What Drove the Rise of the English Longbowman?

The answer to this question can be found in the stories of the various ways people used bows and arrows in the times between the Norman Conquest and the Black Death. Sometimes their activities are lost to history because of the lack of records, at other times the royal administration may have discouraged popular archery either deliberately or by neglect. But an English tradition of popular archery existed throughout the period.

Much has been made of the Anglo-Norman experience of archery in their wars against the Welsh and its influence on the development of military archery in England. The Norman kings and Marcher Lords gained control of large parts of Southern Wales through conquest and alliance by the middle of the twelfth century. Then they used the archery skills of their new tenants and allies in their assault on Ireland. Part of the reason why the Southern Welsh archery skills have been emphasised is because of the graphic accounts of its effectiveness left us by Giraldus Cambrensis. Meanwhile there is evidence of archery skills developing in the English border counties, or more likely being discovered and exploited by the Anglo Norman rulers. But as accounts of military archery in Stephen’s reign make clear, there was an active English archery tradition at the same time as the Welsh archers were impinging on the Anglo Normans. But it is probable that the Welsh contribution to the development of military archery was to demonstrate the effectiveness of more powerful bows than were commonly used in the contemporary English tradition. At the same time, the Battle of the Standard strongly suggests that there was a tradition of archery in Northern England, probably encouraged by two centuries of Norse influence, and more centuries of warfare with the Scots. While the Norsemen did not make extensive use of military archery, they understood the value of archery. Their tradition of archery may well have concentrated more on longbow use, since there are tenth-century finds of longbows from Hedeby in Norway and Ballinderry in Ireland.

After King John lost the wealthiest parts of his cross-Channel kingdom to Philip Augustus of France military tactics in England developed surprisingly slowly. Despite the rapid expansion of both the types of weapons and the social classes included in the Assizes of Arms under Henry III it took until the end of the thirteenth century for the beginnings of the English tactical system became apparent. Edward I tended to use archers in the same way that William I and Stephen had: to provide general harassing or covering fire and to weaken bodies of stalwart infantry until the mailed horsemen could destroy them. That is men that might turn a battle their way rather than win it outright. The battles of the Standard in 1138 and Boroughbridge in 1322 are much more significant stages in the development of military practice in England. In both these battles, the small numbers of knights present dismounted to stiffen the infantry line while relatively large numbers of archers were placed in and around the front line to rebuff the oncoming enemy with arrow shot. But, for as long as the Norman and Plantagenet kings kept their focus mainly on Continental European matters, military practice continued to follow the Continental tradition with knights and mailed horsemen being the masters of the battlefield. As a result, the lessons of the Battle of the Standard were largely forgotten until the thirteenth century when a solution had to be found to a major military problem. England was no longer able to raise the numbers of mailed horsemen necessary to match those that could be raised in France and the German states.

The thirteenth century was the key period for the development of popular archery in England. Henry III and Edward I progressively extended the reach of the Assizes of Arms to include men from more social groups. Between 1230 and 1285 the duty of arms ownership for peacekeeping and military service was extended to include both free and serfs, so that by 1285 no healthy non noble layman aged between 16 and 60 was specifically excluded. Significantly, the most numerous groups were those that were expected to have bows and arrows. This was the time when the major official recognition and encouragement of archery happened; and by doing so it marked the recognition that an English tradition of popular archery existed. Edward III’s 1363 proclamation requiring archery practice only had force because the bow had been established as the legally required weapon of a majority of the population in the previous century. But a century earlier Henry III’s advisers must have discerned some level of interest in archery among the population of England when they added bows and arrows to the weapon types required by the Assizes of Arms. The reach and influence of the medieval kings of England was not sufficiently powerful that they could make men take up weapons that they had no interest in. This became apparent in the second half of the thirteenth century when Edward I was disappointed by the number and quality of knights coming forward in answer to his summons. While in part this had an economic cause, knightly arms were not cheap, there was also an element of weariness and resentment with Edward’s demands since he was at war so often. But it shows very clearly that it was difficult to force men to take up arms if they felt it was against their interests.

The main reason Henry III expanded the scope of the Assizes of Arms was the need to increase the pool of competent men available to recruit English armies from. With the loss of many of the his European lands, and resulting loss of both revenue and manpower, Henry and his advisers were left in a weak position in comparison with the king of France. So they had to look more closely at the potential military resources available in England. This led them to begin to include the English tradition of archery and so undo Henry II’s omission, after he had left archery out of his English Assize of Arms in 1181. They might well have remembered the ‘foundation myth’ of the Norman and Plantagenet kings of England, that an archer struck the fatal blow at the Battle of Hastings, they may have recalled the effectiveness of archery in Henry I’s and Stephen’s reigns as well as that of the Welsh archers. So they probably felt that the inclusion of military archery would help to balance the relative lack of mailed horsemen. The staged inclusion of archery in the Assizes of Arms may show that the royal administration didn’t realise initially the potential of the English tradition of archery to provide fighting men, and in particular were ignorant of the amount of archery practised by the peasantry, both free and unfree. Although there is very little evidence of archery as a sport in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, what little there is shows that members of the population at large enjoyed archery. While they were nowhere near as widespread and numerous as was the case in the late fourteenth, fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, they showed that popular archery existed. Whatever their motives, Henry III and his advisers could hardly have foreseen the fearsome power that the archers of England and Wales would bring to European battlefields in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

