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A Gift from the Past: The Mary Rose.

I'll often say or write M. R. in communication and I sometimes get a bemused look from the public, and even some archery enthusiasts as to what this means. M.R. is the Mary Rose a warship and the pride of Henry VIII's fleet. First constructed in January 1511 it was refitted three times in its life and made heavier each time finally weighing in at over 600 tonnes. Its final journey was to the ocean floor on July 19th 1545. Their misfortune is our gain, onboard the Mary Rose was the earliest examples of English 'warbows' in existence.

Often now called a 'warbow' to differentiate it from the lighter Victorian style target longbow. The medieval longbow is a bow which takes considerable time and effort to master. They were used by the English armies to great effect against all of England's enemies from the 12th to 16th centaury, they hit their peak during the Hundred Years War and were used in the later English War of the Roses. Much of what we know now has been learned from longbows recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose. Much debate is to be had as to whether these later bows were comparable to the earlier bows used in open battle. My opinion being that the bows found on the Mary Rose are the perfect balance of weight and efficiency. It is possible to make heavier bows than those found on the Mary Rose, it is certainly easier to make lighter ones, but averaging 130lb to 150lb (adjusting for draw length) you get a bow of excellent efficiency, which can be drawn by any competent archer, allows a standardisation of arrow production, and would last a reasonable amount of time.

Image taken in the storeroom of the Mary Rose Museum.

Three MR bows (left) my modern reproduction (right). My bow was made from Pacific Yew not European Yew like the originals. My replica was slightly longer than the bow I was copying but still weighed 170lb @ 30". If drawn to 30" the original would likely be 180lb.

After considering draw weight what defines a warbow? They are long, on average 75-77" they are made to draw between 28" and 30" and some arrows from the Mary Rose collection indicate that a draw length of 31.5" would be an uncommon maximum. The bows have various cross sections, some are squarer and some are rounded, some have square sections but overly rounded handles, these are known as 'slab sided' bows and are often the largest. Many shown extreme reflex, but this is more due to hundreds of years of emersion than bowyer-intended reflex. Almost certainly many of the bows would have had reflex from the time of making but typically you can only keep a small amount of reflex in a finished bow. The nocks are of horn and are designed to prevent the string from cutting into the softer wood. ALL bows would have had horn nocks, it is a common misconception among amateur historians that warbows were self nocks, they were not. Cow horn with its natural hollow interior is often perfect without the need for drilling to fashion a hard tip for the bow. The string grooves were often only on one side of the nock (hence sidenock) and were deep enough to show the wood underneath. The bows are all made from European Yew, with exceptionally few from anything else. Although I often use American Yew for my warbows as it presents like very high quality European Yew. The grain and growth ring structure on the Mary Rose warbows is excellent and it is very difficult to find trees which have grown slow enough in Europe to resemble MR quality. Almost without exception the sapwood has been taken down to the thinnest possible amount. A point of bow making, sapwood is light and although faster than heartwood is not as dense, and so heavier arrows are better suited to bows with a higher heartwood to sapwood ratio. There is not a single bow in the storeroom of the Mary Rose museum which has been taken to a single growth ring on the back. The Tudor bow-makers producing these bows were truly expert, they took every gram of mass out of the bow which was unnecessary and therefore the modern principle of a single-growth-ring back is not followed.

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