Sam Willis traces the history of the weapons that have shaped Britain. He gets a lesson in swordsmanship and finds out what the Bayeux Tapestry reveals about combat.
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This is the Vickers machine gun,
arguably one of the most efficient
and effective machines ever invented.
It was once subjected to an extraordinary test.
A team of gunners fired more than five million rounds out of a single
Vickers gun over the course of a week.
Soldiers worked in pairs to keep up the rate of fire, with a third man
shovelling up the piles of spent brass.
At the end of the test, despite the huge toll on this machine gun,
it was inspected and found to be fit for service in every respect.
Quite simply, the Vickers is a marvel of 20th-century engineering.
It's up there with the aeroplane and the computer,
and yet it has just one purpose - to maim and to kill.
From the moment our earliest ancestors began
to wield primitive tools against one another,
we've devoted huge ingenuity
to developing ever-more-powerful weapons.
To settle scores...
..enforce our laws...
and wage war against our enemies.
In this series, I'm going to trace the evolution of weapons in Britain
over the past 1,000 years,
from the Anglo-Saxons to the First World War.
I'll learn just how this game-changing technology worked -
the design secrets of our most important weapons.
Look at that!
It's absolutely hammered through that, hasn't it?
But the journey from the sword to the machine gun is not as
straightforward as you might think.
What was the range of this?
50 yards, if you were lucky.
-There wasn't any.
And our weapons reveal much about our politics and society.
As English people, we take in a hatred of crossbowmen.
We take it in with our mothers' milk.
They've decided the fate of nations and rulers.
I think everybody who was in any position of power was fearful of
assassination at the beginning of the 20th century.
But they've also driven advances in science,
technology and even medicine.
It's impossible to ignore the bloody toll of weapons -
the countless millions sent to their graves -
but weapons also shaped our identity and defined our history.
It's a cold evening in October 1916, on the front line at the Somme,
and a young private is preparing to go out on a trench raid.
These small-scale surprise attacks were a major feature
of trench warfare during the First World War.
They usually took place at night,
with small groups venturing out into No Man's Land
with the object of seizing papers and plans,
knocking out a machine gun or even capturing German prisoners.
But for these raids, which would involve fighting at close quarters,
the soldiers wouldn't arm themselves with the standard-issue
Lee Enfield rifle because, with or without a bayonet,
they were simply too cumbersome for these narrow trenches.
Instead, they would arm themselves with primitive,
crude weapons known as trench clubs,
weapons that seemed to have been recalled from our ancient history,
as if by instinct.
We know from testimonies of the Great War
that these trench clubs saw action.
One account, by a Private Harold Startin
of the First Leicestershire Regiment, states that
the first victim of his trench club was a sergeant
in a Wurttemberg regiment.
These are actual trench clubs
made by regimental armourers behind the front lines.
This is a trench mace.
The head slides on and then is held in position
by the action of wielding it.
This is a wooden truncheon, embedded with studs from hobnail boots.
And some trench clubs perhaps reflect the immediacy of war
more than others, like this, a French fougue mace.
This has been made by a desperate soldier in some haste.
It's simply a hollowed-out grenade
jammed onto the end of a spade handle.
What these rudimentary combat tools emphasise is that,
even in the midst of the most mechanised war of its day,
men still relied on weaponry that was anything but modern.
They are a stark reminder of how brutal,
primal and personal hand-to-hand combat has always been.
And if you think these trench clubs are anachronistic,
take a look at this.
This is a German flail,
used in the latter stages of the First World War.
It's particularly gruesome.
The iron ball is incredibly heavy.
Just one blow from this would have caused horrific injuries.
It's a weapon that seems to have traversed history itself,
as if it was lost or discarded on a medieval battlefield,
only to be picked up again and brandished centuries later.
But however crude this weaponry may seem to us today,
its improvised design and effectiveness in close combat
harked back to a remarkable period in the history of our weaponry,
a period I'm now going to explore, when clubs, maces and flails
were just three components of a medieval arms race.
It was an age, quite literally, of cutting-edge technology.
By the ninth century,
weapons were not only helping us to defend ourselves,
but also they were starting to actually define who we were.
Our early tribes took their names from their chief weapons -
the Angles from "angel", meaning a barb or a hook,
and the Saxons from "seax", their trusty knife.
In 878AD, the future of Anglo-Saxon England lay in the balance.
Three of its four kingdoms - East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria -
had fallen to a large-scale Viking invasion.
Only Wessex remained.
But its ruler, King Alfred,
had been routed from his winter fortress
and had taken refuge in the Somerset marshlands.
By Easter 878, Alfred's call to war
had been answered by some 5,000 men from the fyrd,
a militia drawn from commoners across Wessex,
and he advanced to Ethandun in Wiltshire to face his enemy.
The Vikings had overrun England with a fearsome arsenal.
Once drawn to battle,
they would first engage with volleys of these light spears
and their sagas record instances of people throwing two at once.
Then, to further distract the enemy,
they'd hurl these things, franciscas,
their throwing axes, before finally charging in,
brandishing the most feared weapon of all - the great Dane axe.
