My love affair with the crossbow
A thousand years after its power was first unleashed, this curious weapon still has the capacity to terrorise and fascinate. By John Walsh
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 19 June 1999
Well this grown man, at least.
This is the story of an obsession, a fetish, a murky passion for an object. One can, and perhaps should, feel ashamed of such things. One can risk appalling (or boring) one's friends and readers with one's sweaty enthusiasm for spiked-heel shoes or Arsenal FC. This is different. My own obsession is for a device with a history - a device that is part of history, for it came to represent the changing nature of human society, and to embody some of its worst aspects. We'll get to the history later, as we will to the sex and religion and art. But we start with an English television screen and a fake Swiss hillside.
When I was four or five, William Tell was my favourite programme on television. It was the flower of Lord Grade's ATV stable of adventure serials, though sadly eclipsed in popularity by the much inferior Robin Hood and its curly-haired, jerkin-clad star, Richard Greene. The Swiss freedom-fighter was played by Conrad Phillips, a curly-haired but much hunkier chap in a sheepskin tunic. Every week, in the credit sequence, he shot a crossbow bolt at an apple perched on his son's innocent head, as directed by the loathsome Landberger Gessler (the, as it were, Sheriff of Nottingham of the Swiss Alps) played with a fat, Charles Laughton leer by Willoughby Goddard. The reasons why Tell's son was subjected to this ordeal were unclear to me, but I liked the look of William T, who did a lot of rugged smiling, tousled his little boy's hair and jumped to safety from a castle window every week when Gessler invariably said "Seize him!" to the slow-witted castle guards. The programmes were made in 1957, then stopped. Gessler and Tell disappeared from the screen. Willoughby Goddard made a film called In the Wake of a Stranger in 1959 then he too disappeared. Conrad Phillips, 25 years later, made a guest appearance in Fawlty Towers, looking middle-aged but still hunky, playing a friend of Polly the maid. It did nothing to dissipate my fascination for what he had carried on his back years before.
It was an ordinary peasant's crossbow, without any elaborate spikes or winching equipment, and he carried it carelessly slung across his sheepskin tunic like a lost lamb, or a rifle. As Tell and his merry men loped home over the Swiss fields to their rude village after another hard day evading the federal taxman, the rounded "T"s of their weapons swung along behind them, like capital letters that would ward off harm.
At the time, I was just waking up to the significance of the religious icons that festooned our home in south London. The house was full of crucifixes. The dying image of Christ on a cross loomed over our everyday routines in the hallway, the dining room, my bedroom. There was a plastic one in the kitchen, kept upright by slotting the foot of the Holy Cross into a plastic mound so you could stand it on a ledge beside the washing machine. There was a crucifix embedded in the cover of my prayer book. At the end of the circle of brown rosary beads, dangling like an after-thought, was yet another tiny, T-shaped scene of execution. It was an icon of bravery, the Catholic teachers said, and of God's selfless love for mankind, and about giving your life up for others.
I wasn't impressed by all this suicidal altruism, but I could see the attraction of crucifixes. Compact, simple in design, neatly suggesting - in the brief horizontal slash across the long vertical - the lineaments of the human form, they carried a lot of symbolism: a tree that was also an instrument of torture, a dying bloke who was also a God ... I'm not sure I took all this in at the time, but I remember feeling a childish pity that the man on the cross was being celebrated for just dying. In those days, my head was full of Fifties comics, and tales of wartime derring- do. Wouldn't it be better, I thought, if he were celebrated for fighting back against whoever had strung him up?
And then on television, every week, I watched a man who fought back against the oppressors of his family, his son, his villagers, his mountainy folk and sent them fleeing away in terror - by firing a cross at them!
