English Specialist archers originating in Wales in medieval times
An old Scottish saying dictates that, “Every English archer carries on his belt 24 Scots.” From the thirteenth until the sixteenth century, there was no question why the longbow held the Scots’ respect, as it became the national weapon of the English military. It transformed the English army into one of the most powerful military forces in the medieval world, surpassing even the might of its rival the French and their impetuous knights. In a relatively short period of some 300 years, the long bow conquered Wales and Scotland, and reached the pinnacle of efficiency when it was the deadly weapon of choice employed by Edward III and the Black Prince in their victories over the French during the Hundred Years’ War.
The rise of the longbow begins in the Anglo-Norman invasion of Wales in the twelfth century, where Welsh archers using a unique type of bow exacted huge losses on the invaders. After the successful, but costly, campaign was over, the English were quick to realize the potential of such a devastating weapon. By the end of the century, Welsh archers were already being conscripted in large numbers as a supplementary force within the English army. The army, bolstered by the new mercenaries, proceeded to achieve decisive victories over the Scots and the French. A force that could not be ignored, the English stopped using mercenaries and mandated the creation and practice of the longbow among their non-noble regular troops. Royal decrees were issued concerning days of practice, conditions, even ranges: Henry VIII declared that no archer could practice at a distance under 220 yards, in order to increase his effectiveness.
The accessibility of the longbow among even the poor would prove the deciding factor in a number of battles, the two most significant being the Battle of Crécy and later, the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War in the fourteenth century. Even at home, the English nobility was careful not to push the yeomen too far out of fear of the possible destructive results, as witnessed in the Peasants’ Revolt of the late fourteenth century. The longbow single-handedly gave the peasant class of England a check on the gentry’s power not seen on the mainland of Europe. Cheap and simple enough for even a peasant to own and master, the longbow possessed advantages apparent in its construction. A selfbow, that is, a bow made from one single piece of wood, the longbow involved relatively little labor and could be produced rapidly. Welsh yew was the wood of choice because of its high compressive strength, light weight, and resilience. It is said that at the height of production of longbows during the Hundred Years’ War in the fourteenth century, an expert bowyer could shape a longbow out of a piece of yew in only about two hours. The “D” shape of the bow was the maximum threshold to which the elastic nature of the wood could stretch and still return to its natural straightness after an arrow was loosed. As tall as an average yeoman, the longbow stood anywhere from five to six feet upon its completion, and had a supreme draw weight of between 80 and 90 pounds. Arrows were drawn back to the ear, as opposed to the breast with a normal bow, thus increasing range and striking power. Skeletal remains of archers from this period still bear the obvious signs of wear produced by the repetition of the weight of the drawstring, as shoulder muscles became disproportionately stronger, dramatically reshaping the bones and creating bone spurs in the joints of the arm. Such strength allowed English archers to achieve an average effective range of over 200 yards, an astonishing (and condemned by the French as decidedly unchivalrous) distance.
To protect the bows from moisture and the weather, a mixture of wax, resin, and tallow would be applied to them, and they would be stored in cases made of canvas or wool. Bow strings were made of hemp, fine flax, or even silk. Strings were attached to nocks on the end of the bow made of bone or horn. The typical English longbow arrow was known as the clothyard shaft; from 27 to perhaps even 36 inches in length. It was cheap and easy to mass produce, made from either ash or birch. It is estimated that greater numbers of long bow shafts were produced than any other type of arrow in history.
Though longbows were accurate and could shoot the farthest of any bow in the Middle Ages, they could not usually do both effectively at the same time. Reports indicate that diminishing returns on targets kicked in when the target was about 80 yards away. However, when taking into account the fact that an expert archer could shoot up to 10-12 arrows per minute, a group of archers could create a virtual storm of arrows and still hit something (it is difficult to miss an army). With the development of arrows with massive bod kin points (a point with an elongated pyramid shape and a sharpened point), even plate armor could be pierced with a direct impact. No longer was it the rule that infantry could not stand up to a heavily armored cavalry unit. In order to increase the reload speed, archers would stick these bodkin tips point down into the ground in front of them; another more grisly result of this practice was to increase the chance of infection in the victim’s wounds. The only way to remove such an arrow cleanly would be to tie a piece of cloth, soaked in boiling water or another sterilizing substance, to the end of it and push it through the victim’s wound and out the other side. If bone was hit or broken, only specialist tools could extract the points in order to minimize the risk that the marrow would seep into the bloodstream.
Commanders developed their tactics to fully utilize the chaos the longbow could create. Starting in a line in front of the main body of the English army, a group of longbow men would shoot an opening skirmish volley, disrupting the enemy and forcing them to advance before they were ready. The main body of archers usually would take up positions on both flanks of the battle line in enfilade positions, then proceed to loose successive volleys at the closing enemy army. The ability of the English to take a defensive posture and force the enemy to expend their energy and much of their manpower just crossing the field of battle became their favorite and most effective tactic for three centuries. At the battle of Crécy, almost a third of the French nobility (fighting as mounted knights) were destroyed by infantry equipped with longbows before even coming into contact with the main body of the English army. The French force of some 30,000 men was decisively defeated by a relatively immobile army of 12,000 English consisting of little cavalry. During the 400- year period when it was employed widely, the longbow rewrote the rules of engagement, and crippled the utility of once dominant cavalry forces. As a result, English longbow units were sought-after mercenaries in European conflicts, fighting at various times with the Swiss, the Teutonic Knights, the Portuguese, and with the famous mercenary White Company of Sir John Hawkwood in Italy.
Longbows continued in effective use until about the sixteenth century, when the development and weaponization of gun powder became more common, and units such as arquebusers, musketeers, and grenadiers began appearing. Even though the longbow had faded out of military use by the seventeenth century, it left an indelible mark on English society. For four centuries, the peasant class had a weapon of their own, and stories like the legend of Robin Hood grew out of this consciousness and empowerment. The longbow allowed for the blossoming of English military power and the development of its place as a dominant world entity.
References: Hardy, Robert, Longbow (Cambridge: Patrick Stevens, 1976); Kaiser, Robert E., The Medieval English Longbow, Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 23, 1980; Norman, A. V. B. and Don Pottinger, English Weapons & Warfare (449-1660) (New York: Prentice Hall, 1982).