Episode 49

History is my playground, with Mike Loades

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Show Notes:

Best known as a television presenter and for his appearances as a historical weapons specialist and military historian in over one hundred tv documentaries, Mike also works as a tv director, a writer and as a consultant and film-maker for the video games industry. If you’ve been swinging swords, certainly in Britain at least, at any point in the last 30 years, you’ll certainly have heard of him.

He has had three major books published, Swords and Swordsmen, War Bows and Dogs: Working Origins and Traditional Tasks, with more commissioned books in the pipeline (about horses). Other works include The Longbow, The Crossbow and The Composite Bow for Osprey and he was a primary contributor to The Worldwide History of Warfare (Thames and Hudson) and to ‘Masters of the Steppe: The Impact of the Scythians and Later Nomad Societies of Eurasia’ (Archeopress).

In our conversation we cover galloping a Roman chariot through central London, war bows, dogs, castles, and what it was like doing historical martial arts before it became popular. Mike has many incredible stories and insights from his long career, which I am sure you will enjoy as much as I did.

As a taster, have a watch of this video showing some of his horsemanship and archery skills:

This video and many more can be found on Mike’s website: www.mikeloades.com

You can also check out the Mike Loades YouTube Channel.

GW: Hello, sword people, this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy, and I’m here today with Mike Loades, who is a fight arranger, weapons historian, director and author. And if you’ve been swinging swords, certainly in Britain at least, at any point in the last 30 years, you’ll certainly have heard of him. So I am very pleased to say, Mike, welcome to the show.


ML: Thank you very much for inviting me.


GW: So, Mike, whereabouts in the world are you?


ML: Today, I’m in Portugal. I have recently moved to Portugal. I come from the U.K., but I have spent the last 12 years in California and my wife’s an American. In the middle of a pandemic, we moved to Portugal.


GW: Any particular reason?


ML: There is a list. But it was partly because my wife thought that she’d married a European. And when were we ever going to live in Europe? We had better hurry up, because there’s this little thing called Brexit. And during the transition year, we have an opportunity that I can get residency with ease. I had just finished writing a book and I was just about to start another project and there was a window when we thought, “Shall we do it? We’ll go and have a look.” We just did it. In a pandemic, which was very odd.


GW: Well, yes, that makes things a little bit harder.


ML: A lot harder, especially when going back to the States and we sold the house and car, and I sold my horse.


GW: That must have also been quite hard, selling the horse.


ML: Immensely hard.


GW: Do you have your own horses, in Portugal?


ML: Well, I don’t have my own yet, but I am now riding. One of the lures of Portugal for me is a long term interest in Iberian horsemanship. I’m still learning and I know I’ve come to the best place in the world to learn more about one of my passions, which is Iberian horsemanship.


GW: So that’s probably the best reason to move to a country. Yeah, fantastic.


ML: Also, I’m rooted in Britain. Deep, deep roots with family and culture and everything, and I miss it. And I’m two hours away. After 12 years in Northern California, I wasn’t sure I was ready for British weather again. So, again, there were many boxes that it ticked.


GW: Yeah, I moved to the U.K. from Finland. And I must say the lighter weather here, there’s more light and there’s much less snow. And I occasionally miss the snow. But really, this is a bit like moving from Britain to California, moving from Finland to Britain. Now you’ve been swinging swords longer than most of us. And I remember back in the 90s when I was just getting started with the historical swordsmanship thing, which we didn’t even know what to call it yet. We’d all heard of you doing things like smallsword and longsword and fight direction and what have you. Were you aware that there was this growing practise of historical swordsmanship?


ML: Oh gosh, yes.


GW: OK, what did it look like from your perspective?


ML: It looked like suddenly I was going to have friends in the world.


GW: Oh, wow, that’s lovely.


ML: I had trade with John Waller, who you will also know, who was my dear, dear friend and mentor. And I joined up with him in 1972.


GW: Just for context, I was born in 1973.


ML: I’m 70 now. So it was a while ago. I had a place at law school. I was going to go to law school and then The History of the Longbow by Robert Hardy aired on the BBC. It was my epiphany. It was, oh, my goodness. Because that was the first documentary that had featured what we now call re-enactment on it, with John Waller and a number of other people doing stuff. My goodness, I always had this passion for history and always shot bows. I used to fence at school, I was riding horses. Suddenly these things were starting to coalesce into a signature thing that also chimed with my interest in telling stories and wanting to be a documentary filmmaker. And everything came at once. And at that moment, John had started a medieval centre down in Sussex and I bought a caravan and said “no thanks” to law school. I went down and lived in my caravan behind a pub and worked in the pub and spent every day with John, learning to swordfight, shoot bows and arrows, fly hawks and medieval style of riding. And that was that. And then one thing led to another. That venture didn’t actually materialise as was intended, but the seeds were sown, a new life was hatched, which was the pursuance of all detective work of uncovering the physical experience of the past. And at every turn the light bulb started to go off. Oh, what you see in Hollywood films is not real. Oh, the Middle Ages weren’t as they are portrayed. This is exciting. This is somewhere to go and explore. This is this is an adventure you can have with books at home and there’s travel to here and things to find out. And so there is that discovery. But then also at that stage, I’m young. So the physicality of it, I’m pushing the boundaries being a little bit edgier, riskier with the things one did, whether it’s with horses or with swords. All of that was an adrenaline fuel to the passion, but the passion was discovery. And I suppose that the third leg of the tripod is the beauty, the aesthetics of it all, and I found with John someone who was driven by that with shape and form and how form and function dovetailed, and when they dovetail, then you have beauty. A perfectly executed lunge, and then at that time, 1971, Arthur Wise’s book comes out and for the first time in my life I see the images of Capo Ferro and I loved it. It was astonishing because I loved movement. I’ve always been a movement person. If I’d had longer legs, maybe I’d have been a ballet dancer. That book and even Schools and Masters of Fence had only recently been published, 1970, 71, 72, these things for the first time. Those books were as revolutionary to my generation, as the Internet is to the current generation and Wiktenauer and all that wonderful access. If only Michael Chidester had been older than me.


GW: I’ve felt that many times.