It was a fantastic revelation. The crossbow was just like a crucifix, but you could, apparently, kill people with it. Like the crucifix, it featured a long piece of metal laid upon a length of wood; but whereas in one case the metal object was a dead God, the metal thing on the crossbow was a bolt which sprang away at 100 miles a second, and thudded into your enemies' hearts. Long before I heard the concept of "the Church Militant", I had turned into a de facto Crusader, fighting in my dreams against the anti-Christ and the infidel, my trusty crossbow on my back.
It was, coincidentally, the Crusades that made crossbows possible. For it was in Asia Minor that Europeans first came across the "composite bow" of the Turks, with its short arms and phenomenal range. The English longbow was a gorgeous, graceful, 5ft yew phenomenon which could project an arrow 200 or 300 yards, but was hellishly unwieldy. The Oriental bow was much shorter (you could shoot it on horseback) and could send an arrow flying 600 yards or more; the longest bow-shot ever recorded was the Sultan Selim's 972-yard effort in 1798, authenticated by no less than the British ambassador, who was standing beside him. So the West pinched the technology, to make a bow that was both powerful and compact. It seemed the perfect weapon: its combination of short limbs, long range and formidable power was astonishing. Crossbows weren't invented in the Crusades; they existed in late Roman times; you can find depictions in French bas-relief and bronze Chinese triggers from the Third century. But when they came back into popular use after 1066 (brought by the Normans and the Germans) they caught on fast.
Crossbows were primitive man's first brush with torque. Once they discovered that you could increase the stored energy in the crossbow's arms by using mechanical means to pull the cord back, the technology raced off in exponential bounds. A pulley system could tense the cord with twice the strength of a man. A goat's-foot lever tensed it five times as much. If you used an English windlass (an extraordinary contraption of dangling wires, hooks and handles) it cranked up the tension to 45 times that of human power. And if you went for broke and used the unsurpassable pulling power for the German winch (or "crannequin"), it was like having the combined force of 145 archers pulling a cord.
The metal arms became less flexible. The crossbow cord became tauter. The devices for flexing the bow grew more elaborate.
Throughout all these developments, the crossbow never had a good press. In the 11th century, when it was first seen in the hands of Muslims and Saracens, it was described by Anna Comnena, the Byzantine princess, as "a terrible weapon". It was, after all, uncompromisingly inhuman. The string was so taut it could never be drawn by an ordinary bowman. The bolt was shorter, heavier and more businesslike than an arrow, and could pierce chain-mail as though it was cheesecloth, at far longer range. It had no lovely, tricorn display of feathers, no elegantly crafted arrowhead. To fire it required no Ulysses-like feats of athleticism, no graceful, manly extension of one's arms, no subtlety, no charm. You just cranked up the nasty wire, locked it in place, slotted a malicious little bolt into the groove where a metal pin held it steady, took aim in your own sweet time, and from a safe distance, under cover, fired the bastard at your enemy, who immediately died. While the longbowmen fired into the air, sending an arrow-shower on a graceful trajectory, to fall to earth a few hundred yards away, the crossbow could be fired directly at its victim.
It represented something newly vindictive in the human heart, something inimical to fair play and the rules of combat. It suggested the triumph of the selfish individual will over the tenets of society and law. There's a 15th-century engraving that sums it up in a second. It features a charming country scene with a church spire, a maypole and a hay barn in the background. In the foreground a man kneels on the earth, his head framed by dangling oak branches. Sheep graze calmly and children play around him, while a sweet spaniel lies with her paws outstretched. Beside him, a walking cane leans at an angle through the handle of a wicker basket; over its edge flops the wing of a dead bird, for this man is a poacher. Despite his jaunty cap with its crooked feathers, despite the puppy and the bright English summer day, he intends to kill you because you have disturbed him. That is why he is levelling a crossbow at the viewer of the picture, squinting down the shaft through the front sight, lining up the bolt with (gulp) your eye. There are no pictures of longbowmen aiming directly out of the picture at you.
Thus did the Middle Ages contemplate, with some misgivings, the arrival of civilisation's first gun.
