"Watch, Fat Friar, as I put a clothyard shaft through his wishbone!"
Robin Hood Daffy


The clothyard, or clothier's yard, was a unit of length measure from the times of Medieval England. It was an important unit in that many sources available tell us that it was the commonly accepted length of the arrow used in the British Longbow, a critically important technological and sociological weapon from around the era of the Hundred Years' War. It is fixed in popular culture, as the introductory quote demonstrates, by its use in the tale of Robin Hood, whose arrows were described to be of such length.

Robert E. Kaiser (MA) writes in the Journal of Archer-Antiquaries that the origin of the term clothyard dates to the reign of (King Edward III), who introduced the Flemish weaver into England. These weavers, makers of fine cloths which were prized by the nobility, had their own unit of measure; their 'yard' was 27.25 inches, as opposed to the standard 36 inches. This was the 'clothier's yard.'

One of the sole surviving examples of a Medieval British war arrow, in the libraries of Westminster Abbey, is of a length of one clothyard. The term itself survives in many writings of the day. Further evidence for its use (as distinct from a standard yard) as the unit of measure of a war arrow lies in a proof, by John E. Morris (modern scholar of Edward III's military) that a 36 inch (standard yard) pull from a period yew longbow of 65-70 lbs. is biomechanically improbable, if not impossible - tending to support the theory of a shorter standard arrow.

On the other hand, an SCA guide to period archery claims that the arrow length was, in fact, not a clothyard but rather around 36 inches - despite the latter investigation above. To continue the confusion, some modern sources put the length of a clothyard at 37 inches or longer - Russ Rowlett's dictionary of units at UNC states that the clothyard, in the form of the English ell (a unit for the measuring of cloth at the time] was in fact "45 inches (1.143 meters)...but the 'clothyard arrows' used with longbows in late medieval times were closer in length to the 37-inch Scottish ell."

One point of agreement, however, appears to be that the clothyard was indeed a unit of measure specific to the textile industry of the day. The second is that it was (and is) popularly applied to the length of at least one type of longbow war arrow; this is the usage modern folk will be most familiar with.


Sources:

  • The Medieval English Longbow. Robert E. Kaiser, http://www.student.utwente.nl/~sagi/artikel/longbow/longbow.html
  • The Handbook of Archery (SCA)
  • The Dictionary of Units. Russ Rowlett, http://www.unc.edu/~rowlett/units/dictC.html

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