ML: It would have been a different story. But I had John Waller and I had Wise and I had Egerton Castle and so on, and I was fired by it. And we sought from the outset, then back in the early 70s, the goal was to rediscover the European martial arts. That was the goal and that’s what we were looking for. But we didn’t have the community. We didn’t have as many people, we didn’t have as many brains at work and we certainly didn’t have the resources. And, you know, it’s the old story that the dwarf sees further than the giant provided that he’s standing on the giant’s shoulders. And that’s always been the way we’ve done it. That quote comes at the beginning of Ewart Oakeshott’s The Archaeology of Weapons. And Ewart was another primary influence on my life at that time. He was a friend of John’s and I met him and Ewart was very much a mentor who cultivated my love of swords and legitimised the academic interest in swords, and that there was academic study to be had here and value. And so it’s this juxtaposition between being young and wanting adventure and wanting to jump about and take risks and swing swords, but also to cultivate this enquiry and investigation as to what then was still not yet discovered, but now is law effectively. But also the art of it, the history of it and the academia side of it, all of this meshed with me. And I was developing and forming throughout the 1970s, but I was in my 20s and like most people in their 20s it wasn’t fully formed. But all of those seeds were there. And then in the 80s. I started teaching at drama schools. Because I had these twin interests. I had an academic, intellectual, if you like, interest in history and swords and this investigation of sword fighting and other martial arts skills, including archery and horsemanship. A general martial interest and drive, but I also had a passion for photography, at one stage, that’s what I was going to do before I thought I’d get into law school – ended up doing neither. But I was going to go to art school, and photography was a big drive for me and filmmaking was an aspiration. So the drama school thing, John had got some work in drama schools and college became free and I started to step up in there. And that became my laboratory. So I detest the term “stagefight”, and I detested it at the time and I campaigned in all the schools that I taught: do not put “stagefight” on the timetable. They don’t put “stage voice”, “stage acting”, “stage dancing”. You put historical dance. You put voice class. You put acting class. You are immediately undercutting everything you believe about acting, which is to find a truth, by giving it the prefix “stage”. What I want to inculcate with my students is this was a genuine historical art. Yes, we will develop techniques that stop you bleeding and or prevent it. And obviously, there is an element of keeping the little darlings safe, but nonetheless what we strive towards, was hitting shapes, hitting forms that evoked the images I had seen and what manuscripts I’d seen at that time. And then by the 80s, I’m starting to explore original manuscripts. At that stage to look at a manuscript… they were hard to find. You would have to write to the Tower of London, where the Royal Armouries were at that stage, and get an appointment to the library and you would have to wear gloves, quite rightly, and only carry a pencil in order to make notes. Then you could get out their edition of Talhoffer and have a look at it and make notes, “God, what the fuck’s going on here?” There’s your first edit point.


GW: You can say whatever the fuck you like on my show.


ML: Oh good. And that was such a thrill. You felt like a pioneer going in there because has anyone really asked these questions before? We didn’t get the answers.


GW: No, but you asked the questions.


ML: This came later. But I was asking the questions. This stream of consciousness unfolding has come from your simple question, did I notice you in the 90s, and in the 90s, I lived in Scotland. And I still was teaching five days a week at drama schools in London, but, you know, Ryanair made it possible because it was like a pound a flight to go from Glasgow down to London. So I travelled down on a Sunday night and travelled back on a Friday night. And obviously, you had massive holidays. My wife was Scottish and we lived in Scotland, just south of Glasgow, but there I had access to the library at Kelvingrove. Savage was the curator at the time, and I was constantly going there with a pair of gloves and a pencil and it was in a little tiny cupboard. All these books, it was just so thrilling and so exciting. But kind of lonely.


GW: Sure, because how many people understand what you mean when you say I was handling a Talhoffer manuscript the other day?


ML: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So did I notice in the 90s? Yes, of course I noticed. Because I’d been doing it, poorly, ineptly. Unsupported by a larger community and unsupported by a hive mind, which is when the synapses join up and all that, “Oh, and I’m fluent in medieval German. So this is what they said.” “Oh, I didn’t know.” We didn’t have the resources, but within the resources we had, the fire was there, the spark was there, the enquiry was there. And so I thought this is great. Because obviously what I always felt, I’m not sure, but one always felt like an oddball.


GW: Sometimes we still do, it depends who we’re with.


ML: It was great. It was exciting and there was a regret in thinking if only I was 20 now, what I could have made of it. I have regrets, and it is what it was, the thrill of being at the keen edge. You also get the embarrassment of, especially if you write anything down, you’re very brave to write in your 30s because the dreadful thing about writing stuff down is people in 15 years’ time can come back to you and say, “Oh, did you know?” Nobody else knew then either.


GW: So you always write another book. My Swordsmans Companion came out in 2004 and by 2010 it was obsolete. And I wrote a different book that kind of replaces it. And, you know, I just put a thing in the introduction to the second edition of The Swordsmans Companion saying everything in here is entirely obsolete. So if you bought this looking for a training manual of current material, you’ve bought the wrong book. But if you go to my website here, you can download a free copy of its replacement volume so you can get all the technical stuff that you want from there. And if we don’t write it down, people aren’t going to react to it. And that’s how we find out that we were wrong and we can fix it.


ML: I have something else that came out in 1992. I probably made it in 1991, very much in the 90s, which was a VHS video called The Blow-by-blow Guide to Sword Fighting in the Renaissance Style.


GW: I’ve seen that, I saw that in the 90s. I’d forgotten that was you. I remember the video. That was great.


ML: I didn’t turn it to DVD. I didn’t keep it going because it dated. Because my thinking shifted. This very conversation we’re having. I didn’t make a new one.


GW: On behalf of everybody listening, I have a request. Can you, if you still have the files, put a short disclaimer at the front saying this is totally outdated, I no longer think these things, but this is part of historical martial arts history. And so put that thing out where people can get it because it’s part of our cultural history as historical sword people. It would be awesome if we could have it. If you would please do that, I would be very pleased.


ML: It was groundbreaking in its time. And it was and it got a lot of people into thinking and doing things. And no, I can’t. I actually destroyed the masters last year.


GW: Oh, no.


ML: Yeah, because we were moving from California to Portugal and I was turning 70 and going, I don’t need to carry all this stuff with me anymore.


GW: All right. If I can find someone who has the VHS still, I will see if I can get it digitised for you and then I can send you those files if you want. Not as good as the masters.


ML: I appreciate the sentiment behind it. I’ll think about it. But in the Internet age I think I might be more protective of my reputation going forward. I did a film about archery as well, called Archery: Its History and Forms. I did it in the 90s. And it was it was extremely Anglo-centric, although it did feature, again at that time, nobody knew about it, it featured dear old Ted McEwan, one of my mentors, who was a thundering archer and a maker of composite bones, and the first time anyone had seen somebody making a composite bow on film. And so it had so many good things in it. I did take that to DVD and I have subsequently made that freely available on my YouTube channel, which doesn’t have many things on it, but it has that on it. But I constantly, constantly get remarks going, “You’ve got no Native American Indian archery in here.”


GW: Oh for God’s sake.


ML: Well, no, I haven’t. And I haven’t got the Mongols in there, or the Turks. It is very Anglo-centric, because I brought it out in England, or Britain, in 1994 or whatever. And it’s just an historical piece. And I say in the thing, I do not agree with many of the statements that I made in this film, 40 years ago. Some of the penetration stuff. I don’t stand by everything I said in this film. But to generations of people, it was an important film about archery. And so kind of having a little bit of a bad experience with that, I’ll think about the sword fighting thing. I would just add one thing and you might want to pre-insert it, but in the 70s when we were first exploring these things, in my 20s, early 20s, some of the things we read about in Wise or Castle is that they used wasters. What is a waster? Nobody talked about a waster or anything like that. But we sort of went to the hardware store and got a dowel and put a bit of plumber’s insulation pipe over it and then really went for free play, because that was a much more comfortable option to what we’d been doing previously, which was stripping to the waist and using fencing sabres.


