Archers; © iStock photos

iStock photos

The bow had long been superseded by firearms on the major battlefields of this period, and the last known use of the English longbow in battle was in 1644.

Yet archery was still a practised skill, partly for hunting and partly for recreation, and many villages in both France and England still held the kind of archery contests Jacques mentions in Honour and the Sword. When the village is overrun by Spaniards, these old skills come once again into their own. As a long range weapon for ambush, the bow has two main advantages over the musket - silence and speed.

We see both types of bowmen in Honour and the Sword. Philippe Durand and the Lefebvres are all longbowmen, big men with strong arms, capable of pulling a bow with a draw weight of perhaps 60lb.

Modern re-enator using a bow; © iStock photos

iStock photos

The physical exertion required made it difficult for a longbowman to shoot more than five or six arrows in a minute - but this is still a considerable improvement on the one or two shots achieved by a musket in the same time. When Ravel needs cover for a retreat, he gives high priority to the longbowman of his party, who can keep up a higher rate of fire than the slower-loading musketeers.

The crossbow is less fast, managing perhaps no more than two or three shots in a minute, but its greater power gives it the advantage of being able to pierce armour at a longer range. In Honour and the Sword when armoured Spanish guards need to be removed from a distance without an alarm being given, it is the crossbowmen who provide the answer.

The one crossbowman mentioned in any detail is clearly despised by Colin Lefebvfre, and one wonders if the longbow ‘artist’ regarded his crossbow equivalent as an inferior ‘machine operator’. Certainly he speaks of Bernard with the dismissiveness we would today use of an ‘anorak’ or ‘geek’. Nevertheless, it is Colin’s line that ‘the man only had about three words in him, and they were crossbow, bolt and cranequin’ that tells us the type of crossbow Bernard used.

Crossbow with cranequin action; Wikimedia commons

Crossbow with cranequin action

This also fits with Jean-Marie’s rather vague descriptions of Bernard ‘ratcheting up his string’ in the sequence at the gorge.

At least he gets one thing right. Ignorant as Jean-Marie appears to be of the actual mechanics of a crossbow, he knows better than to refer to Bernard ever ‘firing’ it. Then as now, the only correct way to refer to such an action is ‘loosing the bolt’.