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Ripon's arrow-slits puzzle is solved

19 February 2016


Decorative conundrum: were the arrow slits on the battlements on Ripon Cathedral designed to help bowmen or to show off the masons’ expertise?

Decorative conundrum: were the arrow slits on the battlements on Ripon Cathedral designed to help bowmen or to show off the masons’ expertise?

ARCHERY experts have solved a long-standing mystery about cross-shaped arrow slits in the battlements of Ripon Cathedral — but along the way have created another conundrum.

Attitudes have varied over whether the loopholes were for serious defence against marauding Scots, or just for show. So the cathedral’s archaeologist, Liz Humble, asked for opinions from two specialists: a former Master of the Armouries at the Royal Armouries, in Leeds, Guy Wilson; and the Master of the European Historical Combat Guild, John Waller, a director of film combat sequences.

This month the pair took a longbow and a crossbow on to the cathedral roof to assess the arrow slits’ potential.

Ms Humble said: “It has long been thought that they had been placed into the battlements in the early 14th century, to defend what was then Ripon Minster against attacks by Robert the Bruce. He besieged Ripon in 1318, when the Minster held out for three days before a ransom was paid after threats to burn the whole town.”

The longbow was at it most potent between 1250 and 1450, and proved devastating during the Hundred Years’ War in France in battles at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and most famously at Agincourt (1415).

Ms Humble said that there was an alternative explanation for the inclusion of the cathedral’s cross-shaped slits: “That they were purely decorative features, or were designed as sham defences to give an impression of extra strength.”

After some investigation, the two experts declared that they must be decorative. The pitch of the roof, and its proximity to the slits meant that archers could not have stood far enough away at the correct angle to draw a longbow or use a crossbow.

But their findings posed another question about the arrow slits: they were elaborately chamfered on the inside — something that is normally done to enable an increased field of view for bowmen. “Was it because the masons wanted to show off their expertise?” Ms Humble asked. “Had the masonry been reused from another building? Or was it perhaps done to the greater glory of God? We shall probably never know.”

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