GW: I have photographs of that. I did that with my friends in the nineties. I have actually photographs of me stripped to the waist with another chap, and we are fencing to first blood with fencing sabres. It was great.


ML: The spirit of, at the risk of namedropping, but as you probably know, John Waller famously did the wonderful, wonderful, wonderful fights in Monty Python and The Holy Grail. And he brought John Cleese along to one of our drinking evenings once. And I did actually have the pleasure, although John Cleese is virtually twice as tall as me, I did actually do the strip to the waist with John Cleese, fencing with sabres. I think he wanted to get into this and understand this sword fighting lark.


GW: I wonder if he still has the scars?


ML: I think I gave a light touch out of deference to the great man.


GW: Fair enough. Now, you done a lot of work in TV and you’ve produced some books which we’re going to talk about a little bit. But how do you reconcile working in the popular medium like TV where everything is reduced to a soundbite and the more detailed and expansive work of writing a book?


ML: Well, the answer is it’s irreconcilable. One has to come to terms with it. Television is a Faustian pact and I get less upset these days than I used to. Television is made for a general audience. And that’s what they do. They make things for a general audience. This is something that’s very much on the cusp as YouTube videos dedicated to specific demographics of topic interested people come in and even probably streaming TV will target people more and more and more. So the old fashioned TV, which is still the medium I work in, old fashioned TV is for general audiences and it goes through several stages of sausage making. So first of all, you start chatting with someone and they say that’s really interesting, that’s wonderful. That’s great. And off you go and you are expansive and then it comes out and go, oh, I spoke for an hour and a half and they used twenty two seconds of that. Most annoyingly it wasn’t a consecutive 22 seconds. It was several seconds from one bit with another bit and it’s been stolen from somewhere else to join two things I never intended to be joined, and you feel very pissed off and deceived. But I took the money, which was good, and I had a great day. And you reach people. I have an email bag, I reach people and people write to me all the time in my dotage saying how 20 years ago they saw a programme and it set them off to university to study archaeology. And that’s enormously gratifying. So I feel much less aggrieved these days. Because I kind of take me out of the equation now, OK, it’s not what I wanted to say. It’s not what I wanted to do. If I want to do that, then I need to find the money and make my own film. I’m guesting in someone else’s film, they’ve taken what they want from me. And actually it is reaching people. And more recently, I can’t tell you too much about this, but I’ve been doing quite a lot of work with videogames companies and making little mini documentary films for them. I’m not a videogame player. But I’ve become very, very aware of how video games have led people into history. The spark has been fired, the tinder has been laid and the spark has been fired, and then it burns in each individual as it will.


GW: You’re doing for this generation, what Robert Hardy did for you.


ML: I’d love to think that. I mean Robert Hardy, and I met him and got drunk with him and he’s a lovely fella, but his public persona, his history stuff, his writing has affected me as well. Ewart and Robert Hardy have been my inspirations as an author, writing about what are to some fairly dry matters. But infusing them with character and colour. That is what I hope I strive to do with my book writing, but just reaching back to the television question. I’m a words person, I love playing with words, and I like writing books, and in some ways I like turning a soundbite. How can I make this thing that is of enormous esoteric interest to me and seven other people with the same esoteric interest…


GW: A bit more than seven these days.


ML: I know. But if it’s chariots, for instance, there’s not that many people as passionate about chariots as I am.


GW: Speaking of chariots. You did…


ML: Oh no, you told me to give you long answers. So I’m going to finish this.


GW: I’ll come back to that.


ML: Turning the soundbite is an intellectual challenge and a creative challenge of how can I communicate this to these people who have no prior knowledge or context of what I’m talking about? So I do kind of like the challenge of popular television. To try and get a few more people to share what has given me so much pleasure, it’s given me a life. History, it’s been my workplace, but it’s also been my playground and it’s given me a life and I’m so grateful to it, I kind of want to share it with everyone so that’s part of my motivation. Apart from money, which is actually the main motivation. But my other motivation is I’m a very visual person. That’s what attracts me to sword fighting. The beauty of it, the shapes, the forms. It has a kinetic beauty as it moves, every freezeframe a form, I find it extraordinarily beautiful. And TV is a visual medium, and so I love creating images and images that tell stories. So plenty of motives for TV. Plenty of things that drive me to do TV so I’m not disparaging it, but it is immensely frustrating and crafting a book is far more satisfying. It feels far more personal and you know, you are more prolific than I have been to date. My writing years are ahead of me now. I hope to catch you up and surpass you soon. But you know, there’s nothing like it when you when that first book comes, it has weight, it has substance, the pages have texture. The ink still smells. It’s a thing, whereas the TV is far more ephemeral. So the two are very different beasts, I love them both and they just do different jobs and feed different part of me.


GW: Fair enough. OK, now back to the chariots and books. A long time ago, maybe getting on for 10 years ago, maybe eight years ago. I read your book, Swords and Swordsmen, which is a fantastic book where you take a specific historical weapon and then talk about who possibly owned it and how it would have been used. Every sword person should read that book. But in it, there’s this casual throwaway line where you mention riding a chariot down Oxford Street. For non-Londoners, Oxford Street is like the main shopping street in London. So what happened there?


ML: Oh, well, it wasn’t Oxford Street. I drove it from the courtyard of the British Museum, up Museum Street, down Shaftesbury Avenue, round Trafalgar Square, through Admiralty Arch up The Mall, turned right at Buckingham Palace around Hyde Park Corner in the rush hour in the morning. And then I joined the horsebox in Hyde Park.


GW: That’s better than Oxford Street.


