Alan Patrick - 2015

The Longbowmen of England

Crecy, Poitiers, Agincourt – the names roll off the tongue even 600 years later. The feat of English arms at its finest. Sturdy Englishmen yeomen with hearts of oak and bows of yew destroyed the flower of French chivalry despite all their armour, horses and noble lineage. Of these battles, Agincourt was immortalised by England’s greatest bard. In his play Henry V, Shakespeare paints the king coming into his heroic adulthood with the stirring speech to his outnumbered troops:

But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

The theme of this year’s Salute is Agincourt, (fought in 1415, 600 years ago), and this article looks at the evolution of the English longbowman, the iconic figure (and Salute model) who dominated Europe’s battlefields for several generations


On 25 October 1415, St Crispin’s Day, an outnumbered, tired, cold and hungry English army had been outmanoeuvred and now needed to get past the French blocking their route to get back to Calais and home. The English decided to give battle in a narrow defile between Agincourt and Tramecourt woods, so the larger French army could not get around their flanks. Henry V arranged c 1,500 men at arms in the centre, and c 3,500 archers on each flank of his force.  The French had c 10,000 men at arms (about 1500 mounted) and about the same number of archers, crossbowmen and other lighter troops. The French were in no hurry, the longer the English were bottled up the better. This forced the English hand, and they advanced until the French were within effective range of their longbows, and let fly. The effect of the shooting forced the French hand, and they sent their cavalry against the archers who shot them to ribbons, as they had at Crecy and Poitiers. The French then sent men at arms on foot in plate armour, trudging across newly ploughed and rain soaked fields (now churned up by horses too), packed so tightly together that it was like shooting fish in a barrel. Often those falling brought others tripping on top of them, killing more in the crush. When the exhausted French men at arms finally reached the English line they did start to push them back, some even getting to the baggage train, but then the English archers charged in from the flanks, boxing the French into so tight a mass that many could hardly use their weapons and they were slaughtered en masse,  and many prisoners were taken.

So many prisoners in fact, that when the French looked like they were regrouping for another assault, the English were so concerned that they wouldn’t have enough men to watch the huge mass of prisoners and fight the French, that they killed all the non noble (i.e. unransomeable) Frenchmen.  This apparently had the effect of demoralising the French army who then retired, although it may well have been more that the surviving French prisoners, important nobles all, rather preferred ransom to potential death if the English were put under too much pressure and killed them too.  Whatever the reason, the French retreated and the English got to Calais in time to catch their ships home.  

English losses were of the order of 500 men whereas French at least 4000 killed, but the real impact was that so many of the French military commanders were now either dead or prisoners, the French King’s court and army was unable to function for a good few years.

But who exactly were these few, these happy few who there on St Crispin’s day became Harry’s blood brothers and took apart a French army twice their size in a few hours.

Some were noble Men at Arms, but the majority were commoners, mainly archers, armed with their longbows. Being non nobles no-one really bothered with recording their names or lineages – the French only mention them because of the damage they did. In fact the reason King Harry promised he would  shed his blood with them was a promise he would stay with them if things turned bad - they all knew that if the French won the archers would all be killed as a matter of course (much as the English had done to the French lesser prisoners) whereas Harry and the English Men at Arms would probably be ransomed off.

Adoption of the Longbow by the English

There is some dispute as to how and when the Longbow came about, and then came to be used by the English. The standard narrative is that the Welsh developed the longbow to use against the Anglo-Norman forces from the 12th century onwards. As Anglo Norman knights’ weight of armour increased, the Welsh developed ever more powerful bows. After Wales was pacified from 1277 - 1283 Edward I used Welsh archers in his armies against the Scots, to great effect. Then, to ensure a larger (and more reliable) supply of longbowmen he mandated that any Englishmen from age 15 - 60 throughout the land who could afford it must own a bow and practice with it once a week after church.

Such is the narrative. However it’s only by the reign of Edward III that the mass volley usage of the longbow in English armies is definitely recorded. By the end of his reign, all Englishmen not only had to shoot every Sunday, but handball and football were banned on that day. Edward III's reign was of course dominated by the start of the Hundred Years War, creating a high demand for experienced archers. It was Edward’s forces that fought at Crecy and Poitiers, where the English longbowman’s reputation was forged forevermore.  

