Arrows with arrow bags behind them

We have no evidence that archers of the Hundred Years War used “clothyard arrows.” The term does not seem to have been used before 1465. They did use “flight” (lighter arrows for long range) and “standard” arrows, also called “sheaf” or “livery” arrows. Sometimes they used “broadhead” arrows. Sir John Smythe says that of every sheaf of 24, 8 arrows should be flights.

The body of the arrow, called the “shaft” or “stele”, could be made from any one of a variety of timbers. Ascham lists fifteen, of which he prefers birch, hardbeam, some oak, and some ash. Most of the Mary Rose arrows are poplar, but some are of beech, ash, or hazel. By documentary evidence, the most common wood for war arrows seems to have aspen (Populus tremula). Indeed, a statute of 1419 reserves aspen solely for arrows. Ascham, however, preferred good ash to aspen for war arrows, saying that ash is “hevye to geve a great stripe,” which is to say “strike a hard blow.” Clearly different qualities of arrows were manufactured, for in 1359 William de Rothwell, Keeper of the King’s Privy Wardrobe, was told to buy 10,000 sheaves of good arrows and 1,000 sheaves of the best arrows.

Most of the Mary Rose arrows are made “taper fashion,” going from 1/2 inch thick at the head to 3/8 inch thick at the nock. They range from 28 to 32 inches in length, but average 30 1/2 inches from the nock to the shoulder of the head. The second Mary Rose type is parallel-sided and about 7/16 inches in diameter. Ascham speaks of two other shapes of steles: “barreled” and “big breasted” or “chested,” recommending the “chested” arrow for strong shooters. Modern experiments have shown the chested type to be the most aerodynamically stable.

Most of the sampled Mary Rose arrows fall into two lengths. One group fits a draw of 28 inches and the other, far more numerous, group fits a draw of 30 inches. The range of draw lengths appears to run from 24 to 32 inches. The information currently available to us does not allow us to tell whether the draw length groupings match the shaft type groupings.

The nock of the arrow was reinforced with a horn insert set at right angles to the notch of the nock. These pieces were 2 inches long, slightly tapering, and 1/16 inch thick, and were set in a slot sawn into the stele. The insert reinforced the shaft against the stresses of release. 

Feathers were commonly of the gray lag goose, but peacock and even more rarely swan were used. Some of the fragmentary feathers recovered from the Mary Rose may be swan. Iolo Goch, bard of Owain Glendower, speaks of “long low fletchings bound with green silk.” Illustrations show us that the fletchings were commonly cut in a triangle, leaving the natural back slope (presumably to speed production). They were attached to the stele starting 2 inches down from the nock. Three feathers were set around the shaft, each equally distant from its fellows with the “cock feather” set perpendicular to the nock. The feathers were 6 to 6 1/2 inches long; they must be clear of the bow when the arrow is nocked to the string so that the feathers are not damaged in the process of nocking. Feather length plus the nock must be less than the fistmele (the length of a closed fist plus the extended thumb; about 7″).

The feathers were tied as well as glued to the stele. The thread took a couple of turns at the back end and was wound toward the head at about five turns to the inch, wrapping the forward end of the feather as the back. The shaftment area of at least one Mary Rose arrow is covered in a green pigment, but the color may simply an artifact of the gluing. Some illustrations show red coloration in the same area. Ascham worries little about the color of the feathers save that the cock feather be “black or grey, as it were to give a man warning to nock right.”

Assorted arrowheads

Assorted arrowheads

The most common Mary Rose arrows are believed to have borne Museum of London Type 16 heads. The secondary type are believed to have borne Type 8 heads. Heads similar to Type 16 are shown in period illustrations and it is the most common “medieval” type in the collections of the Museum of London and the British Museum. It is not an armor-piercing head per se, rather it appears to be a compromise design halfway between an armor-piercing bodkin and a broad head (also called swallow-tail) such as would be used for hunting: an all-purpose head, as it were. Type 8 is called a “bodkin” point and was designed to pierce armor. Some bodkins had much longer bodies and blades, very suitable for punching deep between links of mail. Recalling that the Mary Rose archers would be firing most likely at unarmored men and possibly at long ranges, we speculate that their common arrows were “flights” and we have adopted the secondary type as our “standard,” the arrow necessary to deal with armored men on the battlefield.

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