ML: In the rain. We had made a film for the BBC. There had been a wonderfully important archaeological discovery at Wetwang in Yorkshire of an Iron Age chariot. And I was fortunate enough to be in the television programme that reconstructed that, rebuilt that, investigated that and looked at that and my great friend Robert Hurford had built the chariot. And it was a thing of considerable beauty and the BBC gave it to the British Museum as a permanent gift, they pop it up every so often and as a publicity stunt for the British Museum to say they now have this chariot, initially it was displayed in the great court. And I took a rather timid lady Evening Standard reporter on this hairbrained ride. And the thing was, many of your listeners, I’m sure, will be familiar with there is a title of Gladiator called Essedarius and Essedarius rides an Essedum, which is a Celtic chariot, a British chariot, and the linguists amongst them will spot the root word there is “sed”, as in “sedentary”. And what distinguishes a Celtic chariot from an Assyrian chariot, an Egyptian chariot, a Chinese chariot goes and a Persian chariot, a Hittite chariot, etc. is that in all those chariots ridden on flat desert plains, both driver and archer are standing. In our image of a chariot, a Roman racing chariot, they are standing, but the essedum, the British chariot, the Celtic chariot found in northern France, in Scotland, Wales, in Yorkshire, the driver is sitting. And we have this in written textual stuff and we have it in imagery and coins. We know that the driver sits. The warrior stands and uses the javelin and the driver sits. Now for the film, for the BBC, we got some little ponies that were the right size for the thing and I sat and drove it, wonderful. All good. By the time we the film was edited, it always takes a few moments. And we’re doing the same for the British Museum. It was nearly Christmas. And those ponies, being showbiz ponies, were in pantomime in Bournemouth. So we had to get some other ponies for the British Museum gig and the harness of these early chariots is completely different to modern harness, completely different, it really would be going down an esoteric path to explain that, but it’s very different. So we got these two scurry ponies and we put them in it and they’d never been in a town before they came. Somebody hired them. They were shaking in the courtyard and in this really unfamiliar tack, which has no traces, it means that hindquarters could swing. All sorts of things can go wrong. And the whole thing could break apart, there was a huge amount of jeopardy with this. And they were that little bit too tall, taller than the ones that should be for the chariot. So when I sat down, I couldn’t see. So for that ride I did have to stand up. But of course, you’re standing up in a chariot that’s got no front. If you tip in there, you’re in the meat grinder of hooves and being dragged by the axel. But I had to stand up in it. And what I knew was these horses were very, very nervous. This whole setup is extremely fragile and they haven’t been trained to use it. What they need to do is trust me. The thing I’ve learned more about horses than anything else, there was a show jumper back in the 50s and it was a big international show jumping competition in South Africa. And he’d gone there and his horse had gone lame. And someone in the South African team had lent him a horse. And he was seen riding into receptions, in marquees, up the steps of buildings and people said, what are you doing? “I know it can jump or you wouldn’t have lent it to me. I need it to trust me.” So when they opened the gates of the British Museum forecourt, I said, giddy up boys. And we galloped out of the museum. I thundered them down Museum Street. We ran red lights. And it’s the only way to deal with London in the rush hour in a chariot. Everybody parts, taxis stop. They wave “Good on you, mate!” It’s wonderful. We actually hurtled down Shaftesbury Avenue only to discover that how many manhole covers there are on Shaftesbury Avenue. One of the horses was terrified of them because they look like black holes. And Shaftesbury Avenue is covered in manhole covers. And so we did this serpentine gallop, by which time you got all the adrenaline out of them and they settled and we had a very pleasant ride the rest of the time. But it was raining and I had a long sort of riding coat on. You know, that comes down to your ankles. And this poor lady reporter, she was just so petrified. She sat behind me with her head under my coat almost the entire journey.


GW: I’d been wondering about that chariot ride for a while. Thank you very much for telling me the backstory. OK, now we’ve mentioned archery quite a lot, and clearly it’s a deep interest and you’ve written the book on war bows, literally written the book on war bows. I’ve made some bows, but nothing of war weight, nothing heavier than about a 40 pound draw. So I have some experience of how bows are made and that sort of thing. But, by all means tell us…


ML: Tell you something about bows. I will.


GW: Yes. It’s an open question for you. What do you wish the general swords-interested audience knew about bows?


ML: So it’s called War Bows. That’s a modern construction, the war bow. And I think it is a very useful one as well. So particularly with regard to the so-called English longbow, although the French armies had them, German armies have them.


GW: But they’re English!


ML: Not exclusively. But it was started in English and so on. All sorts of things feed into this. But the word war bow was coined to distinguish between the sort of lighter draw weight recreational longbows and the military longbow of the Middle Ages. The military longbow of the Middle Ages was a much chunkier beast and it also was a different shape. The Victorians changed the longbows. You have these Victorian longbows, which are very stiff in the centre section, but they are still longbows. They have a d-section cross-section and most people who say they are a longbow shooter are only shooting Victorian style longbows, which is fine. They are lovely bows. But the Mary Rose discovery has obviously changed things. You know, there were two Mary Rose bows that existed in the Royal Armouries collections, which had been excavated earlier, but the big find in the 80s when they were all brought up and I remember. Life has lots of adventures, but it has certain key moments that are more memorable than others. And I remember when the bows were first brought up and as you know, they were in the mud in the Solent, which had preserved them. This organic material had been preserved. Quite extraordinary. Once they were brought up there was a real issue of how do we keep them. They hadn’t built the museum then with all its wonders. And Robert Hardy was one of the trustees from the outset and the place with, I can say this now, it used to be a secret, but I think now we could say it, the place with the right humidity to keep them stabilised until they could get something purpose-built was his wine cellar.


GW: Robert Hardy’s wine cellar?


ML: Yes. Which was considerable, I can tell you. I remember John Waller and a couple of other friends, we went to see them shortly after they were lifted and deposited there, and so I was among the first people to handle and inspect them. And that’s a pretty powerful memory, it’s as exciting as opening an original Talhoffer. It’s a direct connection with history, it is wonderful, but I digress. What was apparent from the girth of them etc. was that these poundages, the draw weights, far exceeded what anyone had previously believed. And obviously that remains contentious. But you’ve got people like Joe Gibbs now who, he’s no bigger than me – younger and fitter and stronger. He’s a little guy and he draws a 200 pound bow.


GW: I’ve seen it on YouTube and I didn’t believe it.


ML: He’s accurate with it. But you’ve got others like Ian Coote and Mark Stretton and a host of, I mean, there’s dozens and dozens of people who pull in excess of 180, and it’s transforming our idea. Now, because that is possible, it means our upper ceiling has to rise. That is not the same as saying that a longbow war bow is 180 or 200 pounds. One of the things I address in the book, I think people get obsessed with the wrong questions.


GW: What’s the right question?


ML: People are obsessed with penetration. From the lad on the Internet who said, oh, I pierced my mum’s saucepan lid with my longbow last week so they must have been able pierce armour. I’d argue that there are 5000 factors that you’re missing there. But there are so many variables, so many variables, that affect whether a longer arrow can penetrate armour. Can it? Yes. Did it always? No. What’s the percentages? That’s hard to work out. But that’s kind of the question. A passion for a study of armour has to be in complete equilibrium with the passion and study of the weapons designed to attack it, we cannot consider one without a thorough knowledge and appreciation of the other, which is why the dissection of longbows has a large section on armour of the period. The right question for me is what is the probable rate of shooting? When I was shooting a 70 pound bow, which I could no longer do, partly because of age, partly because I had an accident with a Turkish bow a few years back when I was trying to string it, a powerful one, that turned inside out and it snapped my scaphoid bone. I went a year thinking, when is the sprain going to heal? And then by the time I had it x-rayed, they said it’s a non-union fracture. And if you don’t have surgery, you’re going to lose the use of your hand, we’re going to take some bone from your hip. But you won’t be able to ride for a year because it will be in a cast. Not ride for a year? Fuck off. And anyway, they say I’m a medical miracle because I’ve still got use of the hand. It hasn’t shifted. But they said at my age there would only have been a 50 percent chance of that surgery having an effect anyway. So I kind of rolled the dice. But it means I can only shoot lightweight bows, to complete that tangent. Coming back to the main thread, which is what is the rate of shooting that is probable? Let’s do an ad absurdum first. If the five thousand archers at Agincourt, for instance, can all shoot ten thousand arrows a minute, that’s fifty thousand arrows a minute. Well, if they can penetrate armour, the entire French army would be wiped out. Everyone’s dead. In a matter of minutes. Which is not what happened, so we’re missing something. You have to start with that ad absurdum argument. So it’s not that magic, but people did die and it did have effect. So what is much more probable? So in terms of the draw weight of the thing? You trade off impact for rate of shooting because obviously it is much more tiring. Yeah, if you go down to the gym and bench press 200 pounds or whatever, you can do X repetitions. But if you take that down to 50 pounds, you can do so many more repetitions. So once you get that idea, it answers all sorts of things. So maybe one of the reasons for having so many archers is that everybody doesn’t have to be shooting at once.