I emphasize Longbowman because wargamers and military buffs often get carried away by the longbow itself, attributing it with almost mystical qualities. But the longbow itself is a fairly simple weapon. It was the sophisticated system of training, tactics and tiers of support that that made the longbowman so effective. Just shooting the weapon was pretty useless

For a start it required the correct tactics – the Welsh used it as a skirmish weapon from cover, not en masse on a battlefield as the English learned to, and the evolution of tactics to allow it to be used in open battle as a mass volley weapon without being overrun was critical to its success.  

But just being able to use it en masse wasn’t enough either - the French tried to set up their own longbow armed units in imitation of the English, but they were never very effective. It wasn’t enough to have the weapon, nor even to know how to use it en masse. The issue was that to use it at range, with enough power to go through heavy armour, and do so at rapid fire required having  the muscles and technique to be able to both draw it, and more critically, to keep shooting it quickly over several hours. This took several years of continual working with the weapon.

The Longbow

This was because of the enormous draw force of the longbow. As noted above, unlike the contemporary Asiatic composite bow or Italian crossbow, the longbow itself was not a particularly sophisticated piece of technology. Yes, the bow made use the properties of yew wood as much as possible to optimise its structure - the heartwood, good in compression, was used at the rear whereas the sapwood, better in tension, was on the face. The English had also learned of composite bows in the Crusades and so the ends of the medieval English longbow were recurved to eke out the last bit of energy on release. They used the best wood, cured for a few years to ensure the bows lasted for as long as possible outdoors. Such was the demand that English sources were soon denuded and increasingly yew was imported from throughout Southern Europe (thus most bow manufacturing took place at southern English ports.)

The main reason the bow was so effective was simply that it was very powerful for a simple bow. And this was because it was not just long - typically  6 – 7 feet in length – but thick, about an inch thick in the centre, to give it enough wood volume to store far more energy than a normal bow. This   which then be used to impart a massive driving force into the arrow, giving it both a range and an impact velocity surpassing contemporary crossbows.

These big longbows needed  a draw of about 120 – 150 pounds, to  drive a thick, heavy 3 foot arrow (called a “bodkin”) at up to about 150 mph impact velocity to pierce plate armour (you can build more powerful bows with draws approaching 200 pounds but even the strongest men are soon exhausted by them in a battle situation). Compare this that to c 50 - 70 pound draws on a modern competition bow.

The Longbowman

In effect the longbow substitutes sophistication with brute power, and that forces the user to develop the strength to use it. To use this sort of power, you can’t shoot a longbow like you do a bow today. The longbowman did not keep his left hand steady, and draw his bow with his right hand but pressed the whole weight of his body into the horns of his bow.  To use a longbow you pull with the large Latissimus Dorsi shoulder/back muscle group (not the Rear Deltoid muscles the modern method uses) while squatting down a bit for balance. These muscles are second in size only to the leg quadriceps muscles in the legs. They are the same muscles you use to do a chin-up, so effectively you are doing a one handed chin-up into the bow and this allows the archer to put a large amount of energy – the draw - into the bow.

Repeated practice over the years also changes the body’s muscles and body to make this task easier and – more critically - sustainable over several hours of shooting in a battle. Skeletons of longbow archers are recognisably different, with enlarged left arms and often bone spurs on left wrists, left shoulders and right fingers.

Of course, range and accuracy also improves with years of practice. What also gets better with practice is the rate of fire and this is where the longbow won out over the roughly equally powerful crossbow in action. While the crossbow was a more complex weapon it took far less time and strength to learn to use so it was easier to train crossbowmen. But in experienced hands a longbow was shooting an arrow every few seconds, which crossbows could not match. Some researchers believe the French faced volleys of 1,000 arrows a *second* at Agincourt. That would have been a short spell of mass shooting at critical times of course, but that weight of armour piercing incoming fire would produce considerable “shock and awe”, not to mention a lot of serious wounds.

But to do get this rate of fire, at a reasonable accuracy, and be useful over the time of an entire battle doesn’t happen without a lot of preparation. The English needed many men, with years of training, to step forward for Harry and England on that St Crispin’s day.  This required a national programme in an era of very limited large scale organisational capability. That the edicts for every Englishman between 15 and 60 to shoot every Sunday and diversionary sports like football banned lest archery practice was compromised could even be carried out was a significant achievement. In addition every town had to have its practice area – the butts ('The Butts' still endures in many English towns as a street name or name of an open area, shopping mall etc.).  The medieval English Sunday was an essential part of the English war machine.

