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November 20, 2005

Yew Power

The penultimate battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought in Tewkesbury and every year there is a re-enactment on the old battlefield - or what is left of it. It is a grand weekend affair with the town filled with re-enactors from all over Europe (Both armies had large mercenary contingents) and the battle ended in a slaughter rather than a defeat. Edward IV secured his claim to the crown and captured Queen Margaret (Henry VI's Queen) in the process. She was merely banished, her son, Edward Prince of Wales, was killed on the battlefield and her husband died mysteriously in the Tower of London. The surviving Lords who had supported her and her husband's cause were all beheaded at the Tewkesbury Market Cross and, with the fallen Prince, are buried in Tewkesbury Abbey.

Both sides had Longbowmen, the devastating weapon of the high Middle Ages, and both sides made excellent use of them, right up to the point where Edward IV's army managed to turn the Prince of Wales lines and put them to flight. Then it was Edward's bowmen who began the slaughter.

A pair of "Bowmen" armed with Yew Longbows at the re-enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury.

The longbow is made from a single strip of Yew wood just over six feet in length unstrung. The Yew has a unique property in that the outer layers are very hardy and the inner core is softer. A bow made from this wood has properties similar to the modern composite bow since, with the hard layers on the "outer" side and the soft layers inward, when the bow is bent, the softer layers are condensed and store energy while the outer layers are stretched. When the string is released, the energy is transmitted through the bowstring as the compressed layers push back into shape, increasing the "straightening" moment of the outer layer and lending power to the arrow. These bows generated a "pull" of up to 220 pounds at full "bend" and almost all of that was transfered to the 3 foot long arrow!

This is the weapon which killed almost 12,000 French knights and men at arms at Agincourt and a similar number at Crecy.

There is one more piece to this that should make anyone aware of the power of this weapon - it could, in the right circumstances (about 50 feet and striking a flat surface) - penetrate plate armour, chainmail and the padded jerkins beneath! It could also send an arrow almost half a mile - and the bowman could keep 14 arrows a minute in flight! Against this, the crossbow could fire a more powerful "bolt" over a short distance, but it could only fire three "bolts" to the longbow's fourteen! Also, for the record, modern bows of this type, have a "pull" of a maximum of 180 pounds.

In case anyone thinks we would have trouble finding Yew wood to make bows - every churchyard the length and breadth of England has stands of Yew trees.

Posted by The Gray Monk at November 20, 2005 10:15 PM

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