But one question remains: why did the Henry III and Edward I encourage military archery through their Assizes of Arms and the Statute of Westminster in the thirteenth century? Contemporary experiences of powerful infantry in North Wales, Scotland and Continental Europe all demonstrated the effectiveness of steady bodies of pike armed infantry. They could resist and even defeat mailed cavalry, the ‘battlefield kings’ of the time. Infantry armed with close-quarters weapons such as swords axes and shields found bodies of pike-armed men very difficult to defeat. Perhaps more importantly, steady pike-armed infantry could be raised and trained much more quickly than effective military archers regardless of whether the archers were using, shorter bows, longbows or crossbows. So why didn’t the English kings and their military advisors take the easier and more widely followed path and develop pike armed infantry? It was a sort of medieval military ‘scissors, paper, stone’. Good numbers of archers could negate pike-armed infantry and menace the horses at least of mailed cavalry. Pike-armed infantry could negate mailed horse but not archers. Infantry armed with close quarters weapons were not decisive forces in armies of the period because they were vulnerable to both mailed horse and archers. Mailed horse could negate unprotected archers (as the Scots managed at Bannockburn) and disordered pike-armed infantry. If the archers were protected by either infantry, including dismounted knights as at the Battle of the Standard or by mounted knights as at Falkirk they could to all intents and purposes win the battle. In addition to these abilities, archers were very useful as garrison troops, and light infantry for foraging and harassing the enemy. Looked at in these terms the real question becomes why was it only among the English and Welsh (and some English ruled lands like Gascony) that large numbers of men developed the ability to use increasingly heavy hand bows in war? This is particularly surprising since Henry II’s Assize of Arms issued in Le Mans in 1180 allowed those men belonging to the lowest income group included the option of having bows and arrows. It is believed that the robust tradition of popular archery in England and Wales is part of the explanation.

When did longbow archery become the dominant form of archery in England and Wales? The evidence recounted in this book makes it clear that shorter bows, between about 4 and 5ft in length, were in widespread use up to the middle of the fourteenth century at least. The most telling evidence comes from two legal reports mentioning bows and ell and a half in length (about 54in or 1.37m in length) and various illustrations. At the same time, direct evidence of longbows about two ells or yards in length also comes from other legal reports. Ireland has provided archaeological evidence of complete bows of both lengths; a shorter bow from twelfth-century Waterford and a longbow from late tenth-century Ballinderry. Yet by the start of the fifteenth century at the latest it is very difficult to find any trace of shorter bows still being use. They may well have been but longbows were the predominant form by then. Longbows are more demanding on the bowyer who has to find and work longer staves, and on the archer, who will have to master the long draw, and likely greater draw weight of the bow. The benefit is greater power in the arrow, and, vitally from the point of view of military archery, greater weight in the arrow and arrowstrike.

Evidence begins to emerge in the last two decades of the thirteenth century onwards of significant activities which point to deliberate development of the power of the bow used in England. It is possible that the archer freeman of York, Robert of Werdale made a small contribution to this change to the use of longbows in war, but we have no proof. This is a significant period in English military history since it marks the time when the Statute of Winchester completed the legal recognition of the English tradition of archery begun fifty years earlier. This royal encouragement of archery begins to be complimented by the development of an archery equipment industry in England. The earliest clear records of the import of bowstaves come from this time. The existence of craftsmen bowyers is confirmed in the records of expenditure on bows by royal officers for selected men that also comes from these decades. In the case of these purchase records the prices paid for the bows in the 1280s was the same as that paid by Edward III’s administration in the 1340s, implying a particular standard of bow was required. Evidence of this trend to more powerful bows also comes from stratified finds of arrowheads, where arrowheads with a socket diameter of at least 10mm become more common in the late thirteenth century and into the fourteenth century, demonstrating the more widespread use of heavy bows.

There is one piece of clear evidence of how and when long-draw bows that could be drawn to at least 30in, like those found on the Mary Rose, came to be the standard for military archery. It is a royal order made in 1338 to Nicholas Caraud, the King’s Artillier. He was instructed ‘to buy 4000 sheaves of arrows of an ell in length with steel heads.’ There would be no need for arrows a yard long if they were not going to be shot from longbows. As the Waterford bow and the description of John of Tylton’s bow and arrow show, bows around an ell and a half (c.54in or 1.37m) in length, shot arrows of around 26–27in (66–68cm) in length. Edward III was determined that the archers in his armies would have powerful bows, this was why the English and Welsh archers shattered the French armies. The first half of the fourteenth century was a time of significant technological change in the archery equipment used in the English tradition of archery. Long-draw bows became the norm; heavier arrows evidenced by arrowheads with larger socket diameters became the norm; stringers became more skilled at making strong thin strings that no longer required arrows to have bulbous nocks. Evidence of the way the royal administration drove these changes in the fourteenth century can also be found in the increasing number of records of imports of bowstaves including Edward II’s order for Spanish yew bows in the 1320s. By the 1340s the royal administration was issuing substantial orders for bows and arrows which give no measurements for the bows and arrows required. This suggests that bowyers and fletchers knew what the king expected by this time.