Furthermore archery was elevated into a relatively high status and lucrative profession for Joseph Averageman in Medieval England. At 4d a day for a foot archer or 6d a day for an archer with a horse (good wages for commoners in those days), plus keeping any loot on campaign, being an archer could be fairly life changing – if you survived a campaign and got home with your loot you were a relatively rich man. For the average peasant a way out of a future of mucking out pigs and mending wattle and daub was to get handy with a bow.

Also, the huge reliance on this weapon created a skilled supply chain of bowmakers (bowyers), stringers, arrowsmiths, blacksmiths, fletchers and the like keeping the longbowmen supplied with the weapon and the huge numbers of arrows they shot.

Herces, Stakes and Swordplay

But even a large number of well trained and motivated men able to shoot en masse with longbows is not enough to guarantee success. Plate armoured knights were only really vulnerable in the last 30 yards of their charge, and even at top rate of fire this was not enough time to knock down a galloping wall of angry tin cans. To this end archers carried sharpened stakes which they would place in the ground in front of them. Stakes acted like a wall of pikes, horses would slow down and mill around, not wanting  to cross the stakes, and this provided the archers with the ideal target – slow moving and close up horsemen, which they could easily despatch with those armour piercing bows. Not using stakes was very risky, as the English found at Bannockburn, where even light horse easily rolled the archers over.

Trained, fast moving infantry was a different problem. While you could mow down slow, untrained   infantry formations like Wallace’s Scots, faster moving men at arms or trained pike were a different proposition. The English at Agincourt made sure the French had a lot of mud to slog through first, where this was not possible the archers were interspersed with pikes to create the Herce (Old French word for hedgehog) formation and protected by English men at arms and polemen.  Finally if they did have to fight they were each equipped with a falchion (single edged broad sword) or small battle axe, both big enough weapons to hurt all but the most armoured knights. But this would be desperate owing to armour disparities, far better to use their mobility run away.

As to armour, the average English longbowman would have started off poor and thus poorly armoured , but a decent victorious skirmish would have yielded a bonanza of armour to take and use, so as time went by they became increasingly heavily armoured.

Two fingers to you, M’Lord

Thus the process of creating that longbowman at Agincourt was far more critical than the longbow itself, and started years before and miles away from the battlefield. The weapon in and of itself was at best a big bow without the training, tactics and tiers of support for the troops that used it

It was also a social revolution. A commonly repeated legend claims that the two-fingered salute or V sign derives from a gesture made by the English longbowmen at Agincourt. Allegedly the French were in the habit of cutting off the arrow-shooting fingers of captured English and Welsh longbowmen, and the gesture was a sign of defiance on the part of the bowmen, showing the enemy that they still had their fingers and could shoot.

This story is probably false, but within it is the seeds of a bigger story – this lack of respect for one’s social betters was due to the huge reliance of the English war machine on these commoners, and the resulting elevation of their status above “downtrodden medieval peasant”. From the time that the yeoman class of England became proficient with the longbow, the nobility in England had to be careful not to push them into open rebellion.  That Robin Hood exists, albeit in song, and is an archer is no fluke.  Some argue this re-set the English relationship between King and Commoner to a more equal level than in Europe, and thus set England on her path to Glorious Empire.  At the very least, the longbowman represented a cataclysmic shock to European hereditary nobility.  Along with the crossbow and pike it allowed poor commoners of Europe to take on the nobility and changed the power balance forever, starting the process that eventually brought about the end of the Medieval era and the start of the Modern period.

That process was completed by gunpowder, which rendered M’Lord’s armour and castle obsolete. This weapon that was just entering service at Agincourt. Thus, at the finest hour of the English longbowman, his successor was already there with the crude new-fangled handguns used by some French troops. But even so the longbowman soldiered on, his last recorded appearance was in 1642 in the English Civil War, where a Royalist militia company shot up Parliamentary musketeers.

Longbows, picture c 1493 – the recurve, colour difference between heartwood and sapwood, length of draw  and size of the bow is clearly visible

Alan Patrick

© South London Warlords 2019 All Rights Reserved all 3rd party trademarks acknowledged.