And what did the Anglo-Saxons have in response?
Well, they had their seax, of course,
but what they relied upon most in the face of a Danish attack
was this - a shield.
But their shield was not merely simple defensive armour.
At its centre was a large metal boss,
sometimes with a spike protruding,
enabling the shield to be used as a weapon in its own right.
And it was fashioned from two layers of linden wood,
which made it light to carry and less inclined to split
from the strike of a Viking axe.
The battle at Ethandun was to last throughout the course of a day,
with Alfred's select warriors - his thanes -
withstanding repeated Viking surges,
according to one contemporary scribe,
"By forming a dense shield wall against the whole army of the pagans
"and striving long and bravely".
You could say that the future of England depended
on the strength of their shield wall,
because, once breached, defeat would have been inevitable.
Everything depended on cohesion, endurance, stamina, discipline...
..and a sounding horn guided each shield wall above the din of battle.
DEEP HORN BLAST
It would have been terrifying, trapped here,
caught between these opposing forces,
jabbing at unprotected faces and legs,
seeking out necks and eyes.
The unbroken formation and huge momentum
generated behind Alfred's shield wall
rendered it into an overwhelming mass force,
which drove the Vikings into retreat and ultimately surrender.
Backed up with the cut and thrust of sharp blades,
the shield wall demonstrated how defensive armour used en masse
could be turned into an attacking weapon.
Alfred may have repelled his pagan enemies and secured the future
for his Anglecynn or English identity, but, soon,
the steadfast Anglo-Saxon shield wall would be broken to pieces
by man and beast combined.
A new, unstoppable weapon -
the mounted knight.
The Anglo-Saxons had never fully developed the art of fighting on
horseback, unlike the Normans, who, in 1066, under their leader William,
Duke of Normandy,
sought to pierce the Anglo-Saxon shield wall
and challenge the English crown.
For me, the great tapestry at Bayeux in Normandy,
famous for its compelling depiction of the run-up
to the Battle of Hastings,
more than anything, serves as a roll of honour
for these mounted warriors.
The tapestry shows the very fabric of William's invasion force.
Here, you've got trees being felled to build the hundreds of ships
he'd need to cross the Channel.
Then coats of mail being carried on poles,
bundles of swords being carried on people's shoulders
and carriages laden with helmets and spears.
And as well as this enormous arsenal being assembled,
the Normans' great contribution to medieval warfare
is also here in abundance - the horse.
Thousands of them packed tightly into their ships
and their heads poking up just above the gunnels.
Having landed his invasion force at Pevensey Bay on the Sussex coast,
William advanced to face King Harold at Senlac Hill, outside Hastings.
Harold's army consisted entirely of infantry,
mainly housecarls, professional soldiers
trained to handle a two-handed axe, which,
if swung correctly, could cleave man and his horse in two.
And here, towards the end of the tapestry, is the key scene -
the point of impact between the two opposing sides,
between the shield wall and the mounted, charging knight.
The very moment in this transition in weaponry and warfare,
caught for all time in a few strands of wool.
Just as King Alfred's shield wall had held firm at Ethandun in 878,
King Harold's now withstood repeated charges by the Norman cavalry,
before William, curiously, ordered them back.
Now, it's never been clear if this was a retreat or a ruse,
but it worked.
In a moment of over-confidence, the Anglo-Saxons,
seeing the Normans retreat, broke their line and charged off downhill.
But the Normans turned on their heel
and ran the Anglo-Saxons into the ground.
And then, from out of the sky, came that fabled arrow,
said to have struck King Harold in the eye.
Now, a close analysis of the linen shows that that arrow
is in fact a later addition.
So whether or not Harold was struck in the eye, we'll never know.
His death certainly brought an end to the battle.
This very long yarn remains a vivid record not only of medieval weaponry
and its central role in the invasion and subsequent conquest of England,
but also, as you can see from the lower frieze,
it's a graphic catalogue of the horrific mutilations
and injuries that these weapons could inflict.
Many of these grim dismemberments on the field at Hastings were caused by
a downward cutting blow delivered to the crown of the head -
the favoured sword stroke of the Norman knight.
But as William, now king, established control
over all of England and consolidated the Anglo-Saxon infantry
with his Norman knights,
the might and martial skill of these mounted warriors
started to trouble the Church.
The Papacy began to consider how
those who lived and died by the sword could be reconciled
with the Christian faith.
In 1095, Pope Urban II issued a call to arms
to reclaim Jerusalem from Muslim control
and thousands of warriors set out for the Holy Land
as Militia Christi - Knights of Christ.
The Pope's sanction of this first Crusade meant that, now,
the mounted knight could achieve honour,
piety and even spiritual merit by his sword.
And these knights carried with them the very latest in sword technology.
No longer for them the Saxon pattern-welded sword
with its heavy, straight blade.
But this, the arming sword...
made using properly quenched, hardened and tempered steel.
It's much longer, about 31 inches,
but it's lighter because of this fuller, or groove,
running down the centre of the blade.
