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A Short History of the English Longbow

Archers of Ravenwood / A Short History of the English Longbow

In writing this work, I have tried to create an accurate account of the Longbow’s development and use from its 12th century Welsh beginnings to its eventual military demise in the 16th century. The source material used is by no means a complete list, and as such, I encourage all to perform their own research into this field. Suffice it to say, I present this work as an outline of major events to spark the imagination and to feed the soul.

Introduction

The English Longbow, more than any other weapon of its time, was responsible for vast changes in the nature of medieval warfare. In doing so, it made England the foremost power in Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. England’s armies became the most feared units in Europe, and with good cause. Almost every battle fought was won by an intelligent utilization of massed archers and men-at-arms. Upon many occasions, English troops were sorely outnumbered, only to win the day.

Such was the power of the Longbow, that contemporary accounts claim that at short range, an arrow fired from it could penetrate 4 inches of seasoned oak. The armored knight, considered at one time to be the leviathan of the battlefield, could now be felled at ranges up to 200 yards by a single arrow. One account recalls a knight being pinned to his horse by an arrow that passed through both armored thighs, with the horse and saddle between!

Modern tests have verified that this was indeed possible. A 700-800 grain arrow can pierce 9 cm of oak at close range, and 2.5 cm at 200 yards. No armor up to plate was proof against an arrow at less than 200 yards, and even plate could be penetrated at less than 100 yards.

Another aspect of the Longbow was the archers themselves. Archers began training at a very early age, traditionally at the age of seven. Training at long ranges was mandatory, complete with fines for violations. Local tournaments were held regularly, and the best archers were chosen for military duty. As these were all hand-picked troops from among the best archers in England, the archer units were an elite group of infantry. These were no base peasant levies; they were all hand-picked craftsmen who well knew their worth in battle.

The average English Military Archer could fire 12 to 15 arrows per minute and hit a man-sized target at a minimum of 200 yards. The maximum range was about 400 yards with flight arrows. An archer could not even consider himself skilled at his art if he could not shoot 10 arrows a minute! Note: From our own experiences at faire, we know that 10 aimed shots per minute at a man-sized target at half that range is quite a feat!

Origin of the English Longbow

Early 12th Century: The Longbow was developed from a Welsh bow that had been used against the English. During the numerous skirmishes with the Welsh, the English had witnessed the power of this weapon.

1252: Longbow was accepted as a formal military weapon.

C.1280: Longbow adopted by Edward I during the Welsh campaigns after seeing how effectively the Welsh used the bow.

1331-1333: Longbow used by Edward III during the Scottish Campaign.

1337-1453b: The hundred years war with France:During this time, the English and Welsh longbowmen were the most prominent part of the English army, sometimes outnumbering the Men-at-Arms by as much as 10:1. The average was a ratio of about 3:1.

1346: The Battle of Crecy: The English army of Edward III won the first major battle of the 100 Years War. The English numbered between 12,000 and 19,000 men, of which 7,000 to 10,000 were archers. The French Army, under Philip IV was made up of 12,000 mounted Men-at-Arms, 6,000 Genoese Crossbowmen, and up to 60,000 Foot Soldiers. The English were aided by a shower that morning, making a charge up a muddy hill, with the sun in their eyes and arrows raining down on them — most difficult for the French. The opening shots were loosed by the Genoese Crossbowmen, which fell short. The English answered with five times as many arrows, which did not fall short. The Crossbowmen broke ranks and tried to flee the field. The French commander, however, was displeased with the apparent lack of courage and ordered that the Crossbowmen be ridden down by the Heavy Cavalry on their way to the English line. After 16 charges and 90 minutes, the French had lost 4000 knights, including 2 Kings, 2 Dukes, and 3 Counts. English losses were estimated at only 50 men.

1356: The Battle of Poiters: Edward III, The Black Prince of Wales, with 6,000-8,000 men defeated a French host 3 times as large. This time the French fought largely on foot, and this time, much hand to hand fighting took place, with the archers attacking the rear and flanks of the French charge. In the end, the results were much the same as at Crecy. Two thousand French Knights and Nobles, including the Constable of France, 2 Marshals, The Bearer of the Oriflamme, along with thousands of common foot soldiers were killed. One Arch-Bishop, 13 Counts, 5 Viscounts, and 21 Barons and Bannerets were killed or captured.

1415: The Battle of Agincourt: In what was perhaps the greatest victory of the Hundred Years War, a small, sick and exhausted English army under King Henry V, won an astounding victory over a seasoned French host at least three times as large. The composition of the English forces was 1,000 Men-at-Arms and 5,000 Archers divided into the traditional three “battles” with the archers in a wedge pattern flanking each “Battle”. When the battle was over, between 7,000 and 10,000 French had been killed. Among those killed or captured were the Constable of France, a Marshal, 5 Dukes, 5 Counts, and 90 Barons. Fewer that 500 English had been lost during the fighting.

