History of the Longbow

History of the English Longbow

The English Archery Law of the 13th century ensured that English men would be come experts with the bow and arrow. In 1252 the ‘Assize of Arms’ ensured that all Englishmen were ordered, by law, that every man between the age of 15 to 60 years old should equip themselves with a bow and arrows. The Plantagenet King Edward III took this further and decreed the Archery Law in 1363 which commanded the obligatory practice of archery on Sundays and holidays! The Archery Law “forbade, on pain of death, all sport that took up time better spent on war training especially archery practise”. King Henry I later proclaimed that an archer would be absolved of murder, if he killed a man during archery practise! The victories over the French at Crecy, Agincourt and Poitiers were directly due to the expertise of English archers and the longbow. Skill in the use of the longbow took considerable time. The English invested in the time required – the French did not. Up to this point the skills and weapons used by a Knight were deemed to be worth 10 ordinary soldiers – hence the French reaction to defeats by the common peasant.

The English longbow was the most important English military invention of the 1300s and it changed the political face of Europe forever.

The longbow was invented by the Celts in Wales around 1180 C.E. but was not really used by the English military until the 1300s. The longbow is an incredibly strong piece of wood roughly 6 feet tall and 5/8 inch wide. The wood would be preferably yew, which was hardened and cured for 4 years for best results. The curing helped protect it from the elements, which later proved to be a greater asset than thought before. The curing process was used on regular bows but perfected by the longbow. The longbow had a draw weight (the force needed to pull back to ear) of 200 pounds. The bow could shoot over 1 half mile with enough force to knock a knight off his horse.The  arrows shot commonly from the longbow were called bodkin arrows and were roughly 3 ft long with a tip designed for breaking through chain mail but with the force of the longbow behind it, it was capable of penetrating plate mail of all but the best quality. One story states that an arrow shot from a longbow pierced an oak door 4 inches thick.

The English longbow was the best weapon of its time. The crossbow was weaker and slower than the longbow, with only 2-3 shots a minute while an experienced longbowman could loose 20 shots per minute. In effect, the longbow was a medieval machine gun. The longbow was also stronger than a regular bow, due to its length, and the cured yew it was made of.

The Hundred Years War was where the longbow really showed its strength. In some of the war’s most decisive battles the longbow was the weapon that turned the tides. One memorable example: The Battle of Crecy.

The Battle of Crecy was one of the largest battles of the Hundred Years War. With 35000-40000 French against 12000 English the English were hopelessly outnumbered. But the English had one trick up their sleeves, 6000 longbow men. The French, laughing at the English, charged. While this would have been a good tactic under normal standards, in this case it was not. The English infantry created a protective blockade around the longbowmen to stop any French who survived from getting through. Not many did. As the French charged, the English unleashed volley after volley of arrows, that’s 15 or so a minute or one every 4 seconds. The rain of arrows cut through the crossbowmen killing over 12000 of them. The arrows also killed ranks of infantry that would have completely destroyed the English’s 6000 infantry but whose chain mail did nothing against the 200 pound force behind the arrows.

The only thing the English had to worry about was the knights, the tanks of the Middle Ages, but the force behind the arrows cut them down as well. One arrow was enough to knock a knight off of his horse, and if he didn’t die right then, he would when the next volley hit, in about 3 seconds. In the end, the English prevailed, only suffering 1000 men while the French suffered 30000 killed and wounded men, the wounded were dispatched methodically. 11 princes of royal blood were also killed, much to the king of England ’s dismay, who would have liked to have held them for ransom. Success for the English followed quickly after this victory against impossible odds.

In Agincourt another battle was won against impossible odds, and the social structure of the middle ages was changed forever. A peasant armed with a longbow was able to kill a knight wearing full plate armor. One arrow shot by a peasant could kill the most powerful knight on the battle field.

Around the same time guns and cannons were invented, but the longbow was still the leading weapon on the battlefield. Guns, with an even slower rate of fire and a tendency to explode on the user allowed the longbow to continue its reign of dominance as the number 1 weapon. Cannons were even slower to reload, at best only being fired 2 or 3 times in one battle. And while the cannon certainly left a bigger hole in whomever it hit, the longbow could kill many more French.

The longbow contributed to the way our world works today because with the war in-between the French and the English each rushed to discover new technologies and pulled Europe out of the Middle Ages. With the English longbow the English were able to defeat the French and create their own country. Peasants were able to assert their power against the noble knights. This is why I think the English longbow was the most important English military invention of the 1300s and it changed the political face of Europe forever.

Some interesting facts :

  • The Welsh were the first people in Britain to have and use longbows
  • Every Medieval Longbow was made to measure
  • The length of the longbow therefore ranged considerably in size from 6 – 7 feet in length
  • The majority of Longbows were made from yew but ash, hazel and elm were also used
  • The bow stave was shaped into a D-section from a half cross section of a tree or branch
  • The wood of the longbow was protected with a rub of “wax, resin, and fine tallow”
  • A skilled longbowman could release between 10 – 12 arrows per minute
  • The longbow could also pierce the armor of a knight at ranges of more than 250 yards
  • The string of the longbow was made from hemp as it was the strongest and least elastic fibre available. The string was then soaked in glue as some protection against moisture
  • The weapon was particularly effective against opponents wearing plate armour
  • Type or group of weapons – Ranged Weapon which caused a projectile to leave the soldier and  strike a target
  • Long Bodkin were point arrows were used for piercing mail
  • Arrows called Short bodkins were used for piercing armour plate
  • Arrows called swallowtails were used to bring down horses