Now, although it's so much bigger, it's also so much easier to wield.
In addition, the crossguard, or quillon -
not present on the Saxon sword,
but developed by the Normans to protect the hand,
further rendered this weapon into a cruciform symbol,
another reminder for the knights of their allegiance to God.
As the sword developed and was modified,
so too did the means and methods of wielding it.
So, to try and get to grips with medieval swordsmanship,
what better than a duel with my tutor-in-arms,
And he'll be teaching me from an original combat manual of the day.
Rupert, tell me about this manuscript. What exactly is it?
It's the Walpurgis Fechtbuch and it's the first
extant example of medieval swordplay that we have in the world.
Previously, it's all verbal descriptions
or written descriptions.
It's the first one where we've actually got pictures
of the individual moves and how they can be countered.
This, you can actually see how the sword is held and, from that,
learn how to fight effectively.
And the images here, it's not just that they're rare -
they're also fascinating and very, very important.
I mean, you clearly have someone who appears to be a monk and someone who
appears to be really quite feminine.
She does because she is, and that is because they are keying us into
something in the cultural DNA of the time.
The monk is seen as steadfast and upright,
the woman represents cunning and strategy
and the way they both use the blade refers back to this concept.
Who would have actually used this manuscript?
Who's it aimed at? Is it aimed at young adults,
people who have suddenly been called up to fight?
A mixture of both.
But the depth in which it goes into the swordplay is ideal
for training page to squire, squire to knight.
Well, shall we recreate some of those positions
-from that manuscript?
Rupert, take me through what we've got here.
Well, we've got a sword, an arming sword, and we've got our bucklers.
So the grip is vitally important.
Grip strongly with the thumb and forefinger and very, very
little pressure with the last two fingers -
this gives you the wield of the blade.
-It makes it much more manoeuvrable.
-Whereas, if you grip, all you've got is the action of the arm.
So, if you put the sword and buckler forward like that...
And then I will step forwards and bring the blade under my arm.
Now, your blade needs to point at me.
I'm ready to go from this guard
to parry or deflect your blade and then attack.
I'm actually physically stepping in, pushing your blade away.
Now, I've got an option here.
I can either disengage and cut to your head
or, while I've got your blade busy,
I can step forwards again and punch you in the face with the buckler.
And this is where swashbuckling comes from.
Your buckler hangs on your swash, or sword belt,
and you have the sword, so it's swash and buckling.
That's interesting. I don't like either of those options.
I don't want you to cut me in the head or punch me with the shield.
Well, this is where the manual will teach you a counter.
So, if we go back to where we were,
I've got the blade here.
I step forwards.
Now, you know I've got two options,
so you need to disengage your blade and then, behind your head,
and stepping forward onto your other foot,
and then striking forward with the buckler. So I have to retreat.
-So I can hit you in the face with it.
-That's much better.
So, this counterplay, this dance,
leads you through the positions you see in the manual.
Instantly, we're in another position from the manual.
Yeah, we saw that one, didn't we, defending each other?
And that's completely natural,
so the weapons lead you to these positions.
You see how, even after a short period of using the manual, you,
who've never used these weapons before, albeit slowly,
-are beginning to be able to use them effectively.
During the course of the 12th century,
the sword would be transformed from a versatile, close-combat weapon
into one of mythic proportion
and all because of the revival in literature
of the most legendary sword of all.
In 1136, a Welsh cleric named Geoffrey of Monmouth,
whilst travelling through this part of South Wales,
wrote a chronicle entitled Historia Regum Britanniae -
The History Of The Kings Of Britain.
Geoffrey's chronicle was a clever weave of historical fact
and high-blown fantasy,
and it did a great deal to reignite the legend of King Arthur and
his Knights of the Round Table,
a legend encapsulated and thought of today
for its mythical weapon, Excalibur,
or Caliburnus, as Geoffrey called it.
A sword which he tells us was forged on the isle of Avalon
and would carve the souls from out of them with blood.
Given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake,
thus granting him the divine right to rule,
Excalibur demonstrated just how highly
the English venerated their swords.
Other Western cultures had also bestowed their swords with names.
The Vikings called theirs fotbitr, meaning "the leg-biter".
Whilst the legendary sword of Charlemagne,
said to change colour 30 times a day,
was called Joyeuse, or "joyous".
But Excalibur seemed to be the weapon personified,
a sentient sword capable of its own actions,
even of controlling its owner.
The scores of medieval knights who read Geoffrey's chronicle
and turned it into what amounted to a medieval best-seller
identified strongly with the idea of a medieval knight
empowered with a sword by divine providence.
And none more so than William Marshal,
said to be the greatest knight who ever lived.
William Marshal was the true Lancelot of his age -
a master swordsman who, in the words of one eyewitness,
would hammer his weapon down on enemies like a blacksmith on iron.
Born in southern England around 1147,
Marshal was 12 or 13 when he was packed off
to the Chateau de Tancarville in northern Normandy
to be schooled in the art of war.
