The Mary Rose is one of the greatest resources of information about English archery. Onboard were dozens of longbowmen, who were the projectile masters of Henry’s Navy. We know that some of these bowmen were on deck when she sank and conjecture is that the Mary Rose must have been close enough to the French to be loosing arrows at them. A number of longbowmen were found in the wreck, which we know because an archer of the time would have ‘suffered’ from a bone anomaly named os acromealie. Os acromealie is when the cartilage located where the Archer’s scapula and clavicle meet does not form into bone as we age. As children this area is cartilage similar to your nose or ear. As we age this cartilage turns to bone. Except if you’re an archer, the continual movement of drawing the bow does not allow the bone formation to happen. Through this anomaly Osteologists were able to sort out who the archers were from the many skeletons found during excavation. In fact, the most complete skeleton found was that of archer and he was big brute of a man. Using facial reconstruction software, the Conservation team were able to reconstruct our longbowmans features. As Ms. Hildred of the Mary Rose museum took me around the museum I was completely overwhelmed by the items, both personal and military that were recovered. However, when I stood in front of the Longbowman, both his skeletal remains and his reconstructed figure, I was silent. Here was a counterpart, a fellow archer, a mighty man that I shared something with. He was like kin and I stared at him reverently with respect, one of my own, fallen. As Alex kept reminding me, as cool as the artifacts are we cannot forget that so many died when the ship went down, those that gave their life for King and Country.
130 longbows were recovered, along with more than 3,500 arrows, a number of arrow spacers and one 6″ piece of hemp bowstring. I was totally unprepared for what happened when Alex took me into the storage of most of the archery equipment, only few are on display. She opened a single door and we descended short stairs as I put on my white cotton ‘allowed to touch’ gloves. Then there in front of me, right in front of me were the longbows. I was in awe – they looked so powerful as they lay there, and even as Alex invited me to pick one up, I could not, yet. The sheer power of their very being was present, knowing that these very bows were once held by King Henry,s best archers was emotional beyond what words I have to use. Eventually I was able to reach out and pick one up: power, power, might and strength. I could imagine the muscles bulging and straining as the yew wood bent under lifelong trained hands. I held it up beside me and once again my eyes were wet; I was touching the past, I was holding an actual warbow. I admit, I was prepared for the energy that came from these bent sticks. As I touched each one, imagined drawing it and loosing an arrow then reaching for another, the goose fletch brushing my face, it was real, I was there amongst the smoke and noise of battle, not just on the Mary Rose but Agincourt, Crecy and the War of the Roses. I could hear the creak and feel the strain, followed by the short but seemingly infinite silence as the air parts for a projectile of death.
Slowly we went through the Archery ordinance with Alex as she explained the experimental archaeology that went into trying to discover the draw weights, wood types, were some recurved or not (still up for debate, the arrow spacers and the arrows themselves). Aside from the lone Westminster Arrow, these are the closest we have to medieval arrows. They are as formidable as the bows themselves. Holding one betwixt my fore and middle finger again I was transported in time. The loud voice of the Archery Sergeant bellowed in my ears to ‘ nock on, draw, loose’ my imagination filling in the sound of arrows flying through the air. This was an amazing start to my trip, not only was I privileged enough to see and touch these incredible pieces of archery history, I got to meet one of my childhood heroes. I never did get to tell Alex that once she responded to our request I did some background check on who she was. Imagine my surprise when I made the correlation between modern Alex Hildred and the petite young blonde marine archeologist on the National Geographic show. Before there was Chef Gonsalves, before there was Robin Hood, Patricia there was a young girl who wanted to grow up to be a Marine Archaeologist. Due to uncontrollable circumstance (also known as life) and some unsupportive teachers that dream never came true. I am however thankful that two of my passions came together in this unique and very touching way.
This blog is dedicated to Alex Hildred and the Mary Rose museum. You were most gracious and sharing hosts. Ms. Hildred, thank you for inspiring a young girl so many years ago to continue to follow her dreams.