GW: It seems likely.


ML: Maybe you have a thousand of the five thousand shooting and they all get five shots rest. That becomes one of the thoughts of that. Then the other thought is what at what range is your ammunition most effective? Yes, with a powerful bow, you can shoot 200 – 300 metres and they probably did sometimes. But that image of archers shooting up in the air is a Hollywood image. Laurence Olivier, Henry V. Legendary.


GW: We do see it in some manuscripts also.


ML: No you don’t. What you will see in medieval manuscripts. (Please send it to me if you’ve got it.) What you see in medieval manuscripts is people shooting more or less horizontally. Very little elevation. There may be other explanations for that, but you will see people shooting in elevation, in other words pointing upwards, in a siege situation. So there’s no barrier to being able to shoot up, but it’s a siege situation or it is in later illustrations by the doing something like the Finsbury Marks where you were shooting around, doing long distance target shooting, if you like. The medieval battle manuscripts don’t show them shooting up in the air. Please send me if you have it. Please do. And I’ve been looking it for years. The art tends to contradict, there can be reasons for that, because they are compressing the scene and the distance between the armies and it might look stupid. So there’s an argument, but the point is the evidence is against it rather than for it. It doesn’t make sense on an arrow stocks point of view, as medieval arrows are an extremely expensive piece of ammunition. Compared to a musket ball.


GW: Yeah, well, they take a long time to make, for a start.


ML: Labour intensity, the amount of material you want, you’ve got to season your wood and then you leave your wood and then you make it into square blanks and then you use various different planes to file that down into a cylinder. And it’s a tapered cylinder. It’s bobtailed to make it more aerodynamic, enormous sculptural carpentry required just to make this little shaft. You’ve then got to match those shafts so they all match with some companions consistently from a bow. Then you’ve got to get your feathers and peel the hard bit – the quill – off those, then get some rabbit hide glue mixed up, then you put those on, but that’s not strong enough. So you’ve then got to spiral wind some silk thread to put it on. Then you’ve got to file a slot and then you’ve got to put a bit of horn insert into the slot because a heavy blow would explode the knot. Then you actually cut the knot and you round and file that off and then you put a compound in between the feathers to prevent feather mites from getting it, a copper sulphide compound in there. And then you would file the front end to take a head and then you’ve got all the work of the arrowsmith to make an arrowhead. So an arrow is a very expensive bit of ammunition and not something that can be knocked up in the camp the night before. Therefore, you have to take your arrow supplies with you. And we know they took a million, a million and a half arrows on some of these French campaigns in barrels and wagons and how many wagons they had. We know this stuff, but even a million and a half arrows is finite. And you don’t know, if you’re at Crecy, if you’re at Agincourt, whether or not that’s the last battle of the campaign. And you have already used an amount of your arrows on the campaign in skirmishes before now. So how many arrows have you got left at Agincourt? They were really quite low. They had almost run out of arrows. They ran out very early in the battle. And you don’t know, you’ve got to husband your resources because you may yet need your archers next week. You may not yet make your ships in time. So making decisions about when to shoot becomes very, very important. I can’t say I have got the answers, but what I think I do, is I think I helped to ask these questions. Don’t assume Laurence Olivier was the expert.


GW: He was an expert actor, a very good director. But he wasn’t an archer.


ML: You know, the famous thing with the armour, don’t you? Where he goes to Sir James Mann. The Henry V film is a wonderful, wonderful film. I saw it when I was ten years old. They showed it at school and it was the moment where I was first seduced into a passion for Shakespeare and a passion for history. I still have those two passions. I mean, that film did something to me. But famously, Olivier went to Sir James Mann of the Royal Armouries to get some advice. And Mann said, I do hope you’re not going to perpetuate that nonsense of knights being winched into the saddle. And Olivier said, “Why not? It’s wonderful.” And he said, well, because it didn’t happen, it’s a bogus thing and it cropped up in a music hall sketch in a music hall comedy called In Days Of Old When Knights Were Bold, which was played in the West End in the 1890s or something when this image first occurred. And Olivier said, “Very well, I’ll only have the French do it then.” And so you see this comedic scene of these French knights hanging like that. It’s still in the public imagination. Still, armour afficionados are trying to explain to people that it wasn’t like that.


GW: Jean II le Meingre, Marshal Boucicaut, who led the vanguard of the French knights,


ML: Climbed the underside of a ladder with his arms.


GW: Exactly. And he was reputed to be able to vault into his horse without using his hands.


ML: Of course he was. There’s a bit of a trick.


GW: Without using the hands is the hard part.


ML: Yeah, absolutely.


GW: So he definitely didn’t need winching.


ML: Exploding myths.


GW: It’s part of what we do.


ML: Whether you are into swords or bows or armour. It’s all exploding the myths is the thing. But just to come back to my war bows book, because I was banging on, as I am prone to do.


GW: It’s podcast gold, sir, podcast gold.


ML: The War Bows title does not just refer to the European longbow, English longbow, it refers to the crossbow, it refers to the composite bow, whether it’s the Manchu bow or the Turkish bow or the Mongol bow or all of those wonderful, wonderful bows and to the Japanese bow. So it has four principal sections, of which War Bows was the catchiest catch-all phrase, we could have called it “military bows”, but War Bows was kind of a better title. So it is a book about military bows and it’s Japanese and Turkish and Chinese and English and the crossbow, which is so underestimated, so undervalued, so ostracised in a sort of snobby way, was just such a mainstream weapon in the Middle Ages. One of the things I love about archery is exactly the same thing I love about sword fighting, which is my enjoyment of the physical doing of (I like to sword fight, I like to shoot bows,) the physical doing of has led me into a study of the history of. And that study has been a passport to the world because it takes me to all these different countries, I love the multicultural study aspect of it. You know, in school we were taught British history from the British point of view or if you’re French, from French point of view, Hungarian from a Hungarian point of view, it is always so nationalistic the way history is taught and used, and for me, that’s not what history is, history is the human story of all of us, and it’s that shared and I love our little niche passions of sword fighting and bows because they took me into the cultures around the world, and my life is richer for it.


GW: I had the exact same experience. With sword people, it doesn’t really matter if you’re doing 16th century Japanese swordsmanship or you’re doing Chinese swordsmanship or you’re doing Kali Escrima with swords. Sword people are sword people.


