’s Bulwark. From Iron Age hill fort, to Roman remnants in the shape of the lighthouse next to the church dating from Anglo-Saxon occupation, and then, of course, that most visible symbol of strength, the towering medieval stone keep within the inner curtain wall. But it doesn’t end there, for beneath one’s feet are the tunnels that were carved out of the chalk cliffs when the nation faced Napoleon’s ambition of invasion, and then the expansion of that underground network created during the Second World War, when the air was abuzz with the roaring engines and machine gun stutter that made up the soundtrack of the dog fights between Messchersmidts, Hurricanes and Spitfires. There are more tunnels beneath that, some still closed to the public, as Dover Castle was to serve as a Regional Centre of Government in the event of a nuclear conflict during the Cold War. These days it stands guard over a different type of invasion, that of tourists and lorry drivers. At the last count the Port of Dover, tucked below the cliffs occupied by the castle, had an annual turnover of 14 million travellers, 2.1 million lorries, 2.8 million cars and motorcycles and 86,000 coaches.
Then, as now, Dover was the “Clavis Angliae”: The Key of England.
To be continued.