It was too dangerous to be a good thing. In 1087, William Rufus, while out hunting in the New Forest, was killed by a stray bolt from, presumably, a fellow huntsman, though none came forward. In the great disbursement of land, and the rights and privileges that went with it, in the Magna Carta of 1215, the crossbow was banned by King John: it was the ideal weapon for poacher or assassin with designs on the king's deer or the king's life. Only the wealthiest landowners could own one.
Europe followed suit. Papal edicts forbade its use against Christians. Nonetheless, it became a favoured weapon of war. Richard Coeur de Lion, both a fan and an expert shot, took it to the Holy Land on the Third Crusade, as the perfect infantryman's back-up to the knightly (and more chivalrous) cavalry, and showered the hapless Turks; ironically, he was himself killed by a marksman's bolt. At the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, the forces of Edward the Black Prince let out a collective gulp as the French army's secret weapon came on the scene: a division of 6,000 Genoese armed with the deadly cross. "Then came on the cruel company of crossbowmen," commented a contemporary source, "making a darkness in the sky with the quarrels [bolts] which they shot."
Back at home, the crossbow became a byword for unsafe sport. Charles Chenevix-Trench, in his well-researched History of Marksmanship, reports that James I's Archbishop of Canterbury was told by his doctor to stop sitting around all day and take some exercise. So the head of the English church went stag-hunting. Crossbow at the ready, he aimed at a fine specimen, missed and totalled one Peter Hawkins. "An angel might have miscarried in this way," remarked the king in a sorrowful, if heartless, soundbite. When Coleridge's Ancient Mariner pitches his whole crew into weeks of Death-in-Life by shooting the divine albatross that visits his ship ("the pious bird of good omen"), he does it with a crossbow.
A reputation for baseness, moral disrepute and unfairness has dogged it through the centuries. It's too wicked, too simple, too lethal. It's an inglorious machine in that anyone, no matter how out-of-condition, how ill-bred or ill-disposed, can make it work. It remains a nasty secret from the Dark Ages - dangerous, unsporting and consequently irresistible.
My fascination with the things started in religious confusion, but refused to go away. I never owned a crossbow when I was young, which was probably just as well; instead it became an aesthetic fetish. When, to the rest of the United Kingdom, the crossbow was merely the device used on a late- Sixties TV quiz show called The Golden Shot, operated by a blindfolded marksman called Bernie, to me it was something infinitely serious and troubling. When in my teens I found myself walking around the Spanish city of Toledo - that spectacular museum of spiked Moorish towers and hilly battlements - I was surrounded by crossbows. They hung on every gallery wall, inlaid with gold leaf and mother-of-pearl, strung with wires as tautly as a Steinway grand. They bristled in every marketplace. The souvenir shops were an atrocity exhibition of lethal crucifixes. It should have made my blood freeze. It had the opposite effect.
It did something to the blood of Renaissance painters as well. The crossbowmen pictured preparing their weapons in Pollaiuolo's Martyrdom of St Sebastian are homoerotically conceived savages, red-legged, muscular, tight-arsed and brutal figures, whose sole concession to delicacy is the rapt attention they're giving to their work, dragging the awful wires up the body of their crossbows before turning them on the naked, porcupined figure of the saint. Feet in their bow-stirrups, hands between their legs, they are clutching and tensing every sinew to yank the instruments of death into proper working order.
Yes, well - I never realised the fascination of the crossbow had anything very sexual about it until I tried to describe its workings to a woman friend. "For God's sake," she said, "Don't you see how male all this is? All this stuff about bolts and the shaft and tautness and readying the weapon?"
"That's where you're wrong," I said. "The crossbow is a sporting object at which women can be just as adept as men. Elizabeth I, for example, was a great crossbow shot ... "
"Fancy," she replied, "but I expect that was in the days before twanging the wire meant masturbation, and shooting your bolt meant premature ejaculation ... "
"You're being too precious," I reasoned. "All archery is ... "
"OK," she said, "tell me how a crossbow is different in essence from a bow and arrow."