ML: Yeah, the human biodynamics are the same. Certain cultural traditions and approaches look at it slightly differently and that’s fascinating.


GW: And technological change also affects the weapon which affects the use and so on. OK, now I have to ask you about dogs.


ML: Oh, good.


GW: I have the feeling that is a sufficient question for you, sir.


ML: This may come as a surprise, but I recently had a book about dogs published. Gosh, dogs, where does that fit into it all? Well, I love dogs, but it’s the same. You said some very kind things about swords and swordsman, earlier. This is the same book substituting dogs for swords, in other words, it tells stories, it’s a route into history and in the same way that with swords and swords, when I would take a particular sword whether it was George Washington’s sword or Henry V’s Sword, Maximilian’s Sword or whatever, and set it in its socio-cultural context and military context. And what was the sword fighting styles like at the time or the manufacturing processes at the time? And here’s some stories about the life of the person. It is kind of the same with dogs because whether it’s swords, whether it’s bows, whether it’s dogs. I’m working on something about horses, but whether it’s those, the form and function is key. So they all have that in common, they all connect form and function. And from that, there is an aesthetic. Now, this is not anti mongrel, I love mongrels, we have some very serious problems with dogs and abandonment in our cultures and anyone is in a position to be able to take a rescue dog from a shelter, they really should. But we do also have our heritage breeds. Our labradors and our spaniels. And it’s a much more fragile heritage than you may think. With our dogs, the nasty mess you get on the Internet about swords or bows pales into insignificance with the passions aroused by dogs. Up until the mid 19th century, the types of dogs we have, scent hounds, sight hounds, flock guardians, cart dogs, sled dogs, game finders, etc. evolved by dint of human management and interference, selective breeding for dogs to do a particular service and that’s very much at the heart of the partnership and that includes companion dogs bred specifically to be the lap dogs, the parlour dogs. What in the Middle Ages were called the chamber dogs. Very valuable, possibly the most valuable service, that dogs do. I was intrigued by this, and so the book is organised according to job, according to task, not what they do now. Obviously the guide dogs for the blind or service dogs or bomb detection or all of that. Great. This is about when this particular type came into being where are we in history and what was going on. So we start with herding dogs, collies and droving dogs, corgis. So I had my signature hands on experience, so I herded 80 sheep with a border collie. I went to a farmer in Wales who still herds his black cattle with a corgi because corgis were droving dogs, they would nip at the heels of the cow, but because when the cow kicks they are low and it misses, we’ve got a lovely action shot of that happening. So that allows me to tell you about drovers’ roads and the beginnings of banks and all manner of social history that’s tucked away in that and in the sheep dog thing, because when you send sheep away, the dog goes with them. And so dogs export all over the world, so the dogs in Australia, connect with the dogs in America, which came from Poland via England. And all of that starts to get very interesting. And then the sled dogs takes you into bits of American history. I went dog sledding in Alaska, which was stunning. A bucket list adventure, it was wonderful. But I was able to tell the history of the Klondike gold rush. I was able to tell the history of the old trappers in those pioneering days. It’s rich, rich, rich historical period and time and place that these dogs took me to. The cart dogs chapter’s one of my favourites. Dogs pulled carts all over Europe. If think about little tiny alleys in town, there’s not room to get a horse and cart up. I live in Portugal now. We’ve got all these little tiny alleys in the gorgeous little historical town where we are in the south and you couldn’t get a horse and cart up the alley, but you could get a dog cart up there to bring you your bread, to bring you your daily milk. The man with the grindstone to come and sharpen your knives and swords would have the grindstone on the back of a dog cart. And so you’ve got all of this. And then, extraordinarily, in the First World War, the Belgian army used dogs to pull Vickers machine guns on carts, which was a brilliant thing because in the low country of Belgium, the German advance, the idea was to do a pincer movement on France and one of it swept up through Belgium, and Belgium very much had a 19th century army at the time, but they were incredibly brave and resisted but were quite quickly overwhelmed. But they put up one hell of a fight and they had these regiments, full regiments of machine gun dogs, and the Vickers machine guns are on carts with pneumatic tires, rubber tires. So unlike a horse it is completely silent. Especially in the low dune country of Belgium. It’s low. So you could get a spotter and he could crawl up on his belly and look. And then he could see enemy forces approaching and with a whistle, his dog team would run the machine gun up to him. They would unshackle him, they go back, turn around, use the machine gun. And it was an extraordinary thing and that really died out, but some people in Belgium had reconstructed it. So I’ve got wonderful photos in there of this reconstructed Belgian mastiff with machine gun carriage. And then Dalmatians, which were carriage dogs. And I drove the carriage with a Dalmatian tucked under around leafy lanes in Sussex. And that takes you to George Washington who ordered a new carriage. Just wonderful stories of the mail coaches and Dalmatians guarding them and that it sweeps on into water dogs. And of course, did you know that poodles were originally duck hunters and John Keys, spelled Johannes Caius, because he was a physician to Elizabeth I, but he also wrote the first book about dogs in English. But would you say “Keys” College, Cambridge, although it spelt Caius, and of course, it’s given generations of Cambridge students a wonderful sort of one-upmanship that they know how to pronounce the name of that college. But he actually came from Norwich, so he was plain old John Keys from Norwich, but he went to university in Italy and it was fashionable for young men to Latinise their names. So he is published as Johannes Caius, even though Johannes Caius is pronounced John Keys. So that’s why Caius College Cambridge is pronounced like that. Anyway, he wrote the first book on dogs and he talks about the water spaniels, which is what a poodle is, retrieving the shooter’s crossbow bolts when they miss. And I went to visit some duck hunting poodles in Georgia, in America. And I took a crossbow and blocks because that’s what you use to hunt ducks because you wouldn’t want to spoil the meat for the table. But also, if you miss, it hasn’t got a metal head. It doesn’t sink, it floats. And these poodles would retrieve my crossbow bolts wonderfully, so there is some military stuff in there. And I get into the history of labradors, golden retrievers and other water dogs, all with fabulous histories. And then we get into the hunting breeds. And because I want the book to be available to everyone, hunting is a very polarising issue. Personally, I don’t have a problem shooting a duck. I love duck. But I have great respect for the people who have gentler attitudes and kinder attitudes to wildlife. I’m mixed on that. I’m very anti trophy hunting, but I will end up using five chapters explaining my views on hunting and qualifying that. The easiest thing, there is no hunting activity that I can’t either simulate or substitute, so that when I’m in the Jordanian desert with a Saluki, and the way they used to hunt with them is they used to go out into the desert on a camel with a Saluki on their lap to save its feet for the chase. Carrying a falcon and you might ride for days and then you’d fly the hawk, and the hawk when it sees a gazelle tries to dive bomb the gazelle because they feed on gazelle but of course it can’t bring down a gazelle. But the Saluki can see the drop from the sky, jumps off your camel and gives chase. So I went out on a camel with a Saluki on my lap carrying a hawk.


GW: Of course you did Mike.