The Demise of the Longbow

1450: Formigny: Four-thousand French, including some well-trained artillerymen routed more than 7,000 English. Most of these were Archers.

1452: Castillon: French cannon all but annihilate 6,000 English.

1500: Introduction of firearms: Matchlock Muskets

1588: Longbow replaced by firearms during the Spanish Armada War.

1595: Longbow finally retired from military service.

Arms and Armor of the Well-Equipped Longbowman

Equipment of the 14th Century:

The more well equipped archers, the house archer, wore an Open-faced Bascinet or a simple conical helmet, sometimes with a maille Aventail, a “fall” covering the neck and/or cheeks. For body protection, the Padded Gambeson or Aketon was most commonly worn. This was a thick quilted knee length coat with long sleeves that tapered to a tight fit at the forearms, so as not to hinder the archer. Sometimes a Chain-maille shirt was worn over the Gambeson. These shirts were hip-, thigh-, or knee length, with half, three-quarter, or full length sleeves. Obviously the lighter type was more common. Leg plates, shoulder plates (Spaulders or Pauldrons) and similar plate augmentation was uncommon at this stage of history.

Equipment of the 15th Century:

During this period, the well equipped archer wore a simple open faced Salade or Sallet. Occasionally, these were visored, but one wonders as to the hindrance of such a device. The Jack, a thigh length, diamond quilted version of the Aketon, by this time had become the standard body covering. By the mid 15th Century, Brigandine had started to be used. This was a sleeveless, poncho like jack with integral overlapping plates fastened between layers of stout fabric by a series of rivets. Plate augmentation for the legs, arms, and shoulders seem to have been more prevalent during this period, but it was still uncommon.

The weaponry of the well-equipped archer remained fairly constant during this whole period. Besides the archer’s longbow, and a sheaf of 24 war arrows, the archer also carried a dagger, a sword of some type (generally a short sword) and a small shield know as a “Buckler “. The English were renowned “Sword and Buckler” fighters until the 17th Century.

Through both centuries, the archer wore the badge and colours of his employer, whether lord, gentry, or city. The Livery Coat or Jacket was common. These garments were made of wool or linen broadcloth, hip or thigh length, with or without collars, and half or full length sleeves, or sleeveless. The badge was sewn or embroidered on the front and sometimes the back of the garment. A white Livery Jacket with the red cross of St. George was very common in the 15th century.

The English Longbow

The English Longbow is a “self-bow”. This is a single piece of wood that is shaped and seasoned for the purpose. The wood of choice was Yew, but availability problems often required the use of Wych Elm, Elm, and Ash as substitutes. The medieval craftsmen selected the staves with great care. A master Bowyer could craft a bow in under 2 hours!

The length of the finished product was from 67 inches to 78 inches in length and up to 2 inches thick at the riser. This length was more or less fitted to the individual user. Draw weights ranged from 80 to 120 pounds. Draw length was between 29 and 32 inches, as the draw was “to the ear” or “to the breast”. The limb had horn knocks inserted to protect the limb tips and to ease stringing of the bow. There was no arrow rest on the handle, it being common to ride the arrow on the index finger.

Arrows

The English war arrow was known as the Livery, Sheaf, or Standard arrow. They had a large diameter, were cut to the legal yard, and were made from a variety of woods. Aspen, Poplar, Elder, Birch, and Willow were used for flight arrows because of their weight. Heavier woods like Ash and Hornbeam were also used, primarily because though a heavier arrow would not travel as far, it had greater penetration. Fletchings were between 7 and 9 inches, and were tied and glued to the shaft.

Materials: Bows were made from Yew, Ash, Elm, and Witch-Hazel.

Arrows were made from Ash, Oak, Birch, and were feathered with gray goose, peacock, and swan.

Bowstrings were made mostly from hemp, although Flax and even Silk was used in later times. The string was about 1/8 inch in diameter, and was constructed with either single or double looped ends

Full and skeleton gloves appear to have been common, while tabs are not to be found. Contrary to popular belief, the common quiver type was a simple belt quiver or arrow bag. In the absence of this, a common practice was to simply stuff a sheaf of arrows through the belt. The back quiver was never used in warfare.

Bibliography

Arms and Armor of the Medieval Knight: by D. Edge and J.M. Paddock

The Complete Encyclopedia of Arms and Armor: by Ed L. Tarrassuk and C. Blaire

A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration of Arms and Armor: by G.C. Stone

The Traditional Bowyer’s Bible Vols 1 and 2

Archers Digest 2nd Edition

Target Archery: by Margaret L. Klaun

The Armourer and his Craft: by C Ffoulkes

War Through the Ages: by L. Montross

History of the Art of War: by C. Oman

Medieval European Armies: by T. Wise and G. Embleton

The Armies of Agincourt: By C. Rothero

The Armies of Crecy and Poitiers: by C. Rothero

English Longbowman: by C. Bartlett and G. Embleton

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The Archers of Ravenwood portray independent English Military Company known as a free-company in the year 1450. This is not to be confused with the term mercenary...

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