But this was also the time when the Luttrell Psalter showed some men shooting shorter bows at the butts. A reasonable deduction from all this is that the Royal standard for military bows was the longbow, and that this standard brought about a shift in the English archery culture to almost total practice with the longbow in the second half of the fourteenth century. This change might explain in part the complaints of both Edward II and Edward III between 1315 and the 1340s that the Arrayers were dilatory, corrupt and sending feeble, poorly equipped archers to muster. While the Arrayers may have been both dilatory and corrupt, they may also have been sending archers equipped with shorter bows like those shown in the Luttrell Psalter and other illustrations; men who were competent enough with shorter bows, but who struggled with the longbows in use in the royal armies.

How active and pervasive was the English tradition of archery? It is difficult to find much trace of it before the beginning of the thirteenth century, except for military archery mainly in Stephen’s reign, particularly the Battle of the Standard. This lack of evidence arises for two main reasons: lack of records and a general tendency to restrict the activities of much of the population through a rigid understanding of the significance of free and unfree status. Once Henry III started to erode this separation by including unfree men in the Assize of Arms, the wider tradition of archery was brought forward into national significance. The thirteenth century marks the time in history when written records increased enormously in number which gives us so much more information about the practice of archery in England. Much of this information is peripheral, just recording the ownership and use of bows and arrows. As such it provides illumination of the practice of archery by Englishmen of the time in a way that a tract from an enthusiast does not. The ordinariness of some of the records illuminates a tradition of archery among ordinary men which was the foundation of the near legendary skills and reputation of the English and Welsh archers in the coming decades.

Magna Carta and the Forest Charter restricted the physical penalties that could be exacted for offences against the aw in general and Forest Law in particular. This meant that more of the men engaged in illegal activities in the royal forests with bows and arrows survived to repeat their offences and develop their skills. Since the forests covered maybe a quarter of England in the thirteenth century, this was likely to be quite a large number of men. Moreover the vast increase in the number of private parks presented even more opportunities for men to practice archery illegally. In addition, the forests and parks provided opportunities for men with archery skills to gain good work as foresters, parkers and hunters. It is difficult to know how many foresters and foresters’ men used archery skills in their work in the royal forests, but given the number and size of the forests 1,000 would be the likely minimum. As has been noted above there were perhaps 3,200 private parks in the early fourteenth century, meaning at least 3,200 skilled archers could have been employed as parkers and hunters. In addition to these men there would have been a good number of men employed as hunters full or part time by noble and gentry households both lay and clerical. All these made up an elite in terms of skill, almost certainly men capable of using powerful longbows. Writs of summons and the pay records for Edward I’s Welsh and Scottish campaigns show larger numbers of archers being required than could have been supplied from this skilled group. He expected men who were conforming to the demands of the Assizes of Arms and the Statute of Winchester to come to his armies. These men would have had more variable levels of skill and quality of equipment and it is quite likely that many of them used shorter bows, 4 to 5ft in length. But as their achievements proved these bows were effective.

Huntsmen in England, regardless of class were more likely to practise bow and stable hunting than par force hunting. It is noteworthy that this was not just the case among the English before the Conquest but was also generally true in the reigns of the Norman and Plantagenet kings. The ‘Laws of Cnut’ noted above allowed all men the right to hunt on their land encouraging and acknowledging popular hunting before the Conquest which in turn suggests the existence of a popular archery tradition in England. After the imposition of Forest Law by William I this tradition was repressed, particularly where it related to hunting. Although the vast extent of the royal forests under the Norman and Plantagenet kings meant that forestry and hunting continued to provide employment opportunities for archers whether English or Norman. But when Magna Carta and the associated Forest Charter banned the imposition of ferocious physical penalties for illegal hunting in the royal forests in the first quarter of the thirteenth century popular archery grew. The importance of hunting to this growth of popular archery should not be underestimated.

When bows were used in illegal activities including poaching they seem to have been used by people from a wide range of social and economic groups. Many of the cases noted above were perpetrated by ordinary men and make clear that men carried bows at all sorts of times, not just when they were expecting trouble. This is made particularly clear in the cases where an unstrung bow was used as a club. But in the reports of both poaching and other illegal activities bows were used in a minority of cases. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, bows became more commonly used in crimes, reflecting the greater number of men practising archery in these later centuries. Before the fourteenth century it is fair to suggest that archery was a minority pastime.

There was a blossoming of popular archery in the thirteenth century and that this led to there being enough competent archers for Edward III to achieve great things in his wars. By doing so he ensured that popular archery became a defining characteristic of life in medieval England.


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