ML: But when we wanted to get shots of the Saluki’s action, the wonderful, powerful sight hound action, we just drove a 4×4 with a lure behind it. It chased the lure. So we didn’t actually hunt it. We had all the ingredients. When I went in the New Forest with a pack of hounds, as much as I love galloping across countryside, I don’t want to follow a trail hunt. I want to be with the hounds. So they let me take them on hound exercise, which is the greatest dog walk I’ve ever had because I took 56 hounds off leash for a walk through the New Forest. I was at the front and they taught me to crack a whip and they obeyed me. It was wonderful. And so it’s an adventure book. It’s a history book. For the companion dogs, am I going to have the neighbours Chihuahua on my lap? It’s not quite me. So I’m going to go back to the heart of it, to go to the root of it, to where it all started. I want to meet some wolves. So what I ended up doing was meeting some wolf dogs, which were ninety eight percent wild wolf. And that was that was in Northern California. And I spent about an hour before this she wolf actually came up to me. She was so wary, she slinked and skulked and darted. You could feel that first connection, for us both to trust each other. It was powerful. So it’s an experiential little book which unpacks gazillions of little nuggets of social history. The dogs are kind of off-leash and off-trail, and they sent out these fascinating little stories, we meet these quirky dog people where I went all over the world meeting quirky dog people. And it always has a message. And the message is the history of these things is much more recent than you think. We’ve lost more breeds than we’ve created. The dogs of today are not the dogs of yesteryear. I’ve taken the modern approximations. We talk about Dalmatians as a carriage dog. You know, the Dalmatian’s job was to guard the coach, guard the horses. It was a guard dog, therefore had a certain amount of aggression. Because they are so lovely people have now bred them with all the qualities of stamina and they are sweet natured. Which is fine. But in the days of coach travel or horse travel, if you stayed in an inn the coachman used to have to sleep with his horses because otherwise they’d be stolen. So you have a Dalmatian who would sleep with the horses and he could have a bed in the tavern. The way they do that, is the dog imprints with the horses when it was a puppy. It goes in with the horses and so the dog doesn’t follow the carriage. What the dog does is he actually follows the horses. Many wonderful tales about that. The message is that the dogs have changed and they can change again and we need to watch it, as we tend to put in our tribal values. So it’s like, if you kind of want to be cool and groovy you would only have mongrels and shelter dogs because you don’t want to seem elitist and have pedigree dogs. If you want to be snooty and show-offy, you have a pedigree dogs and you eschew these wretched tykes and mongrels and currs. Neither of those things is a valid argument. Dogs are dogs. They don’t know what they are. They all deserve love, care and human kindness. So I refute both of those things. But the Kennel Club system has created some terrible things. The flat faced dogs that can’t breathe and cannot give natural birth, that is an abomination. And people say, oh, poor old Bulldog, he can’t breathe properly. He snuffles and he’s so cute and his head is so round, he looks like Churchill and his skin’s all saggy. That’s because they’ve been bred to look like a fucking baby with round eyes in the centre and wrinkly skin and puffing and snuffling and snorting because he looks like a bloody toddler. I find them cute. And I know some bulldogs. I think they’re great. But you know what happened? What happened was we used to have an abhorrent sport called bull baiting where people would gamble on how long the dogs could stay on the bull. So they’re what we call brachycephalic, which means they have a relatively broad mouth rather than dolichocephalic, which is the long mouth of a sighthound. A Greyhound has a long snout now because it catches prey on the move. So it’s got kind of pincers, like a pair of pliers, like long nose pliers to snatch at the prey, whereas a mastiff or a bulldog has as a broad mouth because you can grip and hold on for longer with a broad mouth, you get more teeth engaged. You could hold for longer. So it’s a holding dog. So this is what the bulldog was used for. When it was quite rightly outlawed of course, people no longer had a reason to keep Bulldogs, except they have these rather lovable natures and they have these lovable natures, because the dogs which are used for dog fighting, pit bulls, they are gorgeous dogs, lovely, affectionate, gentle dogs. They are not what the press make them out to be at all. So these dogs tend to have nice temperaments because if they’re an aggressive dog, they need to be able to be handled by their owner. You need to be able to pull it off a bull, you need to be able to pull it out of a dog fight. So they have a lovely temperament. So people did want them as pets. So what they then did, as soon as bull baiting is made illegal in Britain. They start to cross the bulldog with the pug, which is this flat faced dog from China as a companion for all those babyfied dog virtues. Although I wouldn’t mind a pug it if had a longer nose. There’s a famous picture of Hogarth with his dog and it’s got a perfectly reasonable snout. It can breathe, but we’ve just gradually squashed it, squashed it to make it flatter and flatter and more human. And people say, poor old thing, that’s what he’s like. No, it’s not what he’s like. We made him like that and you need to know that. And you need to know that this is not something that occurs in nature. We have done this with Alsatians with sloping haunches, but they get terrible hip pain and Dachshunds with their backs. Long is OK, but too long is not OK. Exaggerated features. So it’s like trying to promote an awareness of this. I’m saying we are also in-breeding too much. How sustainable is this? This experiment is only one hundred and fifty to two hundred years old with these restrictive pedigree lines. We’ve got to open it up. Why not breed a cocker spaniel with a springer spaniel? They’re both spaniels, they don’t need those narrow, narrow, narrow lines. Let’s breed for health. And the dogs we have today are the way they are because they were bred for function. I’m not saying you have to use them for function,


GW: But they’re bred for it.


ML: But that’s why they look the way they do. Basset Hounds have long floppy ears because as they flap, it wafts the scent up into his nose. But he’s not supposed to tread on the bloody things, so don’t exaggerate it. So the book has a message.


GW: Clearly. I do have a couple of questions to finish up on and I hesitate to ask you this one, because I can’t think of anything you might not have done. So, what is the best idea you’ve never acted on?


ML: Well, we have to put “never acted on yet”, don’t we?


GW: OK, never acted on yet.


ML: I mean, part of me is inclined to say, I wish I had gone to law school.


GW: Really? I can’t believe it.


ML: But I don’t know that I mean it, so that kind of depends on my mood.


GW: Why on earth?


ML: Because I had this glorious life of adventure, doing what the hell I want. I’ve been all over, I’ve shot blowpipes with the Indians in the Peruvian jungle, in the Amazon. I’ve been to Japan, I’ve been to China and not as a tourist, but with privileged access to museums, to behind the scenes, to seeing things. I mean, I was excavating a chariot in China a few years ago. And we found little bits of paint from 1500 B.C.. And I picked out that little bit of a flake of paint, I mean, I’ve done things I couldn’t even dream of doing, so I have to be so grateful for my life. But, I am not 30 anymore, and financial security is a concern. It hasn’t been a straight path or an easy path. It’s been a bumpy path. I’ve mostly enjoyed it. I’ve mostly had fun. But there’s that bit of me going if you had gone to law school, you could still have done a lot of those things, but you’d have a bit of a back up and a pension. But I don’t know. So that may be the best idea I’ve never acted on. Here’s the serious answer. I don’t think there is a best idea that I’ve never acted on other than to say I started acting on them far later than I needed to. My 20s and my 30s, and even into my 40s, I was starting to do it in my 40s, but I hadn’t really found my way. So, you know, when you say you wrote your first book at 31, I am in awe. I wish I’d written my first book because I’ve got so many books in here that I yet want to write and I’m worried I’ll run out of time. So I wish I’d started certain things earlier. But that’s it. That’s the answer.