"Well the main thing is," I said, "you have to cock it ... "
"I rest my case," she said.
It's hard to explain the power of a fetish. The dictionary doesn't help much, glossing it as "any object, activity etc to which one is excessively
or irrationally devoted", though the root is the Portuguese word feitico, meaning sorcery: fetishes, as they used to be conceived, were objects which some people believed were imbued with magic powers.
The crossbow didn't seem exactly magical to me. Certainly it was decorative, in the sense that you could hang it on the wall and admire it. (I came to haunt the Wallace Collection in central London, for its sensational display of crossbows.) But my "devotion" was mostly a physical thing. I liked the way it combined the heft of a gun with the breadth of a shield; how you carried it before you like a trophy, its arms spread wide in a deeply untrustworthy greeting. I always remembered the crossbows I'd found, in such weird profusion, in Spain, and the packed energy of their tensed wires, the way the whole gorgeous cruciform shape seemed to hum with murderous intent when the wire was cocked in place. It was a device in which form and function were indivisibly joined, the holy cross and the fatal wire, a blessing and a death combined. I liked the look and feel of the things, the starkness of their beauty. And I felt, and feel, curiously attracted by their shocking reputation - 900 years as the black sheep of the marksmanship world, the wicked-upstart strain of the weapon family, the unfair machine of war, the sniper's first friend, the reification of mankind's sneaky inhumanity towards its fellows.
The other day I decided to buy one. Don't get me wrong. I had no interest in firing bolts at any living thing, nor of stalking Dulwich Woods playing the mighty hunter, nor of dressing up in medieval doublet or Tyrolean sheepskin and blasting away at an apple on my son's head. I wouldn't necessarily ever fire it. I just wanted to have it, to possess it at last. It was a 40-year itch I finally had to scratch.
But I'd almost left it too late. Today, the crossbow has never been less popular. You can comb Yellow Pages for archery retail outlets, fruitlessly. You can ring round sporting-goods stores, sounding like J R Hartley, to no avail. You can try sporting clubs. But none of the archery clubs in Kent and Sussex (traditionally home to the best archers in Britain) accept crossbow shooting as a part of the sport any more.
"The crossbow is basically a slow rifle," one of the club members explained to me. "Just because there's a bow in it, people think it's a branch of archery. But it's not. In archery there's a different degree of tension in every shot, and the skill lies in getting it consistently right. With a crossbow, you get the same thrust, the same propulsion every time, mechanically. And you have a barrel to guide the bolt, which you don't get with a bow. And you have a front sight and back sight. There are crossbow-shooting tournaments, mostly in the Midlands, but most clubs won't touch the things."
I rang the Hastings Arms Company, where I'd once seen a frightening array of modern tubular-steel crossbows bristling in the corner of the shop, spare bolts clamped into the metal arms like some great spiked fish. There was an answering machine. I left messages, saying I was anxious for some information. Nobody called back. I tried a few more times, until I was sick of the Bee Tee answering service. The shop appeared to have closed.
I found a place called The Archery Centre in Hawkhurst, Kent. "I don't sell crossbows any more," said the owner, Tom Foy, a former Master Bowman, a tournament winner, the founder of two archery clubs, a chronicler of the sport in three books and the brains behind the Medieval Siege Society, which holds longbow contests in period clothing at Bodiam Castle. "When we did sell them - well, I don't want to slur any crossbowmen, but we found a lot of the people buying them were gypsies and travelling people. Crossbows attract the wrong sort. It takes a long time to become a skilful archer. If you bought a bow from my shop, you wouldn't be able to hit anything until you'd put in hours of practice. But with a crossbow, anybody can pick one up and kill a sheep in 10 seconds. They're natural for poachers. Every time a sheep or a deer or a calf or a swan is found with a bolt in its neck, archery gets a bad name - and it's always a crossbow bolt that's responsible."
