Turning Year: Archers ready for longbow competition

Re-enactors with traditional English longbows.
Re-enactors with traditional English longbows.

This coming Saturday, Bedale in North Yorkshire will host one of the country’s oldest sporting occasions, the Antient Silver Arrow.

The Society of Archers goes further. Its tournament is “the world’s longest established and oldest recorded sporting event”, held almost every year since 1673. However, there are challengers.

The Musselburgh Silver Arrow, a longbow event staged in East Lothian, claims a founding date of 1603. And there’s a contender from the horseracing world – the Carlisle Bell, an annual race said to date back to the 15th century.

But the archers at Bedale won’t be too concerned – they’ll be concentrating on a three inch black spot in the centre of a target set 100 yards away.

To win the coveted Silver Arrow trophy, the “Gentlemen Archers” must use traditional longbows. These couldn’t be more different from a modern recurve bow, which is laminated with fibreglass or carbon fibre and has sights and stabilisers for balance. An English longbow is crafted from yew, or a combination of woods, and fires feathered wooden arrows.

Thanks to original bows found in the wreck of Henry VIII’s flagship, Mary Rose, we have exact replicas. So now we know how much strength it took to draw a traditional longbow – around 60lbs of pull, compared with 35lbs for a modern bow. Skeletons recovered show the physical changes that came from years of longbow practise; to achieve the level of skill and rate of fire needed in battle, boys began lessons at seven years old.

Greenwood tales

After the Tudor period other weapons were developed and archery went into a long decline, but it continued as a minority sport.

It was hoped that the London Olympics in 2012 would boost Britain’s interest, yet a popular film achieved as much or more. Girls flocked to join archery clubs after the release of The Hunger Games, inspired by heroine Katniss Everdeen and her lethal bow.

But what about Robin Hood? We can’t ignore England’s most famous bowman. His story still appeals even though it’s as old as the 14th century.

Then there’s Clym of the Clough, a medieval outlaw who lived in Englewood Forest near Carlisle with his mates, Adam Bell and William of Cloudsley. Their exploits – like Robin’s – were celebrated in the ballads of the day, making Clym famous throughout the north.

Yorkshire has a good claim to Robin Hood, although Nottingham would disagree. The earliest tales are set in Yorkshire’s Barnsdale Forest, and the rich churchman punished by Robin is the Abbot of St Mary’s in York.

Legend says the outlaw went to ground in Robin Hood’s Bay, where he lived for a while disguised as a fisherman. Robin is said to have died at Kirklees Abbey, Leeds, bled to death by the abbess who was supposed to be nursing him.

Robin Hood was so popular in Tudor times that he and his companions became part of the May festivities, appearing in pageants and folk plays. Eventually the merry pranks of the outlaw band merged with the May revels so completely, that Robin and Marian replaced the May King and Queen. The medieval folk hero came to symbolise the very spirit of May.