A medieval illustration of longbowmen in battle from Froissart’s Chronicle.
BY TOM CROPPER
The English Longbow was one of the defining weapons of the middle ages. It helped England challenge the might of the French and enabled ordinary peasants to defeat wealthy knights.
The longbow is generally considered to be an invention of the middle ages, but in truth it has been around since the Stone Age. It was the Welsh, however, who perfected the art, using it to great effect. The first documented occasion of a long bow being used in battle was in 633 in a battle between the Welsh and the Mercians.
It also impressed Edward I during his campaigns against the Welsh. It is said that he incorporated Welsh conscript archers in his later battles in Scotland. He even banned all sports on a Sunday except archery so his archers could hone their skills.
How the Longbow Was Made
The genius of the longbow was its simplicity. It was a length of wood – normally willow or Yew – about the height of a man. Each one was tailor made to its owner and could produce enough power to pierce even the toughest armour of the time.
Using a longbow was not easy. Each bow was heavy and required considerable strength to use. The skeletons of medieval archers appear noticeably deformed with enlarged left arms and often bone spurs on the wrists. Using one effectively was another matter altogether. The weapon had to be used quickly and accurately with the best archers managing a firing rate of one ever five seconds, which in turn gave them a crucial advantage over the crossbows, which not only took longer to fire, but also had a shorter range.
A 15th century miniature showing longbowmen from the Battle of Agincourt 25 October 1415.
Success in War
It was in the Hundred Years War that the longbow came into its own. At the battle of Crecy, English archers were instrumental in defeating a much larger and better equipped French force. At the time warfare had been dominated by the power of the knight, clad in expensive armour and riding an even more expensive war horse. Battles were fought on the principles of chivalry with captured knights being treated with all due respect and returned on receipt of a ransom.
At Crecy Edward III changed the rules. In one battle the flower of French chivalry was cut down in its prime. Two thousand French knights and soldiers were killed by the English arrows, while only around 50 archers were killed. It sent shock waves throughout France. Not only was there the disaster of the defeat to be accounted for, but also the shocking fact that highly trained knights had been killed by low born archers.
English archers would continue to be influential in later battles in The 100 Years War, particularly in Agincourt where English bowmen again defeated a much better equipped army of French knights.
Over time the longbow was replaced by gunpowder, but it continues to hold a special place in English psyche. It was even deployed during World War II, when an English soldier used one to bring down a German infantryman. That was the last time it’s been known to have been used in war, but it continues to be used in sport and by archers trained in the medieval skill.
The longbow continues to be used for sport and exhibitions to this day.