Over the six years that Marshal spent here at Tancarville,
he honed his military skills and outshone his rivals
to become a peerless chevalier, or armed horseman.
He'd also become a man of great honour,
a paragon of the knightly code to which all true chevaliers aspired -
known to us as chivalry.
But aside from his proficiency with the sword,
to fight effectively in the saddle,
Marshal's fortunes would be founded on his ability
to master a new weapon of engagement - the lance.
The lance evolved from the spear,
but unlike Marshal's forebears at the Battle of Hastings,
who would have held theirs aloft to throw,
the lance was held under the arm,
in what was known as the couch position,
an innovation which transferred all of the energy
of a galloping, charging horse through the rider
to his intended victim.
And the best training for the lance came in mock battles
on an impressive scale, called tourneys or tournaments,
a form of extreme sports in which William Marshal
secured his reputation.
Knights would assemble in their hundreds
here on the plains of Normandy,
at tournaments staged to prove their prowess.
They would line up in two long lines and then, at the sound of a horn,
they would charge at each other,
seeking first to unhorse their opponents with a lance
before attempting to secure their submission in the ensuing melee.
Fully armed, William Marshal launched into their ranks
like a lion amongst oxen.
Many said, "Who is this savage who so demolishes the men on our side?"
They put every effort they could into doing Marshal harm
and capturing him, but they dared not stand there and take his blows.
The church condemned these medieval war games as detestable revels
and, fearing that they were a persistent threat to public order,
Henry II actually banned them in England.
But here in Normandy, they weren't outlawed,
providing the knightly class with an essential training for war.
And we can still get a sense of the impact of a lance
in a cavalry charge from the later incarnation of the tournament,
the medieval joust.
Well, I'm glad I'm not on that horse.
But these are just for show.
Imagine what it was like with one of those things bearing down on you.
After the joust, I catch up with this knight in shining armour,
Sir Bryn ap Cwrw,
or Benedict Green, as he's normally known.
What sort of speed are you hitting each other with on these horses?
Or if you went back to warfare and you were imagining
charging at another guy on a horse with a lance?
A horse will go up to roughly 30mph,
so in a combined charge where both sides have committed,
you're looking at up to a 60mph impact.
The tournament lance is obviously designed to break more easily,
but the war lances would be a slightly slimmer version
with a triangulated or diamond cross section head
designed to penetrate plate steel.
How effective was this armour?
Is anything going to get through that at all?
-Are you safe?
I mean, the chronicles suggest that a full lance at 90 degrees
will go through it, and that arrows may penetrate it
up to half a centimetre to a centimetre,
but I'm not directly beneath it.
There's a good pocket of air that means,
that even if they do penetrate, they don't reach me.
The lance evolves as a military term to both describe
the military formation as well as the weapon,
but also a knight and his immediate retinue
that would fight in the early tournaments with William Marshal,
but later became a core component of all military structures.
Indeed, Marshal gains most of his fame fighting in his lance formation
throughout Europe in tournaments for various kings,
as did many other knights,
and that is where the term "freelance" originates,
this idea of knights whose arms and services
were available to, essentially, the highest bidder.
As a freelancer, Marshal would serve at the right hand
of no less than five English kings,
but his allegiance to one of them began on far from friendly terms.
In 1189, in the contested realm of Angevin in northern France,
Marshal's loyalty to Henry II led to a tense stand-off with Henry's
hostile son and heir, none other than Richard Coeur de Lion -
Richard the Lionheart.
These two formidable figures faced up to each other
outside the castle walls of Le Mans.
But, in his haste, Richard lacked the necessary weapons for combat.
The Lionheart did have his sword -
which he'd named Excalibur - but Marshal, by contrast,
had sword, shield and, most importantly, lance.
And when Marshal spurred his horse forward, Richard exclaimed,
"God's legs, Marshal, don't kill me!
"That would be a wicked thing, since you find me here unarmed."
Marshal realised this was no fair fight,
high on a knight's code of honour, and he shouted back,
"Indeed, I won't. Let the Devil kill you, I shall not do it."
And at the last minute, he lowered his lance
and drove it into Richard's mount.
A mere flick of the wrist would have changed English history.
The Lionheart would not forego his lance again in a hurry.
And, once crowned king, and perhaps swayed by Marshal's prowess,
Richard lifted the ban on tournaments in England.
However, the lance and other hand-to-hand combat weapons
would soon seem outdated in the face of a new form of medieval warfare.
As castles began to appear in greater numbers
and with increasingly heavier fortifications,
so did the scope and scale of warfare change
to now include castle sieges alongside pitched battles.
And the methods for breaching castle walls,
siege engines like the mangonel or the mighty trebuchet,
would usher in a new age of long-range missile weaponry.
But the weapon that really came to the fore
during this new age of siege warfare was a sniper's weapon
of great velocity and penetrative power - the crossbow.
This weapon allowed a more detached method of killing.
With a firing range of up to 300 yards,
you no longer needed to look your aggressor in the eye.
The crossbow comprised a bowed, horizontal lathe - or prod -
mounted at the end of a wooden tiller,
from which short, thick arrows,
called bolts or quarrels, were fired.
