Saturday, 19 March 2011

Arrows - the art of the fletcher

On our way to Chester, we called in at Chirk Castle which is just over the border into Wales. It was finished in 1310, and is the last Welsh castle from the reign of Edward I still lived in today. 

It has a medieval tower and dungeon, 17th-century Long Gallery, grand 18th-century state apartments, servants' hall and laundry. I shall show more images of the insides on another posting. Today is about arrows.

You might think that arrows are of little interest, but whether it was the subject matter or the very engaging chap, dressed as a knight and telling me about them, I don't know, but I found myself drawn in and was fascinated at the skills involved in making them.

Lets start at the feathery end.

These feathers are known as fletchings. They help keep the arrow pointing in the right direction and stop it pitching when in flight.

Fletching or people who make them, fletchers, take their name from the French word for arrow, fleche. 

These feathers are taken from a goose and are glued and bound to the arrow's shaft. 

The arrows above have a traditional three feather fletching, one feather called the cock feather is at a right angle to the nock (so it won't make contact with the bow when the arrow is shot) The nock is that little slit at the back of the arrow which allows it to be put on the bow string.

Apparently, the knights of old had to make sure of supplies of geese before going to war.("Sire, sire, alas, we cannot make haste to the battles front to support your cause; we are all out of geese") Sounds a bit odd, but feathers on any one arrow must come from the same side of the bird.  This is because the bird's feathers naturally have a slight twist to them and this twist is different on both sides of the same bird, and would make the arrow wobble if mixed together.

If you turn an arrow head you can check that the feathers have been taken from the same side of the bird by rotating the arrow slowly to see the shiny underside of the feather. So three feathers per arrow, 2 arrows per bird, thousands of arrows per battle. That's a lot of geese.

Finally on the arrow top information! The feather is tied in place with a length of hemp. It is wound round and round the feather to secure it. The shafts of the feather part to allow this to happen but close again like velcro with a gentle stroke. A little strand of hemp is also wound around the shaft near to the nock to allow the archer to hold the arrow a bit better.

These are the arrow heads on the other end of the arrow. 

Can you work out what the basket shaped one at the bottom is for?

It's for holding material that could be lit. This enabled an arrow to be loosed that could set fire to buildings etc. (Arrows can't be "fired" as this term only came in when guns were invented. They were "loosed". When an archer is not loosing his arrows, he's holding them "fast".)

Armour became a bit cheaper in the 14th century, and many knights wore it. The effectiveness of arrows diminished as they weren't able to puncture plate armour. The bodkins (the two arrow heads at the top of the picture) were designed to puncture armour but their success was limited.

The central two arrow heads are broadheads and were made for war. They were made from steel and have sharp blades designed to cause lots of bleeding, hopefully by cutting through a major blood vessel. Because of the lugs, pulling out one of these arrows would cause further massive damage. The larger one is really for horses, as you were more likely to succeed in killing your man if he wasn't on a horse.

So, a happy half hour then.


  1. And I had thought this post was going to be about Ambridge...

  2. Ah, of course! Nice lateral thinking there Sally.