The English Longbow of Legend
“With no sign of fear, he stepped to his place and this time, it was noted, he took more careful aim. The great arrow hummed from the string and struck with a thud, and again the crowd roared applause, for this shot had split Henry’s arrow and landed in the centre of the black.” The Longbow of Robin Hood.
This excerpt is from a 1930s retelling of the legends of none other than that famed longbowman, Robin Hood. For who else instantly comes to mind when we think of the Longbow? It is no coincidence that fact or fiction, this medieval superhero should have extraordinary skills with a Longbow. For this was destined to become the most popular weapon in Medieval England.
- The First True Longbow
- Practice Makes Perfect
- How Were Longbows Made?
- Armour Piercing Arrows?
- Deadly and Effective
- The Longbow in Battle
- Battle of Shrewsbury
- The Longbow Goes to France
The First True Longbow
The first documented use of the Longbow as we know it was in Wales around the late 1100s. This was during a battle between the English and Welsh armies. That is not to say that it wasn’t in use long before this either for hunting, in localised battles fought across borders or against the Norman invaders who had targeted Wales in a series of attacks.
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It took years of practice to become a truly effective archer. The training being actively encouraged from the age of 8 years old. Master bowmen were highly prized and to this end King Edward III made practicing archery compulsory on Sundays after church and on Feast days.
Every village was required to have its own archery range where the villagers could practice. These villages located around the English borders produced a good supply of experienced archers used to dealing with the frequent skirmishes with the Scottish and Welsh.
Practice Makes Perfect
Such training from a young age took a physical toll on the archer. As an archer myself, pulling a far lighter draw weight bow than supposedly would have been used in a medieval battle, it is possible to see differences between the muscle development on my right and left side.
The same, more extreme deformities were found on the skeletons recovered from the Mary Rose shipwreck. With these archers showing signs of significant over development on one side of their bodies, twisted spines and bones in the wrist.
That is not to say these men were all hobbling around but rather had adapted gradually after years of practice. It is also often suggested that bow draw weights were between 80 to 130lb.
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I would venture to suggest that the eventual draw weight was down to the preference of the archer themselves.
Certainly, with a lot of practice and a focus on technique, an archer would be capable of drawing a far stronger bow with relative accuracy which would achieve the success over great distances we hear reported.
How Were Longbows Made?
The earlier Welsh longbow was of a shorter, rougher construction and made of Elm wood. It was highly effective over a relatively short range for a projectile weapon. After realising the value of this bow as a weapon the English later developed their own version which was much taller. This was capable of shooting over a greater distance.
Longbows were produced by Bowyers and the English Longbow was traditionally made from the wood of the yew tree which was both lightweight and strong. A bowyer would first cut the yew into thin sections called bowstaves.
The bowstaves were then stored for a period of time to ‘season’ them. The bowyer would then shape the staves into a slender bow, standing taller than the height of their owner. These had varying draw weights to suit the archers personal preference and ability.
Armour Piercing Arrows?
The arrows, fletched most commonly with goose feathers to help them fly straight, featured iron or steel arrowheads. These were produced by blacksmiths. Arrowheads were formed of different shapes for different uses. They can loosely be split into two groups: the barbed head and the non-barbed.
A barbed broadhead arrowhead was developed largely for hunting, the size varying depending on the size of the intended quarry. On finding its target in a large game animal, the arrow would hold fast. Though the animal may bolt, rushing off through the undergrowth.
The wound would become ever larger as the arrow shaft snagged on bushes and brambles. This caused the animal to bleed out quickly.
Broadheads also appeared on the battlefield where they were used specifically for targeting horses. A deadly hail of arrows killed men and horses alike. Without their horses, heavily armoured knights became easy prey for lightly armoured foot soldiers.
Deadly and Effective
The longbow played a key role in the decline of the armoured, mounted knight in the 15th century.
In the smoke and chaos of the medieval battlefield, the likelihood of an archer standing still, carefully taking aim with his incredibly powerful war bow, looking for the soft, unprotected parts of an armoured knight is very slim.
Archers were often clout shooting arrows at a impressive rate of 10 – 16 per minute over a great distance. It was essential that if and when an arrow found it’s target some 300 yards away that it would be effective.
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Of the non-barbed type the bodkin, shaped into a long narrow point was specifically designed for use in battle. This was capable of punching through plate armour and into flesh.
With effective developments in arrow technology such as this, it wasn’t long before English battles in France were won by an effective force of archers. This was seen at Crecy in 1346, Poitiers in 1356 and later at Agincourt in 1415.
The Longbow in Battle
Next to Robin Hood the other event almost synonymous with the Longbow is the success of the English archers at the Battle of Agincourt. A high point for the English in the hundred years war. France has been a long-time enemy of England with the rights to the French throne usually at the heart of the dispute.
