Linda Davies on how an unusual Christmas gift led to a fascination with the medieval longbow, and the book she was always meant to write.
Writers are often asked what inspired them to write a particular book. The inspirations behind Longbow Girl go back to my own childhood, to the gifts I was given, and to the place where I grew up: a corner of South Wales, rich in history, myth and legend.
I grew up in Tylagarw, a little village not far from the Royal Mint in Llantrisant. When I was eight, my father gave me a longbow for Christmas. It was an unusual and imaginative present but not surprising given my father’s outlook on life. The late Professor Glyn Davies had fought in the Second World War in the Royal Dragoons. He reckoned that you needed to raise children able to look after themselves, armed with the knowledge and physical abilities to get themselves out of trouble, and to fight if absolutely necessary. Some of his best and most memorable lessons were:
- How to make a fist so that you don’t get your thumb broken if you punch someone.
- Always memorise the way out of any building you enter so that if there is a fire or a power cut you can find your way out in pitch dark or thick smoke.
- Train so that you are strong enough to carry your own body weight. This means that you could carry someone and help them escape if need be or, be able to haul yourself up a dangling rope to escape.
These were useful lessons and I liked looking at the world from a perspective where I was expected to be able to take care of myself. I think that philosophy helped sow the seeds of being a writer by firing up my imagination and teaching me to see the world from multiple and unusual angles.
It also explains my long-term fascination with warrior girls. Merry, the heroine of Longbow Girl, is a supreme archer, the first longbow girl in a tradition of longbow men that stretches back seven hundred years to the Battle of Crécy. One day, out riding on her pony Jacintha, Merry makes an extraordinary discovery: a treasure that offers her the chance to turn back time. She travels back to the brutal kingdom of Henry VIII. Fighting against battle-seasoned men, she has to wield her longbow to save her family. To save herself…
As a girl, I just wielded my longbow for fun, but I always used to feel different whenever I picked it up. There’s something very satisfying about using a long slender piece of wood and a shorter pointed piece of wood with feathers and a bit of skill and strength to hit a target. Longbows are lethal weapons. They changed the course of history, they won unwinnable battles. I felt like just by picking one up I was stepping back in time. I would shoot it for hours, perfecting my aim, practising until my hands were covered in calluses. My older brother, Kenneth, also had one. We would shoot cans off walls and also, somewhat alarmingly, we would aim for the high wires on the electricity pylons. Happily, we missed!
But I had never thought about fictionalising this aspect of my childhood until some years ago, I came across a shocking but fascinating fact: In 1541, Henry VIII issued an edict ordering that all wild Welsh ponies below the size of 15 hands, give or take, be destroyed. I imagined the terrible scenes where smaller ponies were hunted down. Interestingly, a law of unforeseen consequence kicked in whereby the hunting of these ponies ensured the survival of the fittest, the fastest and the cleverest. Welsh ponies had interbred with Arab horses brought home by victorious Crusaders from the Middle East. This Arab blood made the Welsh ponies particularly fleet and they still carry strong hints of the bearing and the ability of the Arab horse.
This edict had a galvanic effect on me because, as a child, I was lucky enough to have a Welsh Mountain pony of my own. Ceulan Jacintha was a Welsh Mountain Section B pony, jet black, fleet, beautiful and wily as a pixie. I spent the happiest hours of my childhood roaming the hills on her, daydreaming. I relished that freedom. I think that also helped turn me into a writer. I could explore both geographically and in my head during those long hours alone. I was thrilled when the first skeins of a story began to emerge as a result of my learning of Henry VIII’s edict.
I decided to set it in South Wales, in the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains, near where I had grown up. It was an area I knew well, in all seasons, in all weathers. As a family of six, we would regularly go on forced family marches up Pen Y Fan. I used to grit my teeth until we got to the top, and then run all the way down to the Storey Arms with my brothers.
I found so much in that area to inspire and enrich Longbow Girl: Maen Llia, the Neolithic standing stone said to be warm to the touch, still possessing the energies of the ancients who passed by and touched it; Sarn Helen, the Roman road constructed by an Emperor for his Welsh love so that she could travel to see her family across the wild mountains. Then of course, there are the longbowmen.
In the Middle Ages, this part of Wales produced some of the strongest, bravest, and finest longbowmen in history. They were our unique weapon at Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt.
King Henry’s victory at Agincourt in 1415 has been attributed to the longbow. The massively powerful longbows, with a draw weight of 140 pounds, were the medieval equivalent of modern machine guns. Longbowmen needed to be phenomenally strong and skilful to wield one. They had to train from around eight years of age (some children started at five) in order to be able to develop the necessary strength to master a full-sized longbow, or Warbow as it was known then, in battle. (When the Tudor warship, the Mary Rose was exhumed, the misformed skeletons of archers were found, with ribcages distorted by the demands of mastering a longbow.)