The chorus of disapproval had even affected the central sporting body. I rang the National Field Crossbow Federation (founded in 1984 and affiliated to the International Crossbow Shooting Union, based in Switzerland) and spoke to the "development officer", Chris Aston. No, he said, he wouldn't put me in touch with any crossbow clubs. No, he wouldn't given me the names of any enthusiasts. No, he wouldn't tell me the names of any suppliers. "No," he said, "we aren't going to help you with anything like that. You people ... " For an information source, the NFCF's development office is a little too suspicious of the press. He blames the papers for giving the crossbow a bad reputation, possibly not realising it's had one for nearly a thousand years.
It was tantalising beyond endurance. At every turn I was thwarted. Nobody would sell me what I wanted, or talk to me about where to get it. You'd think I was dabbling in some frightful perversion, rather than the noble sport of projectile shooting.
Then, by chance, as I was driving around my home patch of south London, I spotted a shop. It promised a range of "deactivated firearms and militaria". The windows were full of replica revolvers, hi-tech catapults, swords, a huge longbow. It was a shop from another decade, like the places that used to sell mysterious rubber goods and trusses.
Inside was murky and dusty. Gas-masks hung from the ceiling like dodgy fruit. A heavy, razor-sharp Rwandan machete in a leather scabbard dangled from a hook. A sweaty whiff of testosterone filled the air. Two youths with spotty necks were discussing guns, sotto voce: " 'E reckons 'e can get an Uzi by Friday," muttered one, "but I might 'ang on for a Heckler & Koch." The other one looked impressed. It was clearly the Dulwich branch of the Trenchcoat Mafia (Fantasy Division).
The owner was large, bearded and enthusiastic. "Crossbow? Sure," he said, reaching for a catalogue. "We find these are always popular." I flicked through the pages of Barnett's crossbow supplies, Wolverhampton. As though to emphasise its present role as the yob's shotgun, the names of modern crossbows sound like a police haul of gangland shooters in south central LA: the Wildcat III, the Panzer III, the Commando, the Delta Storm, the Thunderbolt Magnum.
"Haven't you," I asked, "anything more classical, more medieval, more ... William Tell?" "Nah," he said, "these are the only ones you can buy now." I looked. Some were unspeakable cutaway-steel things that breathed East End villainy. Others were shaped like rifles, their stocks sculpted in polished wood or tough-guy black metal. On other pages was a slew of smaller versions, hand-held titchy crossbows like sling-shots. Who buys those? "People buy them to shoot rodents," said the owner dubiously, "or maybe targets. They're not much cop, though. That one there - " (he pointed at one weedy specimen, with a bow shaped like a Dutch hat) " - you could fire it from here and I doubt if it would reach the window."
"Let me," I said, trembling slightly, "try the Wildcat III." He disappeared into the bowels of the shop, and returned with a box. The burnished wood gleamed on the smooth body. The black metal bow spread out like wings, surmounted by a foot-stirrup. I picked up the crossbow and held it wonderingly in my arms, as though it were a long, threatening baby with a massive head. I held it up to eye-level and squinted through the back-sight. Through the open door of the shop and across the road, the cross-hairs discovered an elderly lady wheeling her shopping trolley towards the local Sainsbury's. Was I turning into a mad bomber, a monomaniacal sniper, a sick voyeur? I didn't believe so. I looked at the deadly weapon in my hands, simultaneously amazed to have found one at last and sorry that it wasn't anything like the stunted, Gothic device, festooned with spikes and chains, that had lurked in the corners of my imagination for so long.
"You'll need bolts with that," said the shop owner. "Set of five, 16in aluminium alloy with steel tips, pounds 13.95. I got some here."
"No thanks," I said. "Just the crossbow."
His face clouded. (He was well used to dealing with oddballs). "You'll need bolts," he said.
"Actually no," I said. "This is a fetish. Bolts were never really the point."
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