And to get a sense of this weapon's deadly effectiveness,
I've sought out crossbowman Robin Knight,
busy taking refuge in his castle bolthole.
Robin, why were crossbows so effective in sieges?
Because, as you can see, I'm standing in an embrasure.
In front of me is an arch window, not very big.
Outside of the embrasure,
I'll be susceptible to missiles of one form or another
coming over the top.
So you can stay hidden with one of these?
I'm safe, but I've got a whole field of fire out there.
The attackers have got to scale those earthworks
and there's me up here, shooting down,
munching on me chicken leg and killing them.
And what about the range? Can we easily hit something down there?
Well, I can hit the grass.
Let me have a go.
OK, pin down.
Drag the string back slowly.
Bring it up to the firing position.
-There we go.
-I'll put the bolt in.
Not that I don't trust you.
Top half of the embrasure.
If you had a mirror, you'd be able to see the glint in your eye
that says you're seven years old.
It's amazing how something so simple can be so deadly.
That's terrifying enough. What about this one here?
That one is a lot more substantial.
Because of the heavier draw weight,
you have a more intricate method of spanning it.
Now, you need to get on your knees for this one.
Jam the trigger with your hand,
then wind it up.
Oh, there it goes. I see it moving up.
Oh, you can feel the tension of this thing building, can't you?
Well, at the moment, I'm doing it with two fingers,
but it's getting harder and harder.
It must have been difficult using these on the battlefield
cos they took so long to load.
That's why you had a little lad with you carrying a pavise,
which was a huge, great, wooden shield.
And he would place it in front of the crossbowman
when he was on his knees, like this, loading it.
There you can see the nut rolling back.
-Hear the trigger go?
I did, I heard the click.
And then we take this off.
-And then you're ready to go?
-And you're ready to shoot.
Bring it up. Bolt's in, keep your thumb down.
-I need my thumbs.
That went miles, that one.
So, although it does take longer to load, it is immensely more powerful,
-It's worth the effort.
However, during the 12th century,
the crossbow was increasingly seen as a highly divisive weapon -
a diabolical one, even,
when it was deemed an instrument of the Devil by the Pope,
who sought to ban its use against Christians.
Well, you can clearly see how effective the crossbow was,
so why was it such a controversial weapon back then?
It was acceptable to batter somebody to death with a sword,
but to kill a man with a crossbow? Not acceptable at all.
Was it sort of seen as cheating or something?
-What was wrong with it?
-I suppose it was seen as cheating, yeah.
Because, if I'm fighting you with a sword, we're four foot apart,
we're hacking hell out of each other,
and then some farmer's boy from wherever
shoots you or me from 100 yards away?
No, that's not chivalry.
As English people, we take in a hatred of crossbowmen or crossbows,
we take it in with our mothers' milk.
We take it in with our porridge at breakfast.
It's morally reprehensible.
Untroubled by such moral concerns, and ignoring the papal ban,
Richard the Lionheart employed large numbers of mercenary crossbowmen,
principally, the Balestrieri from Genoa, famed for their expertise.
And after returning from the third Crusade,
Richard set his sights on another traditional enemy.
To recover lost lands and seize new castles,
he waged war on Philip II of France.
In March 1199, Richard was three days into the siege of Chalus,
a diminutive and apparently insignificant castle in Limousin,
and it was on the point of collapse.
It's garrison had been heavily depleted by Richard's crossbowmen
and only one defender was visible on its walls,
a young man named Peter Basilius.
After supper one evening,
the King strode out from his tent to inspect the progress of the siege.
Richard was unarmoured and, more than anything,
was amused by this lone defender with the crossbow,
who had been seen using a saucepan as a shield.
But in the dying light, Peter Basilius took aim,
loosed a bolt towards the King, which, against all expectations,
found its mark and struck Richard in the left shoulder.
Richard tried to pull it out, but the shaft broke,
leaving the head embedded in his flesh.
A surgeon was summoned, who removed it,
but not without carelessly mangling the King's arm in the process.
In spite of herbs and dressing,
the wound deteriorated and gangrene set in.
When the castle fell, the lone crossbowman
was brought before the King, now on his deathbed.
But instead of ordering him to be killed, Richard said to him,
"Live on and, by my bounty, behold the light of day."
The greatest warrior-king of the Middle Ages,
the valiant Richard the Lionheart,
had been killed by the very weapon that he had championed.
Richard's untimely death demonstrated why crossbows
were so feared and revered.
It took only one bolt to kill a king.
And as for the pardoned crossbowman, well, chivalry only went so far,
for as soon as Richard was dead,
Peter Basilius was flayed alive and pulled apart by wild horses.
Richard's successor, his brother, King John,
spent most of his reign battling against his barons.
And, like his brother before him,
John too relied on foreign mercenary units of crossbowmen.
In 1215, the rebel barons presented King John with "the great charter",
the Magna Carta, to protect their rights
and to hold the king to account.
