Hundred Years' War: English Longbow

Battle of Crecy
Longbows in use at the Battle of Crecy. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The English longbow was one of the most famous weapons of the medieval period. Though it required extensive training, the longbow could prove devastating on the battlefield and longbow-equipped archers provided the backbone of English forces during the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453). During this conflict, the weapon proved decisive at victories such as Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415). Though it remained in use into the 17th century, the longbow was eclipsed by the arrival of firearms which required less training and permitted leaders to more quickly raise armies for battle.

Origins

While bows have been used for hunting and warfare for thousands of years, few achieved the fame of the English Longbow. The weapon first rose to prominence when it was deployed by the Welsh during the Norman English invasions of Wales. Impressed by its range and accuracy, the English adopted it and began conscripting Welsh archers into military service. The longbow ranged in length from four feet to in excess of six. British sources usually require the weapon to be longer than five feet to qualify.

Construction

Traditional longbows were constructed from yew wood which was dried for one to two years, with it slowly being worked into shape over that time. In some cases, the process could take as long as four years. During the period of the longbow's use, shortcuts were found, such as wetting the wood, to speed up the process.

The bow stave was formed from half of a branch, with the heartwood on the inside and the sapwood to the outside. This approach was necessary as the heartwood was able to better resist compression, while the sapwood performed better in tension. The bow string was typically linen or hemp.

English Longbow

  • Effective Range: 75-80 yard, with less accuracy up to 180-270 yards
  • Rate of Fire: up to 20 "aimed shots" per minute
  • Length: 5 to in excess of 6 feet
  • Action: Man-powered bow

Accuracy

For its day the longbow possessed both long range and accuracy, though seldom both at once. Scholars estimate the longbow's range at between 180 to 270 yards. It is unlikely however, that accuracy could be ensured beyond 75-80 yards. At longer ranges, the preferred tactic was to unleash volleys of arrows at masses of enemy troops.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, English archers were expected to shoot ten "aimed" shots per minute during battle. A skilled archer would be capable of around twenty shots. As the typical archer was provided with 60-72 arrows, this permitted three to six minutes of continuous fire.

Tactics

Though deadly from a distance, archers were vulnerable, particularly to cavalry, at close range as they lacked the armor and weapons of the infantry. As such, longbow equipped archers were frequently positioned behind field fortifications or physical barriers, such as swamps, which could afford protection against attack. On the battlefield, longbowmen were frequently found in an enfilade formation on the flanks of English armies.

agincourt-large.jpg
Archers at the Battle of Agincourt. Public Domain

By massing their archers, the English would unleash a "cloud of arrows" on the enemy as they advanced which would strike down soldiers and unhorse armored knights. To make the weapon more effective, several specialized arrows were developed. These included arrows with heavy bodkin (chisel) heads which were designed to penetrate chain mail and other light armor.

While less effective against plate armor, they generally were able to pierce the lighter armor on knight's mount, unhorsing him and forcing him to fight on foot. To speed up their rate of fire in battle, archers would remove their arrows from their quiver and stick them in the ground at their feet. This permitted a smoother motion to reload after each arrow.

Training

Though an effective weapon, the longbow required extensive training to use effectively. To make sure that a deep pool of archers always existed in England, the population, both rich and poor, were encouraged to hone their skills. This was furthered by the government through edicts such King Edward I's ban on sports on Sunday which was designed to ensure that his people practiced archery. As the draw force on the longbow was a hefty 160–180 lbf, archers in training worked their way up to the weapon. The level of training required to be an effective archer discouraged other nations from adopting the weapon.

Usage

Rising to prominence during the reign of King Edward I (r. 1272–1307), the longbow became a defining feature of English armies for the next three centuries. During this period, the weapon aided in winning victories on the Continent and in Scotland, such as Falkirk (1298). It was during the Hundred Years' War (1337–1453) that the longbow became legend after it played a key role in securing the great English victories at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356), and Agincourt (1415). It was, however, the weakness of the archers, which cost the English when they were defeated at Patay in (1429).

Opposing armies lined up for battles at Poiters.
Battle of Poitiers. Public Domain

Beginning in the 1350s, England began to suffer a shortage of yew from which to make bow staves. After expanding the harvest, the Statute of Westminster was passed in 1470, which required each ship trading in English ports to pay four bow staves for each ton of goods imported. This was later expanded to ten bow staves per ton. During the 16th century, bows began to be replaced by firearms. While their rate of fire was slower, firearms required much less training and permitted leaders to quickly raise effective armies.

Though the longbow was being phased out, it remained in service through the 1640s and was used by Royalist armies during the English Civil War. Its last use in battle is believed to have been at Bridgnorth in October 1642. While England was the only nation to employ the weapon in large numbers, longbow-equipped mercenary companies were used throughout Europe and saw extensive service in Italy.