But why is a battle fought in a field outside the French village of Agincourt so significant in the story of the English Longbow? And why was the English army there in the first place?
During the final years of the English King, Henry IV’s reign there were significant rifts within the English court. The control of the government had been gradually passed to his son, also named Henry (confusingly!). The ailing king resisted any suggestion that he should abdicate.
After his eventual death, his son, Henry V came to the throne in 1413. He began his reign by declaring a general pardon for his enemies and by reviving Edward III’s old claim to the throne of France.
Battle of Shrewsbury
Meanwhile, across The Channel, the French throne was occupied by Charles VI, who had been suffering from fits of madness for the past 20 years. Henry recognised that the infighting between the French nobility would leave the claim to the throne vulnerable.
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The French King was by now facing regular bouts of insanity incapacitating him for months at a time. On some occasions he didn’t recognise his own wife. On others he believed he was made of glass or refused to clean himself.
The new English King Henry decided to ally himself with the Burgundians. This action and the prospect of a war with France did much to unite the warring factions in England with Henry saying to his ailing father, “By your sword you won your crown, and by my sword I will keep it.”
He was perhaps referring to the 1403 Battle of Shrewsbury fought between his Lancastrian father King Henry IV and his opponent Henry Percy. (You may well be right if you are thinking that the name Henry was topping the baby name charts at the time!)
A Barrage of Arrows
This was the first battle in which English longbowmen came up against each other. The King opened the battle with a massive barrage of arrows and wounded many among Percy’s forces before they could even reach the battlefield.
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The future King Henry V, then Prince of Wales was just 16 when he joined forces with his father on the battlefield. It was during this battle that the young prince sustained a dreadful arrow wound to the face. He would most certainly have been killed were it not for the expert ministrations of the Royal Physician, John Bradmore.
Bradmore used a combination of honey (understanding its antiseptic properties) and alcohol to clean the wound. This before removing the bodkin arrowhead with a newly invented tool designed to screw into the embedded part of arrow shaft protruding from Henry’s face resulting in a clean extraction.
Henry would sustain a terrible battle wound. However the scar would have enhanced his reputation as an experienced warrior among his peers.
After the battle of Shrewsbury, the King won the day and the Longbow was reaffirmed as the most effective of Medieval weapons.
The Longbow Goes to France
But back to France! In 1415, two years after being crowned King, Henry V’s military campaign in France began by capturing the port town of Harfleur. This town sat at the mouth of the river Seine. However, this victory cost his army dearly leaving him with well under ten thousand men. The vast majority of whom were archers.
He could not continue with his plans to launch an attack on Paris. And so he began to march East to Calais hoping to return home to regroup. However, the English soon found their way barred by a French army more than three times as strong.
Attempts to negotiate a clear road to safety failed. Henry, trapped between the French villages of Tramecourt and Agincourt, resolved on battle.
However bleak the outlook, the day was not yet lost. Henry’s longbows would soon be gifted an opportunity to prove their effectiveness in battle once again. The French made the fatal mistake of choosing a narrow battleground flanked by woodland. This left them no room for manoeuvre.
As they began their advance, the French men at arms and noblemen on horseback found themselves squeezed into the narrow gap. However the depleted English forces fitted in perfectly.
To make matters worse for the 12,000-man-strong French army, heavy rainfall had waterlogged the ground and the weight of thousands of men and horses had turned the ground to mud.
Perhaps the French commander hoped that their vast numbers would scare the English into surrender. Henry, ever the strategist, saw the mistake that had been made and wanted to capitalise on his advantage.
He marched his army forward until he had the French forces in range. He then gave the order for his archers to loose their arrows which showered down on the entrenched French.
Knights, thrown from horses and rendered useless by their heavy armour were left playing a literal game of stuck in the mud!
The battle was over within three hours. It has been suggested (possibly by English sources!) that there were over ten thousand French dead and two thousand captured. Compared to mere hundreds of English.
Henry returned to England a victorious hero. Wearing his bejewelled crown over his helmet he had led his troops into battle at the most unfavourable odds and won spectacularly.
Henry himself would meet an untimely death a mere 7 years later, not of a battle wound as his reputation would suggest but of dysentery whilst on campaign. A common illness among many armies of the day.
The bow itself has featured as a weapon in war centuries prior to the English reincarnation spoken of here. However, it was not until the 14th century with the development of the English longbow refined from its earlier Welsh ancestry, that it became the dominant weapon on the battlefields of Europe. It had proved itself deadly time and time again in the hands of highly skilled Welsh and English Bowmen and had entered the history books as an iconic weapon .