And within it, they called for the expulsion
of all mercenary captains and their crossbowmen from the country
in an attempt to deprive the King of his most reliable fighting force.
King John signed the charter,
but completely ignored the calls for the ban of crossbowmen.
And the following year, after his death, his son, Henry III,
not only continued to garrison his castles with large numbers of them,
but he also set in motion the greatest period
of weapons manufacture yet witnessed in England.
Two munitions factories were set up -
one inside the Tower of London and the other tucked away here
at St Briavels in the Forest of Dean
because of the large local deposits of iron ore,
which could be smelted and forged into crossbow bolts,
or quarrels, as they were technically known.
In 1228, King Henry's chief quarrel maker, John Malemort,
was sent here to begin work at a state-of-the-art forge
within the bailey.
"The King wills that quarrels shall be made with all speed
"and kept here for his own use,"
were his orders and Malemort set about making no fewer
than 100 quarrels a day.
Malemort's enormous stockpile of quarrels
was then carefully packed into barrels and sent in long carts
under armed guard to other strategically placed castles
throughout the kingdom.
This was weaponry on an industrial scale
and such was its military value that the King's Great Arsenal,
as St Briavels came to be known, was heavily fortified.
It was given a new defensive ditch, three iron portcullises
and this massive two-towered gatehouse behind me,
built with huge spurs to prevent undermining in a siege.
The forge at St Briavels may have long gone,
but John Malemort's skill has been kept alive
by master arrowsmiths like Hector Cole, who's giving me a glimpse
of how this medieval munitions factory would have operated.
That forge is roaring like a dragon.
Is this very similar to the process
-they would have used in the medieval period?
Nothing has changed.
The metal they would have been using would have been,
more than likely, what we call phosphoric iron,
which gives a little bit of extra hardness to the head
when it's finished.
St Briavels, obviously,
was a specialist forge for making quarrels,
so there would have been arrowsmiths working there full-time
and there would have been a lot of them, at least 50 people.
How many do you think they'd be able to make in a day?
On the average, for a quarrelhead,
you're talking about six minutes,
if you're really going at it hammer and tongs, if you like.
If they're working 12 hours a day, which they would,
they were making thousands.
One minute it was a big lump of solid iron and now it's...
-Now it's quite delicate, isn't it?
-Really, very much so.
When your metal goes in the fire, your mind goes in with it,
otherwise you're in serious trouble.
-So, you're my hammer man.
-Yes, I have my hammer.
And you're going to just do a little bit of tidying.
Let's give it a go.
Now, you're going to heat it up
-and you're going to hammer it on the far edge of the anvil again.
Every hammer blow that you make is important
because it will alter the shape of the head when it's finished.
The diamond shape will penetrate far better than the square shape
when it hits armour or anything like that.
Chainmail, will it go through chainmail?
It would burst chainmail, yes.
One reasonable quarrelhead.
It's better than reasonable!
There we go - a quarrel.
A steaming, deadly weapon.
John Malemort continued to supply the Crown
with huge quantities of ammunition.
In March 1277, the new king, Edward I,
ordered 200,000 quarrels from St Briavels
to equip crossbowmen for his first campaign
against the rebellious Prince of Wales, Llewelyn ap Gruffudd,
who had repeatedly refused to pay homage to him.
Edward I would overrun the Welsh and contain them with the
most powerful set of castles yet built in medieval Europe,
and yet it was in his campaigns against them
that he would witness the effectiveness
of the Welsh guerrilla fighters,
particularly the bowmen of Gwent in South Wales.
These archers were long known for their proficiency
with the heavy-draw-weight longbow,
much lighter to wield than the crossbow
and much quicker to reload, too.
On average, an archer could get off five arrows
for every single crossbow bolt.
The bow had long been used by hunters and foresters,
but, like the sword, it now began to be seen as a mythic weapon
through stories that abounded about the elusive outlaw Robin Hood.
Whatever their truth,
these stories fuelled the rising status of the archer.
King Edward immediately saw how the longbow,
particularly that with a heavy draw weight,
which enabled a far greater range,
could be used to create a lethal infantry missile weapon.
But his great innovation was to deploy not hundreds,
but thousands of these archers alongside his men-at-arms.
Archers had never been deployed in this way before by an English king.
One archer who seems to have stepped straight out of the medieval forest
is Mark Stretton.
He's among the very few people today capable of handling
a heavy-draw-weight longbow.
Mark, bows and arrows have been around for thousands of years.
Why was it in this period
that everything suddenly changed in relation to the bow?
Largely because, with this type of weapon,
you can shoot at close range
and you can shoot at long range very quickly.
If you take it into modern warfare terms,
you've got a sniper and you've got artillery.
So you could change very quickly
from having to shoot a knight advancing to you very close,
and you've got no choice but to shoot the man,
or you could shoot at long distance and almost, in a way,
change the way that the knights rode, so almost like a sheepdog,
you could hedge them in and bring them over to one side.
Just by shooting a volley of arrows,
you could change the whole course of the battle.
It's such a beautiful object as well as a weapon of war.
How are they made?
