Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Bodkin and the Prince

I have always had a deep interest in medieval history.  English medieval to be more exact.  During the last few years I have done a great deal of research on the material culture of the era to help me in writing, The Archer's Son.  This is a middle grade story about a young boy who is part of a company of archers during King Henry V's 1415 campaign into France during the Hundred Years War.  Of course, the novel will climax at the bloody battle of Agincourt.  I'm almost finished with the first draft :)

Most of Henry's portraits are profiles from his
left side. Was he hiding a ghastly scar?
Henry's providential success at Agincourt against overwhelming French odds, and his later campaigns in France, have overshadowed an earlier chapter of his life.  Life, that is what Prince Hal almost lost on 21 July, 1403 at the battle of Shrewsbury England.
I'll not go into the details of the revolt of the Hotspur Percy.  You can read more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Shrewsbury

Henry, or Prince Hal as he was often called before he became king, was a warrior at heart.  At the age of 16 he commanded an entire wing of his father's army when it brought battle to the Percy's at Shrewsbury in 1403.  The teenage prince was an agressive commander and performed well on the field of battle.   As the fight raged in close quarters, an enemy arrow struck the young prince in the face next to his nose and lodged six inches deep into bone and muscle.  The wooden shaft was wrenched free, either by Henry himself or one of his retainers. 

An exhibit from the Shrewsbury Museum
Courtesy Nicky Hughes
Remarkably, Prince Hal fought on until the victory was secured, with a one ounce iron arrowhead lodged deep in his head!

The victory did not end the threat to Henry's life.  As his wound began to fester, the heir to the throne and the fate of the English Crown was in jeopardy.   The prince was taken to Kenilworth Castle as his condition worsened.  Eventually, London doctor John Bradmore arrived to care for the heir to the throne.  Although Bradmore may have been stranded in an era of medical ignorance and superstition regarding the treatment of illnesses, he understood the intricacies of treating wounds.  Bradmore's account of treating this wound survives in his medical tract Philomena.

". . . struck by an arrow next to his nose on the left side during the battle of Shrewsbury. The which arrow entered at an angle (ex traverso), and after the arrow shaft was extracted, the head of the aforesaid arrow remained in the furthermost part of the bone of the skull for the depth of six inches."

Bradmore devised a instrument for extracting the arrow head.

"First, I made small probes from the pith of an elder, well dried and well stitched in purified linen [made to] the length of the wound. These probes were infused with rose honey. And after that, I made larger and longer probes, and so I continued to always enlarge these probes until I had the width and depth of the wound as I wished it. And after the wound was as enlarged and deep enough so that, by my reckoning, the probes reached the bottom of the wound, I prepared anew some little tongs, small and hollow, and with the width of an arrow. A screw ran through the middle of the tongs, whose ends were well rounded both on the inside and outside, and even the end of the screw, which was entered into the middle, was well rounded overall in the way of a screw, so that it should grip better and more strongly."

The design of medieval arrowheads made extraction more difficult. They have an open "socket" where the wooden shaft is inserted.  Bradmore's device couldn't just grab the arrow head, it had to be inserted into the socket and expanded to properly grip it.

A recreation of Bradmore's device
It is believed that the iron arrow head came to rest to one side of the spine just under the base of the skull.  There was no anesthesia as we know it.  The pain that the teenage prince experience during the extraction process must have been horrendous.  After preparing the wound channel over the course of a day, Bradmore successfully removed the arrow head.  The prince survived to become King Henry V. 

Here is an excellent video recreation of how John Bradmore extracted the arrow head and saved the prince's life: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C8Nef1siUus

This would not have been possible, even with Bradmore's treatment, had the arrow head in question have been a broadhead instead of a bodkin.  What is the difference?  A bodkin is a narrow point designed to pierce armor.  It has no barbs.  A broadhead is wide with a large cutting surface designed to inflict maximum damage to the flesh of men and horses.  Broadheads are barbed and difficult to remove through the wound channel that they inflict

A recreated Bodkin arrowhead

A broadhead. 
The barbs make extraction almost impossible

There is some controversy as to which side of  Henry's face was hit by the arrow.  Bradmore says the left side next to the nose.  It was most certainly the left side as one is looking at the face.  Not the left side from Henry's point of view.  Later in life almost all of Henry's portraits are in profile, showing only his left side.  Could he have been hiding a ghastly scar on his right cheek?   It is also interesting that none of the film versions of Henry V, have portrayed him with a scarred cheek, a scar that he most certainly bore for the rest of his short life.

Tom Hiddleston, the most recent Henry in "The Hollow Crown" (2012). 
Like his movie predicessors, Hiddleston bears no scar.

Kenneth Branagh, in "Henry V" (1989)
Sir Laureance Olivier, "Henry V" (1944)

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