You’ll recall the battle of Hastings, where the Normans took England, in last month’s archery in history. The Norman invasion in 1066 set the stage for centuries of warfare between England and France. The Normans saddled England with French influence and control, and quite naturally, the Saxons rebelled. Gradually though, they were absorbed into a new, English culture. During this period, the English climate was warm and dry enough for the growing of wine grapes, something the Romans wrote about in the first century. A warmer, dryer climate produced Yew trees which were well-suited for the production of staves for bows. File this fact away!
William replaced most of the Saxon nobles with his own followers, and faced rebellion in 1067-68. While he successfully suppressed the rebellion, his followers considered their lands in France to be of equal importance to their new English holdings. Here is where the story gets difficult to follow. Let’s just say William married, and had several heirs, all of whom are referred to as the Norman Kings of England. The fighting between England and France began in earnest when William’s youngest son Henry managed to take the crown while Robert, the heir, was on crusade, and the number two son was killed-by an arrow. Robert tried to retake the crown, but Henry defeated and captured him in France. Henry’s daughter Matilda married Geoffrey of Anjou, and their son Henry II, married Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was the mother of Richard I (Richard the Lion-hearted). This sets the stage for the constant battles between the English and the French because the Kings of England in the Plantagenet line now had clear title to a huge part of France. Richard’s holdings are referred to as the Angevin Empire, stretching from the Pyrenees to Scotland! Richard is the first of the Plantagenet Kings.
These holdings were apt to rebel at the drop of a hat. Richard made a foolish decision to go on crusade, and left his kingdom in the capable hands of his brother, John. That’s Prince John, of Robin Hood fame. Richard is kidnapped and imprisoned by duke Leopold of Austria, and John raises taxes, supposedly to ransom Richard, but as we all know, really didn’t want to give the crown back to his brother. Eventually, Richard defeats his adversaries and returns to England, to be crowned King once again. But... His rebellious subjects in Chalus, in central France, decided he was too busy to interfere with their rebellion. They were wrong. So Richard once again puts on his armor, and heads to the battlefield. During the siege of the castle of Chalus-Chabrol, the king was seen striding up and down the battle line, urging his men on and, since it was warm, was not in his armor. He used an iron frying pan as a shield to fend off arrows (his men loved that!). One lucky crossbow bolt found it’s mark and struck the king in the arm. It’s said that the surgeon who tried to remove the arrow, which had a barb, was so unskilled that infection ensued. The King died on 6 April, 1199. Before he died, he asked to meet the person who had struck him, and a young crossbowman was brought before him, named Pierre Basile (there are several other names mentioned here). He commanded that the young man be set free, and gave him 100 gold marks as a reward! As soon as the King died however, a mercenary captain named Mercadier ordered the boy siezed, and flayed alive. Flaying is more commonly referred to as skinning: as in “skinned alive”, which was what happened to the young lad. So much for the King’s command!
Remember I mentioned the English then had a warmer, dryer climate than what followed? This ended in about 50 years, and during this brief time, English archers were the most feared in the western world. While Richard was King, and our hero Robin Hood was battling the evil Prince John, a young man named Temujin, born around 1162, was working to unite his people, who were a clan society, and mold them into a fighting force to be feared. You know Temujin by another name; Genghis Khan-the Great Khan!
Next time; the bows of the Golden Horde-the Mongols.
Most of us are somewhat familiar with an ancient battle in England, in 1066; the Battle of Hastings. Very few of us know what actually happened there so many years ago. The battle took place on the 14th of October, 1066, but it never happened at Hastings! The battle to rule England occurred at Senlac Hill, a few miles away. Nobody knows where Senlac Hill is, but there happens to be an abbey at Hastings, so it was given the more easily recognizable place-name.
To set the stage, England was ruled by Harold II, Harold Godwinson, the last Saxon king of England. I use the term “King of England” loosely, because there was no united English realm at this time. Scotland, Wales, and Ireland weren’t yet part of what today is known as the United Kingdom. Landing with his army to give a go at defeating Harold, was William, the Duke of Normandy-that same Normandy which features so prominently in World War II. William was of Norse (Viking) descent, as was Harold. The English like to claim that it was the only time that their island kingdom was successfully invaded, but that’s not true; Celts, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Romans and Norse all invaded in their time. All brought archers with them, by the way.
No one knows for certain what types of bows were available to these invaders, but since all their territories were once part of the Roman Empire, which employed many mercenaries from among the conquered lands, the bows would have ranged from self bows all the way to Asiatic composite bows. Certainly these different types of bows would have been known in Harold’s time, as well as in William’s lands. It doesn’t really matter which type of bows were at the battle though. It’s sufficient to know that an arrow felled the mighty Harold late in the afternoon.
Back then, battles almost never lasted past sundown, and whoever still held the field at the end of the day won the fight. Harold and his “housekarls”, his warriors, were on the top of Senlac Hill protected by their great shield-wall, and had done a very good job of keeping the Normans at bay. late in the afternoon, wanting to see how much light was left-it’s Fall, and the days were shorter-Harold pushed back his helmet and stole a glance at the sun to gauge how much time before sundown was left.
Armor of the time provided protection from arrows fired from a distance-for the most part-but not from a close-in shot. Helmets of the era were certainly up to the task of easily deflecting arrows falling from the sky, but they had to be correctly positioned on the body to do this. By pushing his helmet back and looking upward, Harold exposed his face-if only for a moment-to a falling arrow. As he glanced upward, a descending arrow struck him in the eye and felled the king. And as we all know, William of Normandy became William the Conqueror.
And here’s how that one arrow changed history for us: William of Normandy spoke what today is known as French. When he became king, he imposed French rule, French customs regarding feudalism, and most importantly, French language on what prior to his invasion, was essentially a Germanic-speaking people. If you look at the English language even today, you’ll notice many similarities between English and French. Many or our words are interchangeable, with just the addition of a little French accent. Words like accord, approach, battle, saint, tradition, amiable, liaison and a host of others. The English syntax is the same, similar to today’s German, but the vocabulary is different in many ways
In terms of warfare, this battle also showed the value of a combined force rather than a single force composed mostly of infantry, a lesson the English had forgotten since Roman times. Even though it was a lucky break as far as William was concerned, it was still a single archer who determined the outcome of the war, and changed the makeup of the western world.
Next, another King of England falls to an arrow (well, a crossbow bolt, actually), and the beginnings of the Hundred Years’ War.
Contributed by Jerry Griffin, Adjunct Lecturer for Medieval History, University of California, Davis. I rotated between teaching and acting as the Senior Adviser to Undergraduate Admissions.
1. Wanted: Bows and equipment for kids and new archers. We always need serviceable equipment for this purpose. Please don’t pass up anything that appears useable. If you want to donate to WRTA we will accept and pass on to others. If you want to sell items, I may purchase them for this purpose. Contact Tom at509-670-1770;email@example.com. 2. Wanted: Significant or historic traditional archery items for the Archives of the Traditional Bowhunters of Washington. Particularly interested in items directly related to bowyers and historic figures from the Northwest. Contact Tom at 509-670-1770; firstname.lastname@example.org.