Well, this bow is made out of yew wood
and the reason this is so good is this is a natural lamination
of wood, because the sap wood resists tension very, very well
and the heart wood resists compression
and that is the beauty of why yew was used, because it has a very,
very good resistance to being pulled back. And when you let it go,
it springs back so quickly that that is where the real power is.
And so, the faster the string returns,
the faster the arrow flies.
You have quite a glint in your eye when you talk about bows.
-Can you train me to do it?
-We can have a go,
but whether we'll be successful or not's another story!
Well, this is an actual war bow.
This is 140lbs at 32 inches.
-That's 10st you're trying to drag back.
-Put your hand up to that mark there.
-Three fingers on the string,
and let's see what you can do.
And just simply pull it back towards my chin?
Yeah, see how far you can pull it.
-I can get it back that far.
-Well, perhaps we ought to try
something a little lighter, do you think?
OK, let's try something a little lighter.
Oh, we've got this one, which is half its weight.
This is 70lbs. Let's see what you can do with that.
Let's hopefully be able to do something with this one.
Oh, yeah, that's better, that's better.
There we go. I can do that one.
I think we'll try now with an arrow
and we'll try and shoot at the target.
OK, let's see what you can do.
That's very good, actually.
Shall we see how it compares with a real war bow?
Yes, I can't wait.
-Let's go and have a look.
We've actually gone through both sides with this one.
Look at that!
And that must have taken an enormous amount more energy
-to have done that.
-You can see how the mail is gripping the shaft.
You've still gone through that far.
But the real thing with the heavy war arrows,
it's gone through two thicknesses and through the target that we were
shooting at, which is quite a dense piece of material.
So, if I now pull this one out,
we've gone that far instead.
Yeah, rather than that.
So, it really is an extraordinary weapon, that, isn't it?
Yeah, but, of course, you've got to understand, this is at close range.
What we really want to see is what it's like when we shoot at long
distance because that's when this weapon really comes into its own.
With a lighter bow, you can probably do it with your arms,
but with something like this, a true war bow,
you've got to use your entire body.
For something like this, which is so heavy,
if you've not got a very strong skeletal frame,
you could actually destroy yourself with the forces acting upon you.
Right, so you've seen how far my arrow has gone
and it's gone a good 220 yards, we're way up that bank there.
And, of course, if you relate this to a battlefield situation,
you're engaging the enemy at a greater distance
and that gives you a huge advantage.
Yeah, and seeing just one arrow fly into the sky was an awesome sight.
It must have been extraordinary seeing hundreds, thousands of them.
Oh, yeah. If you get thousands of archers all losing one arrow
at once, you really would get a storm of arrows.
The sky would be full of arrows and then they'd come raining in.
It would really be like a rain of death hitting the knights
and there's just no way you're going to get away from that,
so that is why this was such a decisive weapon.
The arrow storm unleashed by longbowmen may have helped Edward I
to conquer the Welsh,
but this weapon would really come to the fore during
the wars of Scottish independence, around the turn of the 14th century.
At the Battle of Falkirk in 1298,
Edward's longbowmen picked off with relative ease
the once-invincible formations of Scottish spearmen,
The Scots' leader, William Wallace, managed to escape the arrow storm,
but was later captured and executed in London for treason.
Hanged, drawn and quartered,
his head was placed on London Bridge and his limbs sent north to Perth,
Stirling, Newcastle and Berwick-upon-Tweed.
It was here, on the old bridge over the River Tweed,
that Edward I ordered one of Wallace's quarters,
said to be his sword arm,
to be strung up as a warning against further rebellion, but to no avail.
For the next quarter of a century, Berwick,
the most economically and strategically significant port
in the Border wars, was fiercely contested
in a series of raids and sieges,
until it was eventually reclaimed by the Scots.
But then, in 1333,
it became the crucible for a decisive confrontation -
one in which the longbow would come of age.
In May of that year, the new King, Edward III,
came to lay siege to Berwick
and positioned himself just north of the town,
on a 600ft rise called Halidon Hill.
Here, I'm meeting Professor Matthew Strickland
to find out how this became the real testing ground for the longbow.
So, we've got Edward III up here, the Scots coming from the north.
Edward knows they're going to come from the north,
so they're really playing into his hands already.
It's a trap. He sets a trap.
Edward chose Halidon Hill because it dominated the approaches to Berwick.
He drew up his army in three divisions,
or battles, as they were known.
Now, the key thing about Halidon, and what makes it such an important
battle in the history of the longbow,
is that he dismounted his knights to fight on foot,
and each of his divisions was flanked by a wing of archers,
sloping inwards, so that the incoming Scots were caught
by enfilading shot from the longbowmen.
-And was this new formation effective?
-It was highly effective,
particularly because of the use of the terrain
because what happened was the Scots advanced down the slope.
As they came down the slope, they realised that the bottom
of the valley was marshy and boggy, so that broke up their progress.
They then had to struggle up the hill behind us, towards the English
positions, and this was something that Edward III was very good at.
He'd choose the ground so that the approach looked easier
than it actually was.
