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Friday, April 19, 2013

The Bows of the Mary Rose

The Mary Rose was a warship during the reign of the Tudors. It sand in 1545 near the Isle of Wight with over 380 men aboard and was later salvaged in 1982.

Before sinking the Mary Rose distinguished itself during three wars with the French before going down during the Battle of the Solent. Due to an unknown reason the ship capsized and only 35 men managed to flee the sinking ship. An account by one survivor states that the ship was carrying too many canons at the time and water came in through the gun ports when the ship suddenly tilted to one side.

What makes the Mary Rose interesting is that while gunpowder and canons was being used during the 1500s, archery was still very much the main choice of projectile weapons because gunpowder was too unpredictable at the time. The Mary Rose was a transitional ship design in naval warfare, designed to accommodate both archers and canons.

Since ancient times, war at sea had been fought much like that on land: with swords and bows and arrows, but on floating wooden platforms rather than battlefields. The introduction of guns was a significant change, it only slowly changed the dynamics of ship-to-ship combat. As the canons became heavier and able to take more powerful gunpowder charges, they needed to be placed lower in the ship, closer to the water line to prevent the ship from rocking back and forth so much during each shot. Gunports cut in the hull of ships had been introduced as early as 1501, only about a decade before the Mary Rose was built in 1512.

Coordinated volleys from all the canons on one side of a ship slowly became the focus of naval combat, but ships like the Mary Rose also relied on archers.

And in the case of the Mary Rose, the pride of the British fleet, it was armed with the best archers England could muster.

Thus when the Mary Rose sank it went down with many fine archers on it - and all of their equipment.

Salvage operations of the Mary Rose has led to many longbows (English warbows) being discovered. There was a total of 250 longbows carried on board when the Mary Rose sank, and 172 of these have so far been found, as well as almost 4000 arrows, bracers (arm guards) and other archery-related equipment.

Longbow archery in Tudor England was mandatory for all able adult men, and despite the introduction of canons and handguns, they were used alongside the new missile weapons in great quantities. On the Mary Rose, the longbows could only have been drawn and shot properly from behind protective panels in the open waist or from the top of the castles as the lower decks lacked sufficient headroom.

So far there are several types of yew bows of various size and range that have been salvaged. Lighter bows would have been used as "sniper" bows to be used against specific targets, while the heavier designs could possibly have been used to shoot fire arrows longer distances.

Many archery DIY experts now enjoy making replicas of the warbows found on the Mary Rose - making bows that have up to 180 lbs of torque available. Most of the longbows were in the 100 to 120 lbs range.

In 1550 the British yew warbows were considered to be the height of military technology - and very difficult to make. It would be another 50 years before muskets would become more reliable and widely used. And because muskets could be used with very little training it meant an army could be raised and trained and relatively little time, whereas elite archers would need to train for years before they could even pull the more powerful yew bows.

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