The longbow was the supreme weapon of war in medieval times, but while the rest of Europe was changing to the use of handguns, the English continued using the bow during the 16th century. The inventories of weapons carried on board the King’s ships include longbows and arrows, and when the Mary Rose was excavated a unique collection of Tudor archery equipment was uncovered.

More than 3,500 arrows and 137 whole longbows were recovered from the ship. Most of these were found in chests, either stored on the orlop deck or ready-to-use on the upper deck below the aftercastle. The bows staves recovered from the Mary Rose were made from a single baulk of yew. This was cleft into triangular billets. The bowyer retained the sapwood layer to preserve the natural laminate of the timber. The heartwood and the sapwood have different physical properties: the heartwood performs better under compression and the sapwood under tension.

bow tip
Longbow tip (the lighter area shows the
position of the horn nock before it disintegrated
)The staves were shaped to a D-section with a flat back of sapwood and a rounded belly of heartwood. Tillering notches were cut on opposite sides of the bow at each end enabling the bow to be braced and the upper limbs to be shaped. While the discolouration on the tips of the bows indicated the existence of horn nocks, the environmental conditions on the wreck site were not favourable to the survival of horn. We were therefore surprised and delighted when Maggie Richards, the Curator of Artefacts, discovered one while examining a section of concreted armour in 1998. The average length of the bows is 1.98 metres (range 1.87m – 2.11m). Unfortunately there were no traces of bowstrings, even in the barrels in the hold.

horn nocks
Actual nock at top of picture – replica fitted on to lower bow