Bodkin arrows shot from longbows could wound at four hundred yards, kill at two hundred and penetrate armour at one hundred yards. The five thousand longbowmen at Agincourt, each loosing fifteen arrows a minute, let fly a total of seventy five thousand arrows in one minute: an arrow storm that was said to have blocked out the light of the sun. It caused thousand of casualties directly but also indirectly, by maddening the French horses, which trampled the close-packed ranks of French foot soldiers. And arguably, it won the “unwinnable” Battle of Agincourt.
Traditionally, the glory of victory had always been assumed by the aristocracy, the Knights and the Men-at Arms. The Battles of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt changed the martial balance of power between the nobility and the yeomen, or peasant farmers who wielded the longbow. The idea that strength and skill could triumph over wealth and status was a revolutionary one. I loved the idea of these humble men changing the course of history with a simple piece of wood. As did Shakespeare, immortalising the victory at Agincourt in Henry V: “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers….”
Agincourt was the last great battle where longbows were deployed to devastating effect. They lingered on in use until around the 16th century, when advances in firearms made gunpowder weapons a progressively more important factor in warfare. The Battle of Flodden (1513) was the last battle on English soil to be fought with the longbow as the principal weapon. The last recorded use of bows in an English battle may have been a skirmish at Bridgnorth in October 1642, during the Civil War, when an impromptu town militia, armed with bows, proved effective against un-armoured musketeers. Bizarrely, a longbow was recorded to have been used in action WWII when Jack Churchill was credited with a longbow kill in France in 1940.
Since then, longbow use has been confined to hunting, recreation and re-enactments. Their military use might have died out, but their legend and their legacy lives on in our daily language.
We are all familiar with the epithet ‘highly strung’. It derives from the longbow. If the string is too short when you draw the bow it will be too highly strung and could snap.
We all know people who ‘keep things under their hat’. Archers kept their bow strings dry under their hats. Wet bow strings meant a loss of tension in the bow, and shortened the range of arrows.
Meanwhile, ‘cock up’ refers to the position of the cock feather on an arrow, which should face sideways but if mis-positioned, adversely affects the flight of the arrow.
As for playing ‘fast and loose’….Fast means to stop and loose means to shoot an arrow.
Finally, and this is my favourite and never fails to engage pupils during my school visits, there is the V sign of forefinger and middle finger held aloft. This gesture comes to us from the longbow battles. If the French ever captured our archers they would cut off these two fingers so the archers could never shoot an arrow again. So when the enemy armies faced up the archers had a habit of showing the French that they had their two fingers, that they were ready to shoot arrows, that they were ready to wage war. So remember the longbowmen, next time you flick a V…!
I discovered all this as I continued my Longbow Girl research but for some reason, I found myself homing in on the Battle of Crécy, in 1346. And here I made the leap from fact to what I thought was fiction: I asked myself what if a humble Welsh archer managed to save the life of the Black Prince with a well aimed arrow from his longbow, saving him where his own retinue of noble men at arms had failed? And what if to reward this archer the Black Prince gave to him and to his family in perpetuity 500 acres and a farmhouse, on condition that each generation of this family, the Owen family, provide a longbowman fit to answer the King’s summons to war. And what if the 500 acres were carved from the estates of the Norman Settler, Baron de Courcy, who had been a man at arms in the Black Prince’s inner retinue and who had not managed to protect his prince?
And so began Longbow Girl, with my heroine, Merry, the first female in a line of thirty generations of Longbow men to wield a longbow with sufficient skill that she could have answered a ruler’s call to war.
Still continuing my research as I wrote, I discovered a somewhat spooky fact that might explain my obsession with Crécy. The Longbowmen of Llantrisant, a small town two miles from where I grew up, had fought for the Black Prince at Crécy. But more than that. They had saved his life, forming a cordon around him when he had been knocked to the ground, fighting off all comers, enabling the Prince to struggle back to his feet in his heavy armour and resume fighting himself. The grateful Prince granted them a piece of land to be held in perpetuity. To this day, nearly seven hundred years later, the direct descendants of those longbowmen hold that parcel of land in Llantrisant.
Here’s another personal link that goes back to Crécy. During the battle, the Black Prince claimed the emblem of the defeated Bohemian King: three ostrich feathers. This emblem has been adopted by every Prince of Wales since. I was given a ‘Royal’ ring bearing the crest with the three ostrich feathers when I was a little girl when our current Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales. My father was involved in the Investiture and gave me the ring to mark the occasion. I still wear it now! I have never taken it off.
Some books, we are just meant to write…
- Medieval archers from the Luttrell Psalter, 14th century, British Library
- The original Jacintha
- Linda with her longbow, Huntress, made by master bowyer, Marc Grady.
- Linda’s ‘Royal’ ring.