Dave Barnes on the Longbow April 2015
Whether it is a necessity, being an island race, or some innate skill, there can be no doubt that the British exhibit a certain skill in inventing, developing and producing some fine pieces of weaponry. Many of them, because of their nature are complex, some are arguably quite beautiful and the best of them have proved to be very effective and quite deadly. Their names are well known such as Spitfire, Lee-Enfield, Bren, Harrier, Challenger and each had a major impact on the battlefield on its introduction. This is no less true of perhaps the simplest of weapons; the English Longbow.
While the name would suggest otherwise, it would appear that the longbow actually originated from Wales in the seventh century. In itself the bow was not then a new piece of technology. The oldest bows discovered have been dated back nearly 10,000 years, but by their nature, ancient wooden bows are only found in very specific conditions that prevent the wood from rotting away and the locations in which they are found is more to do with those conditions rather than relating to the origins of archery. More often it is the stone or bone arrow tips that survive and potentially this pushes the use of a bow back over 60,000 years.
However, it was not until the 14th century that the longbow really came into its own in warfare, because it was then that it was used on a massive scale. Under Edward III, the English government, for the first time, supplied armies with longbows and arrows in vast quantities from the central depot in the Tower of London. Massed English archers caused havoc in the battles of the Hundred Years War and the long bow was used by the English to a devastating effect.
The long bow was also effective in naval battles. At the Battle of Sluys in 1340, English archers poured a devastating longbow attack on tightly packed French ships that suffered serious losses. At the land Battle of Poitiers in 1356, the long bow was responsible for the deaths of 2,000 French mounted knights – the elite of the French army.
The scale of manufacturing of bows and arrows is also noteworthy. In 1342 Edward III, in preparing for an invasion of France ordered, 7,000 bows and 3 million arrows. In 1360, Rothwell, the Keeper of the King's Privy Wardrobe at the Tower, had the following "on charge": 4,062 painted bows, 11,303 white bows, 4,000 bow staves and 23,646 sheaves of arrows (a sheave being 24) and every goose in the land was required to ‘give up’ six wing feathers in order to provide the fletchings for the arrows.
In 1346 at the Battle of Crecy, English archers devastated the French who lost 11 princes, 1,200 knights and 30,000 common soldiers. The English lost just 100 men. In this particular battle, 20,000 English soldiers defeated 60,000 French soldiers. This single battle is taken as proof of how just effective the longbow was as a weapon.
So what was the reason for the weapons success?
At over 6ft in length, the longbow was capable of killing a man at over 200 yards. The best bows were made of yew, cut with the heartwood on the inner side. This compressed when the bow was drawn, while the sapwood on the other side stretched. The combination provided immense power. The biggest bows had a draw-weight of up to 150lbs or more, twice that of a modern hunting-bow. The bow needed to be drawn right back to the ear to obtain full power. Historians argue as to whether the longbow developed from an earlier shortbow, which would be drawn to the chest, not the ear. The argument partly hinges on whether there was a qualitative difference between a bow 4ft in length and one 6ft. No contemporary written sources justify any such distinction, and longbows were not an innovation of the 14th century. They were particularly effective against cavalry; horses were maddened and became uncontrollable as arrows found their targets. The gravitational pull as an arrow shot with a high trajectory fell towards its target meant that it remained extremely effective even at long range. Specialised arrowheads were used. A narrow bodkin head could penetrate armour; a broader bladed head was capable of inflicting appalling wounds.
A further advantage of the longbow draw was improved accuracy, especially at closer ranges. With the arrow drawn back to the ear it was possible to sight along the length of the arrow and achieve greater consistency of shot grouping.
A disadvantage was that the larger, longer bow required great physical strength to shoot and archers required years of training and practice to the extent that training became compulsory on Sundays with all other sports being banned on that day. The areas of practice can still be found in the landscape today in their names at least. The target that would be shot as is known as a “Butt” and several English towns have districts called "The Butts", linking back in time to their use.
So what of the longbows rivals? The crossbow was far more powerful but it had the great benefit of a much higher rate of fire. In a minute, a skilled man could shoot half a dozen arrows, while a crossbowman could do little more than discharge a single quarrel and so massed ranks of archers could decimate enemies to their front with an enormous weight of shot.
No English longbows survive from the Middle Ages, but the 16th century wreck of the Mary Rose yielded a large number of bows, 6ft to 7ft long, which are almost certainly little different from those used earlier. Strikingly, one had a knobbly appearance, from the knots in the timber, just like the bows in some 14th century illustrations.
An enactment of Henry I in 1100 stated: ‘If anyone in practising with arrows or darts should by accident slay another, it would not be visited against him as a crime’. Sad news indeed for the families of the Abbot of Lagny, who was accidentally shot in the eye in 1163, and the un-named woman shot by men practising with the bow in 1209.
In the reign of King Stephen, Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, was* shot in the head at Burwell Castle in Cambridgeshire and died a week later. And what was the punishment for the man behind the bow? To be described as a ‘very low-class archer’…shame enough!
But the longbow should not be seen as only a thing of the past and many archers still shoot today. Technologies and materials have improved and while complicated ‘compound’ bows with cams and pulleys exist, ‘recurve’ bows with carbon fibre limbs, counterbalance weights and sights are all used in modern target archery many still use the simple English Longbow. Unchanged over the centuries, a stick of yew wood that steered the course of European history.