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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Riley

Weapons That Changed The World: The longbow

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

‘Fight, gentlemen of England! fight, bold yeomen! Draw, archers, draw your arrows to the head! Spur your proud horses hard, and ride in blood; Amaze the welkin with your broken staves!’ William Shakespeare Richard III.

A late 15th century illustration of the Battle fo Crećy showing English and Welsh longbowmen (bottom right) fighting mercenary Genoese crossbowmen (bottom left) SOURCE: illuminated manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chronicles

The longbow holds a special place in the hearts of the English, the symbol of the oppressed defeating the oppressor, the true mark of the underdog spirit but, the War Bow, to use its correct name, was nether an English invention or the 'peasants weapon' it is so often called.

What was is and where did it come from?

Bows in one form or another, have been used by mankind for thousands of years, with some arrow heads found in North Africa dating back to 50,000BCE. Used mainly as a hunting tool, the bow was used by virtually all ancient civilisations across the globe to both hunt for food and, for war, arriving in Europe roughly 5,000 years ago. It wasn't until the 11th and 12th centuries though, that heads began to turn to the devastating effect that mass volleys of arrows could have, with Edward I of England on the receiving end of Welsh attacks in the 1270's. Seeing first hand what these powerful, yet relatively simple tools could achieve, Edward began to hire Welsh mercenaries into his armies, joining him as he subdued the Scots under Robert Bruce and William Wallace and soon became a staple of English armies.

The 'longbow' used by the English and Welsh, was made of a single piece of yew tree, due to is composition of both a strong sapwood exterior that protected the bow from snapping and, a 'belly' of heartwood, that gave the weapon amazing strength and power. Bows of the 14th and 15th century were usually around 6ft tall described as 'as tall as a man' and at that size, required a huge amount of strength to draw, with some in excess of 200 pounds of draw weight.

the longbow has been popularised by characters such as Robin Hood, the yeoman archer who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, adding yet further mystique to the weapon. Robin Hood likely never existed but, what we do know is the men who wielded the bows were mainly yeoman, free men who owned small amounts of land not considered wealthy but also not poor, the closest we get to a medieval middle class, with archers in the armies of Edward III earning slightly more than some of their spear and pole arm wielding comrades, especially if they were mounted archers.

Not for the French?

When talking about the longbow, it is impossible to not mention medieval France. The arch-rival to England during The Hundred Years War, the French did not rely on the longbow, choosing instead to use crossbows, usually in the hands of expensive mercenaries from Italy. The reason for this is simple, although cheap to make, the bows themselves would take years to craft and, the training required to use the effectively was immense, with Edward III famously instructing all men of England between the ages of 16 and 60 to train with a bow on Sundays and his grandfather, Edward I banned all other sports as it distracted future soldiers from training. Virtually all other European powers chose the crossbow over the longbow as it required very little training to use and didn't leave a population highly trained and in a sense, constantly armed.

A modern depiction of mercenary Genoese Crossbowmen firing and reloading behind their large Pavise shields SOURCE: Pinterest

What ammunition was used?

Throughout the centuries and across different civilisations, different arrow types were used but, when it came to the English longbow, only one type would do. Previous English armies had used heavy broad head arrows but, as armour improved and more and more enemy soldiers were wearing steel plate, the ammo had to change also. The Bodkin Arrowhead had been used for centuries and was not new technology but, during The Hundred Years war, English archers were equipped with the squared, bullet shaped arrow heads that traveled further, faster and, could penetrate further into chainmail and other potential weak spots.

The fire rate of the Medieval longbow is one of its many positives but, the exact rate is somewhat up for debate. If we take the conservative figure of around 6 arrows per minute (some estimates are up to 15 arrows per minute!), and multiply it by 1,000 archers, the amount of arrows that could be loosed is around 6,000 per minute, that's roughly equivalent to 2 or 3 MG42s used by Germany in the second world war, nicknamed 'the devil's paintbrush' for his devastating rate of fire. The English or British army we unable to achieve similar rates of fire until the first world war and the introduction of bolt action rifles.

A modern example of a Bodkin arrowhead SOURCE: Public Domain

One common misconception around longbows and Bodkin arrows is that they were able to pierce plate armour, as we have no contemporary bows to test, it is difficult to say for certain but, what we can say is that the effectiveness of the longbow was not down to an individual killing another individual, it was down to massed volleys of thousands of projectiles, battering an enemy force into submission. We are unsure on the specifics of how archers were used on the battlefield but, we can safely assume that archers ether fired on mass or, took turns in firing so to keep their arms fresh whilst still loosing thousands of arrows at a time, smashing with blunt force into oncoming attackers.

From Crećy to Castillon

The English longbow was the AK-47 or M16 of the 14th century, taking centerstage at the battle of Crećy, Poitiers and Agincourt giving England her greatest victories against the French but, how was it used?

At the battles of Crećy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), the archers were able to set up in a good defensive position, ether behind natural defences such as hedges or, behind wooden stakes and trenches giving them excellent cover from oncoming attackers. The longbow became the supreme defensive weapon, used against charging enemies, relying on its excellent range (over 240 yards) to hammer oncoming attackers from a far. At Crećy, the Genoese crossbowmen arrived at the battle early and, without their shields allowing the English to cut down their bow wielding foes before they could even get close enough to shoot their own bows.

At the Battle of Agincourt (1415), perhaps the most famous example of the Longbow playing a central role, Henry V was able to use his much smaller force to defeat a massive French army because of good positioning, the French army's arrogance and, the longbows superior range and rate of fire. As the French charged directly at the thin line of English men-at-arms, the muddy fields allowed the archers time to loose their arrows and with devastating effect, killing and wounding thousands of French knights who soon got stuck in the quagmire of mud and arrows.

A painting of the Battle fo Agincourt, 15th-century miniature, by Enguerrand de Monstrelet SOURCE: Public Domain

Unfortunately for fans of the longbow, after gunpowder became more and more common on western battlefields, the effectiveness of the archer was reduced massively. At the final battle of The Hundred Years War, the Battle of Castillon (1453) English longbowmen were decimated by French canon and lance wielding units, effectively ending the longbows dominance on the battle field, helping to usher in a new age, the age of the firearm. Gunmen carrying primitive 'hand cannons' coming from Burgundy and other regions, began to dominate European battlefields, taking the place of the English longbowmen as the machine-gun units of the Middle Ages.

15th Century and beyond

One of the best collections of medieval bows we have today is from the wreck of Henry VIII's flag ship the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545, preserving 137 longbows along with thousands of arrows, giving historians and engineers a chance to test some of our theories about medieval archery. Many of the statements made about longbows and how they were used comes from this one source, leaving much of what we 'know' up for discussion and debate, with opinions and supposed facts dividing experts.

A photo of the persevered wreck of the Mary Rose at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, England SOURCE: Wikimedia via user:geni CC-BY-SA 4.0

The longbow continued to be used by English armies well into the 17th century, with the last real recorded use of longbows being as last as the the English Civil War of the 1640's. The role of the bow changed dramatically, from the centrepiece of the army to town guards and messengers but, in 1637 Charles I still saw it fit to reissue the laws stating all men between 16 and 60 should own and train with a bow, showing just how important to the English the war bow was.

Archer and the longbow remains part of English identity as both a historical symbol and an ever popular past time, with many people still taking the time to practice (not just on Sundays) as a way to keep fit and maybe, connect with archers of old.

I hope you enjoyed this and would love to hear what you think, please leave me a comment and follow me on Instagram @chrisriley_ for more medieval history!

As always, thanks for Reading.

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