As they're struggling up the slope, they're being pounded with arrows.
Imagine these coming down in their thousands.
One chronicler says, "As the Scots were advancing,
"they turned their faces away as if walking into a storm of sleet,
"so dense were the arrows striking them."
By the time those who do reach the English men-at-arms get there,
they're winded, they're tired, they're probably wounded
and they're easily defeated by the English knights and men-at-arms.
So how did this battle influence
the bigger story of medieval warfare?
The longbow was a weapon that had existed for many centuries.
The weapon itself isn't new.
What Halidon sees is the use, en masse,
of this new tactical formation,
which sees dismounted knights flanked by wings of archers,
and the Scots are drawn in and destroyed.
And it's this tactic that the English will use again and again
in the Hundred Years' War.
Edward III may have won his spurs at Halidon Hill,
but he soon faced a new threat from King Philip VI of France.
Keen to test his winning longbow tactics,
Edward set sail for Normandy in July 1346
with an army of over 10,000 men.
Edward marched north, burning and pillaging everything in sight.
He sought to engineer an encounter on his terms
and on the terrain of his choosing.
And here, at Crecy in the Somme, he found it.
Taking command from a windmill,
exactly here, where this watchtower now stands,
Edward drew up his forces on this ridge behind me,
hemmed in between the villages of Crecy and Wadicourt,
with the intention of luring his enemy into a killing zone
in the basin below.
This would be the ultimate contest of rival weaponry,
pitting longbow against crossbow, archer against archer.
And so desperate was King Philip for victory
that he ordered his 2,000 Genoese crossbowmen forward immediately,
even though they were exhausted from a long march
and without their defensive pavise shields,
which had been left behind in the baggage train.
Regardless, the Genoese crossbowmen loosed their bolts,
but they fell inexplicably short.
Now, it's always been a matter of conjecture why this happened.
Some blame the wet weather,
but the Genoese were professional crossbowmen
and they would have kept their bowstrings waxed.
Others say they were dazzled, firing into the sun, and simply misfired.
But, for me, these explanations are all too simple.
The fact is that Philip pushed them into a battle
for which they were ill-prepared.
Those men unskewered by the subsequent English arrow storm
threw down their crossbows and fled,
only to be trampled to death under the hooves
of the advancing French cavalry.
But the relentless rain of arrows was not the only cause of panic
and confusion on this battlefield that day.
One Italian witness wrote of the fearful effect
of the fire that throws tiny balls to frighten and destroy horses.
This was Edward's secret weapon that he had brought to France,
concealed in carts - cannon -
and this was their first appearance in pitched battle.
Having mastered the deployment of the longbow,
and with it transformed England into a formidable military power,
Edward now sought to embrace new weapons technology
in the form of gunpowder.
The cannon may have been in its infancy at Crecy,
but its psychological effect on the battle was profound.
At Crecy, over the hiss of the English arrow storm
had been heard the thunder of guns - a resounding new weapon of war.
Edward's cannon gave birth to a new age of warfare,
one in which the skill of a swordsman
and the brute strength of an archer
gave way to the simple lighting of a fuse or the pull of a trigger,
and the whole business of killing became easier than ever before.
Next time, I'll find out how a new range of weaponry,
from cannons to muskets,
was devised to exploit the explosive force of gunpowder.
I'll explore the role it played at key moments in British history -
the Gunpowder Plot and the English Civil War -
and I'll tell the little-known story
of the first-ever political assassination by firearm.
In the first of this three-part series, Dr Sam Willis charts the evolution of weaponry in Britain throughout the Middle Ages. Beginning with the Battle of Ethandun in 878, when the future of Anglo-Saxon England lay in the balance, Sam examines the weapons and tactics used by King Alfred to keep the Viking raiders at bay, and gets hands-on experience as he joins re-enactors behind a shield-wall, used by the Anglo-Saxons en masse as an attacking weapon to drive back and defeat the Vikings. Sam travels to France to examine the famous Bayeux Tapestry, with its depiction of the huge arsenal massed by William the Conqueror for his invasion of England in 1066. With the Norman mounted knight came innovations in weapon technology, chiefly stronger and lighter swords, and Sam is given a lesson in swordsmanship using the earliest known combat manual. Sam also visits the Chateaux de Tancarville in Normandy to tell the story of William Marshal, said to be the greatest knight who ever lived, and how he forged his reputation using a new weapon - the lance - in the extreme sport of its day, the tourney. To get a real sense of the tourney, Sam watches a display of its later incarnation - the joust. The increasing number of castles and sieges brought with it a new age of projectile missile weaponry, principally the crossbow. Holed up in a castle tower, Sam gets to test-fire different crossbows and discovers why they became outlawed by the pope as instruments of the devil. Visiting the battlefield sites of Halidon Hill in Northumberland and Crecy in northern France, and again getting hands-on with the weapon in question, Sam examines how King Edward III strategically deployed the traditional longbow in vast numbers to devastating effect against the Scots and the French, and as such how it came to be regarded as the chief weapon of the Middle Ages.