Mary Rose Archery Bracer The function of an archery bracer is to avoid string slap where the bow string grazes the inside forearm of an archer as the arrow is released. It also serves to avoid loose clothing from interfering with the transit of the bowstring when sleeves are worn.
Archery bracers are not a common feature in medieval art. Many of the archers shown in period art are wearing armour that would supersede the need for a bracer, and as a result bracers are not as commonly depicted as would be expected. Some of the images are challenging to interpret, as they seem to show studded bracers that would catch and damage the bowstring if placed in actual use.
In the above illumination from the Geoffrey Luttrell Psalter of 1325, showing longbowmen practising at the butts, the archers only wear very short disc-like bracers that cover a minimal part of the forearm.
The bracer I am using as reference for this project was found in the wreck of King Henry VIII's warship the Mary Rose that sank due to misadventure in 1545. This bracer was amongst a large number of archery related artefacts recovered from the wreck when it was salvaged in 1985. The volume of archery equipment on board is not surprising considering the prominence of the English longbowman on the European battlefield during that period.
The Mary Rose bracer is interesting in that it features embossing which could be hazardous to the bowstring as it skimmed across the surface of the bracer and would possibly create unnecessary friction. There is only embossing on the upper half of the bracer and the high point of the bracer, where the string should pass over, was left flat with only embossing above that point. This relies on the bracer sitting at exactly the correct angle on the archer's forearm to avoid interfering with the bowstring. The embossing would show outwards when the arm was in the resting position against the side of the body.
Leather. The original bracer was made from vegetable tanned cow leather of 1/8th" or 3mm thickness and the same leather has been used in this reconstruction. Shaping and hardening was achieved using the traditional cuir boulli method of water hardening leather.
Strapping. The back strap is vegetable tanned cow leather. There is no strap on the surviving original but there were straps on other recovered bracers in the Mary Rose collection.
Buckles. No buckles were recovered from the Mary Rose bracers so I have used a simple buckle style approximate to the period. The buckle is a commercially
A brass plate fixed on with copper rivets attaches the buckle and finishes the strap end. The rivets used to secure the strapping to the bracer and the buckle plate are flat head copper with a back washer to prevent them pulling through the leather, which seems to have occurred on the original. Simple decoration has been filed into the rivet heads.
Strapping. The original piece lacks the backing straps that show how the bracer was attached to the forearm. There are a series of holes down either side of the bracer that suggest several possible solutions:
Tooling/Decoration. The original bracer has tooling of a crowned Tudor Rose and the lettering ihc helpe which roughly translates out of the abbreviated Latin as Jesus help. There are two decorative motifs of acorns and leaves in the lower corners. The bracer is only tooled on the upper side of the bracer. In my recreation I have used the same design layout but replaced the motif elements with symbols relevant to me. The Tudor Rose of the English monarchy is replaced with the Barony of St Florian de la Riviere buttony cross. The lettering is replaced with ante mortem, which translates to before death and I have retained the two acorns and leaves.
Cuir Boulli. In order to have the bracer sit in the correct position on the forearm it needed to have a consistent shape. In my reconstruction this was achieved through water hardening the leather. Although it translates to boiled leather there is some debate as to what technique the term cuir boulli refers to. The science behind the technique is the application of water and heat to the leather in order to shorten the collagen fibers in the hide and increase the density of the leather, therefore increasing the hardness of the piece. Although the theoretical heat range for this effect is 75-85 degrees Centigrade I found the hardening effect could still be achieved at significantly lower temperatures. The shrinkage caused by this method of hardening varies between 5%-55%. This hardening can be achieved in two different ways:
The leather can be soaked in water and then dried using an active heat source. This is achieved through soaking the leather, shaping it on a last, or mould, and placing it in an oven to dry. I initially experimented with this technique because this method is supposed to be more easily controlled and there is less shrinkage in the leather. This would preserve the shape of the tooled design better but would not give as hard a surface on the leather. My experiment in this area was an unmitigated failure with the leather drying too fast from the edges and not fast enough in the middle in a 70 degree Centigrade oven. The result was the corners and edges burning and shriveling before the center of the piece had dried. My only possible explanation for this was that the oven was too hot for the process or that closing the oven door over intensified the heat delivery. After this result I attempted the alternate method.
The leather can submerged in hot/boiling water for up to 30 seconds which results in a shrinkage of the surface area and a proportional increase in thickness. The piece dries effectively rigid. The longer the submersion in the water and the hotter water the more shrunken and hardened the piece becomes. There are three variables in the process, the duration of submersion, temperature of the water and the the leather. It is very difficult to control all three variables and as a result it is difficult to achieve consistent outcomes with this process.
My first experiment survived 15 seconds in 70 degrees Centigrade water. This reduced the surface area by about 30%, doubled the thickness and dried hard as a rock. The colour of the leather changed to a much deeper brown. This was going to be significantly more shrinkage than my embossing could take and still be visible, but the finish was similar in characteristics to wood.