GW: I mean, the thing is, I spent like the first 15 years of my swordsmanship career as a professional, after starting my school, it took me about 15 years to get any semblance of financial security at all. And I basically was two weeks away from bankruptcy the entire time, and there were times when I would be walking down the street and I’d see people working in offices, in the office buildings in the street, and I would go do you know what, just showing up at the same time every day, doing what I’m told, going home again in the evening and getting paid a regular amount of money every month regardless. That sounds so relaxing.


ML: But it wouldn’t suit.


GW: And every single person I’ve ever met who works in an office who finds out what I do for a living. Not one of them has ever gone, “Oh, thank God I don’t have to do that.” Not one.


ML: No, I know. So think that I think if you make that choice it would be that second part. There would be nothing I haven’t acted on. I’m doing most of it and yet things to do and I haven’t run out of steam. I’m doing all right. It’s just if I was a lawyer, I’d be doing a lot better. But I wish I’d got going earlier. And it was to do with the culture of the time, insecurity and being the first and the people weren’t doing it and it took longer to do out of the box things.


GW: Yeah, I think that people who are starting clubs and schools now, the level they can start at is so much higher than what I could when I started out in 2001 when I started my school professionally, or what you were doing in the 70s or 80s.


ML: I wouldn’t have done the drama schools at the time. Teaching sword fighting in drama schools was a way of being paid and experimenting with what I loved. But if there had been the infrastructure there is now I would have studied with Dave Rawlings and whatever, and you even, and it would have been a different story.


GW: It’s no bad thing to be a pioneer, but OK, my last question. Somebody gives you a large pot of cash to spend educating the public on weapons of history. What would you do with the money?


ML: Paint a castle. I’m slightly going to stretch your question that castles are weapons, because they are. They are tools of conquest, aircraft carriers for horses. In order to control the land you put castles in strategic places and you can control the land for days’ ride around. The horses, the grain and fodder and security at night. So castles are a weapon. One of my te noires is the way in which the medieval world is portrayed in greyscale.


GW: Oh, God, it’s so annoying. And everyone’s dirty faced. Everyone is mucky and like they didn’t wash.


ML: All of that. A lot of why Hollywood does that, why we portray our history the way we do, is the same way that the Victorians portrayed their history. And it’s always looking back and looking down. It’s always to do with aren’t we better? I don’t believe that. I believe we’re different, but I’ve yet to be persuaded that we’re that much better. So it is about using history to make us feel better about ourselves, I think is one of the problems with historical drama and but the grey thing, I think, really starts with castles. Castles weren’t grey. Look at medieval manuscripts, they are mostly white, but they can be pink. It depends on what the what the local soil is like because they were plastered and lime washed on the outside.


GW: Like the white tower in the Tower of London.


ML: They were plastered and highly decorated and elaborately furnished with soft furnishings and tapestries and curtains and cushions and gorgeous, sumptuous luxury, because they were the dwelling places of the nobility. Every little detail would have been painted. And so I think to paint a castle, especially from the outside, is a great announcement to the world to look again, history is not what you think it is. Look at the sword fighting, look at the archery. Look at everything. Because it’s not what you grew up believing. Are grey castles beautiful? Yes, they have a sculptural beauty. In the same way that Roman statues weren’t white, they were painted. All this scrubbed clean. Do I like it? Do I like Greek statues and Roman statues? I love it because I love shape and form. The aesthetics I’ve got no problem with. I would probably find ancient Rome rather gaudy and trashy because I’ve been brought up in our culture, which is a very grey culture. If I had money to really restore a medieval castle and paint it, I think that would be a tremendous announcement to say, hey, look at the Middle Ages again, look at how bright and gaudy and colourful it was, people that whatever class you’re seeing, serfs and peasants in a blue smock and red hose rolled down their leg and colour everywhere. They love colour. And I think that’s the first inroad into breaking open people’s imagination to let in all sorts of other information. So at this castle, we could have sword fighting and archery and we can educate about weapons.


GW: That is a fantastic answer. Wasn’t at all what I was expecting. That’s brilliant. But you’re absolutely right. It wasn’t greyscale. I used to work as an antiques restorer, and so I’ve seen some insights into this and yeah, looking at the tapestries and the painted hanging cloth, if you couldn’t afford a tapestry, you had a painting on a piece of cloth because painting was cheaper. The viewers can see it, but you can see that I’ve got blues and greens and reds.


ML: It is a very colourful room. He has a wonderful scarlet wall which is excellent.


GW: With the swords on it.


ML: Yes. And then behind that, it’s a tricolour room. Behind that, there is a turquoise wall.


GW: That’s actually dark green. Dark green there and light blue over there.


ML: Very medieval colours.


GW: Right. Because that’s what it was like.


ML: Scabbards! If you ever look at DPK Scabbards. He makes the most exquisite scabbards. And they are brightly, brightly, brightly coloured and just wonderful, wonderful works of art. And the scabbard a very overlooked part of sword furniture, I find.


GW: Yeah. Everyone knows about Excalibur, but they don’t know that if you had the scabbard, you would not bleed to death. And everyone forgets that bit because it’s like Excalibur is the sexy swordy bit. But really, the scabbard was just as important.


ML: Absolutely huge. And of course, the thing is, with scabbards and the tapestries you were talking about, organic materials tend not to survive. And even if they do, the colours fade and the thing with castles is because once they went out of use, the roofs went. And once the roof goes, everything goes. All the plaster falls off, rain and weather and time take their toll. The colours fade, the plaster falls, and you’re left with the brickwork we have. Anyone who has a house, if you take the roof off, pretty soon you see how superficial all your colouring and furnishing is in the house. And that’s all you’ve got with castles. The floorboards are gone. Tiles have gone.


GW: And even in castles where they haven’t, they’ve gone through things like the Reformation, where they have this fashion to kind of get rid of anything gaudy or decorative.


ML: I mean, obviously in England, because of the English Reformation and then particularly after Henry and Cromwell, with his Puritan streak, the churches were all scrubbed clean. But churches were hugely elaborately decorated. Which obviously you still you still find in Catholic churches in Europe, you’ll still find that opulent luxury of decoration. Which is a great insight into the medieval world, because that’s where other opulent interiors like castles would have been equally decorated and gilded and coloured.


GW: I would pay money to see a castle done properly.


ML: They are doing it at Black Guédelon Castle, you know Black Guédelon? It is obviously a reconstruction castle, but that there is a magical place for you.


GW: Yeah, well, Mike.


ML: You said this normally takes an hour.


GW: Well, normally they take an hour but there was no way I was going to interrupt the flow. It’s been an absolute education talking to you. Thank you so much for making the time.


ML: Great pleasure. All the very best.