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The English Longbow

by Christopher Agius

The might of the English longbow has long since transformed this medieval weapon in to a nationally adopted weapon possessing mythical prowess. Many consider it as the machine gun of the Middle Ages, a flight of its arrows was likened to a lethal storm that maimed , killed and demoralised everyone in its murderous path. Without any doubt in mind it has been the main element that enabled England to become the superpower of the medieval world, usurping the title by sheer brutal force from France.

The Origins of the English Longbow

For centuries before the appearance of this incredible weapon on the battlefield, armies depended on heavily armoured cavalry to win the day. Its role was to demoralise, run down by the sheer force of the charge and finally to pursue and strike down the panic stricken fugitives of their fearsome attack. However, during the 14th century all this was going to change. At the battle of Crecy in 1346 during the Hundred Years War , an outnumbered English host composed chiefly of archers armed with the longbow put an end to the knight's arrogant sense of invincibility and supremacy.

The English became acquainted with the longbow in the 13th century while campaigning in Wales. The Welsh took a heavy toll on the invaders by using this extraordinary weapon of war. On their part the English were quick to realise the impact that the longbow could produce on the battlefield. As soon as the Welsh campaign was successfully over, Welsh conscripts began to be incorporated in to the English army, whilst also training their own archers. The lessons the English learned by hard experience in Wales were going to be put in practise with deadly effect on their enemies on the battlefield of France ad Scotland in the coming years.

The Longbow

The longbow was renowned for being a hard hitting weapons, with stories being told of Welsh longbow men penetrating a four inch solid oak door with their arrows at the siege of Abergavenny Castle during the Welsh campaign. The longbow was a cheap weapon to produce and one that could be easily constructed and maintained by the common subjects. The weapon varied in length according to the height of its user and since the average height of Medieval yeoman was around five feet two inches, the longbow rarely exceeded the length of six feet.

The longbow was made by hand from the English yew. Staves were cut only in Winter, when the sap was down. Skilful cutting and shaping of the stave in a D-section left a layer of sapwood left along the flattened back of the bow. The heartwood of yew is able to withstand compression and its sapwood is elastic by nature, and both tend to return to their original straightness when the bow is loosened. The edges were notched in order to take the string made of hemp or silk. There is no rest for the arrow on the bow ; it rests simply on the index finger of the archer himself. The best material for the longbow came from yew trees in the mountainous regions of Italy and Spain. This was due to the poor terrain that the trees grew in. This fact made the wood of these trees lighter due to a lesser amount of grain found in the staves. So important was this consideration that it was ordered that with every shipment of imported wine from Southern France there must be a consignment of yew staves.

The archers used a mixture of fine tallow, resin and wax to protect the bow from the elements, especially during damp weather. Also it was not unusual for a bow to be carried in an appropriate bow case to safeguard it more effectively from wet atmospheric conditions. Special care was taken in the protections of the string, since a broken string was a major shortcoming on the battlefield that could effectively put the weapon out of action..

In battle the arrows were either carried in an arrow bag or a belt quiver. In the absence of this, it was common practise to simply stuff a sheaf of arrows through the belt. The back quiver that one so often see in swashbuckling films featuring the 'prince of thieves' Robin Hood , was never adopted for use in combat .

Training with the Longbow

Naturally to achieve a high degree of precision and professionalism with a weapon such as the longbow requires a great deal of practise. Therefore it is though wonder that a great emphasis on training began form the tender age of seven. Further more to achieve a high degree of proficiency various laws were passed concerning the compulsory ownership of longbows for citizens in certain 'wage bands'. It was also mandatory to practise with the bow on Sundays after church. To this end churches were ordered to maintain butts in order to help foster the accomplished use of the longbow by constant practise . Regulations were also applied in these medieval shooting ranges. They mostly concerned the distance one must shoot from. Yearly, tournaments for archers were also organised and the most successful were immediately pressed in to service with the army.

One must bear in mind that in those days professional soldiers were few and far between and that these laws were intended for the common citizen who in time of was would be required for military service. So no wonder that the authorities constantly highlighted the important of rigorous training with the longbow. This fact is clearly demonstrated by anecdotal evidence from the time which stated that a man who could not draw and discharge 12 well aimed arrows in a minute aiming at a target 240 yards away was lightly esteemed, even if he only missed once. Such a degree of skill now seems incredible.

In Battle

Stories of the might and hard hitting power of the English Longbow an incredible dexterity of the English archers are abundant. There are stories of knights being literally pinned to their saddles. One account recalls an episode where a knight was pinned to his horse by an arrow that passed through both his armoured clad thighs, with the horse and saddle in between. Arrows fired from a longbow could easily do this, at 400 yards it could severely wound, kill at 200 yards and penetrate armour at100 yards.

The true potential in battle of the longbow was finally unleashed with deadly effect on an unsuspecting enemy during the Hundred years war. At the battle of Crecy in 1346, an English army which was mainly composed of English and Welsh bowmen under King Edward III inflicted a terrible defeat on a French host that greatly outnumbered them. The consequences of this military debut was that it elevated England to the rank of being a major power and elevated the role of the foot soldier above the knights.

The lessons of Crecy were forgotten by the French it seems : At the battle of Agincourt in 1415 their forces suffered a further crushing defeat due to the English use of the longbow. Again a small but proficient English army inflicted a drastically high casualty rate on a French army that greatly outnumbered them, to the extent that there was hardly a French noble family that did not suffer a death , and countless French family lines were brought to an end due to the death of all their male relations.

The Decline of the Longbow

Many historians argue that the importance of the longbow on the battlefield has been discarded too soon. Naturally with the introduction of firearms the decline of the longbow seemed inevitable, but one must also contemplate that early firearms had more disadvantages than benefits when compared to the longbow, especially when climatic conditions are taken in to consideration. Furthermore even if favourable conditions in which to use an early firearm prevailed, several arrows could well hit a harquebusier before he could even discharge a single shot ; even if he emerged unscathed enough to fire, his bullet might miss its target or do no real harm to an opponent.

However once the longbow had fallen from favour, it was not to be re-introduced. Unlike firearms it needed a great deal more practice and dedication in order to enable a man to achieve a high degree of effectiveness without the use of sights and other aiming devices. There is also a key human factor in the tipping of the scales against the use of the bow, the desire of common soldiers not to be left behind in the march of progress.

Editors note : following Christopher's article , it is worth pondering that the success of England as a military power developed because of the relative ability to make use of changing practices in war, in this case by adapting to the use of the Longbow. French forces were still locked in to the emphasis being placed on armed knights on horseback and perhaps the romance of chivalry and so seemed to be less versatile. At Agincourt the placing of sharpened stakes by English soldiers at the height of a horse's belly worked against the charging French cavalry. Moreover the fact that armour became so heavy in bid to be a defence against arrows was deadly from the French perspective, many of their knights and horses died by being crushed and suffocated, sinking in the mud of the battlefield, unable to escape from the press . The longbow also seemed to have advantages over the crossbow, with arrows being able to be despatched at a quicker rate by skilled archers. At the battle of Crecy a posse of Genoese crossbowmen hired to fight on the French side performed so badly that the French charged them according to Froissart's Chronicles.