The second experiment went 10 minutes in 45 degrees Centigrade water and dried holding it's shape without significant shrinkage and only a slight hardening of the surface. This was much more in line with the effect I was seeking to achieve with the reduced shrinkage having a negligible effect on the embossing while still maintaining the shape of the bracer. The piece had little additional rigidity and was similar in characteristics to its original state, only it now held the molded curve.
Third experiment went 5 minutes at 50 degrees Centigrade. This was fairly close to the result I was looking for but I accidentally allowed an edge of the leather to rest on the base of the pan I was using to heat the water. The increased temperature of the metal caused one corner of the item to blacken and shrivel.
On the actual recreation I went 6 minutes at 50 degrees Centigrade which resulted in a well-shaped outcome. Slightly higher heat would have increased the density but I was not prepared to risk the decorated effect to achieve that outcome.
Finish. Some documentation of the original refers to a paint residue on the bracer indicating that it was decorated at some stage. It is unlikely the original bracer was hardened by soaking in liquid wax, as this leaves an obvious wax residue and wax hardening has not been mentioned in any references. It is difficult to paint onto waxed leather so the references to residual paint on the bracer indicate that the wax hardening technique was not used. The bracer did however survive several hundred years submerged in salt water protected only by silt so a wax protective coating over the decoration, rather than for hardening, is not beyond possibility. The reconstructed bracer has a protective coating of beeswax to prevent it absorbing moisture and losing shape while in use or storage.
Colour. A water based saddle dye was used on the bracer to darken the very pale colour of modern vegetable tanned leathers. It is possible the original was possibly dyed to a darker colour or the deeper colour may be a result of the original leather colour, staining from the period vegetable tanning process, water hardening, protective waxing or simple ageing.
The following are the material costs for this project:
Total cost AS$14.60
All pattern tooling on the leather was done with a standard swivel tool. This could be done in a more period manner with a small sharp knife but the swivel tool is designed to allow greater control, especially in cutting curves. The background texturing was done with a small stamp called a seeding tool. This is a mind-numbingly-repetitive process of stamping in each circle into the leather, but does give excellent control over the positioning and depth of the texturing.
The straps and body of the bracer were cut from the original leather using a box cutter. The decoration on the rivet heads was incised with a small metal file. The rivets were trimmed to length with a metal file and peened with a standard ball peen hammer. When the rivets were being peened a scrap of leather was placed over the anvil to prevent the decoration on the rivet heads being crushed during the process. The brass buckle and strap plates were cut with aircraft shears from an old brass pot and shaped with a metal file.
The bulk of the time on this project was taken in the pattering. Taking the original and getting the correct proportions followed by modifying the decorative design took a couple of hours alone. Once the pattern was on paper the process of transferring it to the leather and engraving in the design took another hour. Texturing the background took about 45 minutes.
Water hardening the leather took longer than expected because several leather samples were sacrificed in the name of experimentation before the actual piece was placed in water just to ensure there were no unexpected results. Decorating the rivet heads was time consuming but not overly challenging and took about 45 minutes. Final assembly to cut, punch, peen, curse, recut and wax took about an hour.
Total time for this project was about 7-8 hours.
If I were to do this project again I would probably attempt to paint the leather and decorate the embossing with colour and gilding. I would also be more aggressive in the boiling of the leather to achieve a more rigid surface on the piece. The use of brass plate strap end was inspired by medieval belts but is not very practical on the bracer because it encourages the strap end to flap about in a very irritating manner and I would probably go without the strap end next time.
This was a challenging but satisfying project. The interpretation of the decoration from limited patterns was more complicated than expected. The water hardening of leather was a learning experience and there was much experimentation and trepidation before a piece of leather that had just had hours of embossing and patterning expended on it was dropped in hot water. Although I am pleased with the outcome this very much finished as an experimental rather than master piece.
Anonymous (Online) Medieval Illumination Recipes www.jcsparks.com/painted/recipes.html#Hide_glue
Bartlett, Clive The English Longbowman 1330-1515; Osprey Publishing
Dalton, O. M.: A Late Medieval Bracer in the British Museum; Antiquaries Journal July, 1922, (Vol. II, No. 3)_ reprint, pp. 208-10
Hardy, Robert Longbow: A social and military history; 1976 Bath Press, Bath, Avon
Kaiser, Robert The Medieval Longbow; Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 23, 1980
Lingwood, Rex (Online) Cuir Bouilli: Technique,www.makersgallery.com/rexlingwood/cuirboulli-tech.html
Price, Brian Techniques of Medieval Armour Reproduction 2000 Paladin Press
Thorgrim (Online) Cuir Bollei Armour www.armourarchive.org/essays/thorgrim_cuir_bollei.shtml