Key Facts & Summary
- The main reason why England won in the battle of Agincourt was because of its archers and their use of longbows. In fact, the English longbow determined not only the outcome of Agincourt but also allowed England to win many other battles.
- From the XIII century until the XVI century, the longbow was the English army’s main weapon. It was thanks to this weapon that England conquered first Wales and then Scotland.
- It also allowed Britain to win the Hundred Years War and to take France’s place as a military power in medieval Europe.
- In the Middle Ages, the longbow enjoyed the same consideration as the current machine gun: it was precise, deadly, with a wide range of action and speed of shooting. Convenient and simple, it was suitable for all social classes of the time.
History of the Longbow
Sources claim that the longbow was first created in Wales, and it was a useful weapon employed in order to stop the heavy English cavalry, which went into battle wearing a metal armour composed of chain mail, helmets, metal hoods, and shields. The skilled Welsh archers showed all their value and their offensive capacity in the war against the England of Edward I Plantagenet during the XIII century. After the defeat of Wales, the British military leaders decided to enlist the Welsh archers and to instruct their troops to use the powerful long arch.
The longbow became legendary during the Hundred Years War, the long and bitter conflict that opposed the French monarchy against England for the control of disputed regions. The archers massacred the ultra-heavy French noble cavalry in the battles of Crécy and Agincourt. This weapon also had social value: in fact, an English archer of low social origin trained in the use of longbow could easily overthrow a rich French nobleman on horseback.
The longbow can be considered the medieval machine gun. It has been calculated that an archer that fought in the Hundred War Years, was able to shoot around 10 to 12 arrows per minute.
This weapon remained in use, for a certain period, along with the first firearms which on the whole turned out to be easier to use and more powerful. However, at the same time, they were less precise and slower than a longbow handled by an expert archer. Yet, since they were easier to use, firearms eventually became more popular thanks to training. Such an evolution relegated the longbow to the role of hunting and made it a weapon suitable for tournaments.
Today there still exists much confusion and controversy in regards to the origins of the longbow. Such debate is due to the scarcity of specimens of this weapon. The oldest longbows that we possess date back to the Renaissance period. These specimens are five and are all very similar to each other. They are all about six feet long, they are made out of wood, and possess considerable rigidity.
Overall, we can state with a certain degree of security, that the longbow was introduced in England from Scandinavia probably during one of the many invasions that the Danes carried out around the middle of the year 1000. According to some historians, several, well-preserved longbows were found in relicts of funeral boats found at Nydam Moor in Denmark in 1863. Thanks to scientific studies, such longbows can be dated between 200 and 400 BC. These longbows are seven and have many characteristics similar to the five English specimens previously mentioned. Nydam Bowas are wooden and are between 5 and 7 inches long.
Some of the substantial differences consist in the presence of some ornamental carvings on these weapons.
Recently, Dr. A. Lieshf of the University of Oslo, discovered a longbow in a Viking’s tomb. The wood was completely deteriorated but a metal band used as reinforcement remains as a testimony.
The medieval English longbow was a superb weapon. Incredibly powerful, fast and mortal. A weapon that could lead a simple armed man to be superior to a Knight.
What is a longbow?
A longbow is made from a single wooden plank, preferably (but not exclusively) of yew wood. The main characteristic of this type of wood consists in the fact that it has an outer part which is light in colour that is particularly elastic and capable of extension; while the darker inner part has excellent resistance to compression. Therefore, this type of wood generates a naturally perfect effect for the mechanics of the longbow.
The wood that would be used to make a longbow was divided into long, intact and continuous segments without cracks and left to dry for one or two years.
Entire forests were destroyed in order to obtain wood for making bows throughout Europe. Also ash, elm, and hazel were also widely used for the creation of this weapon.
At the end of the maturation period, the wood was worked by a specialised craftsman who gave it a particular shape: the typical D-shape was about 5 centimeters wide and became gradually thinner at the ends, which were reinforced with horn nocks in order to fix the string. In most cases, the string was made of woven hemp, and flax; however, for the most demanding customers, they could even be made of silk.
What sometimes changed was the length of the arch, since the weapons had to be proportionate to those who used it.
The longbow is not a particular invention which occurred in a specific historical period. In fact, thanks to some archeological findings, today we are aware that such a weapon existed long before the English started to employ it.
It is worth remembering that the Similaun warrior (the famous Ötzi who died in 3,200 BC) was found with a 182 cm long wooden arch (which was very long for a man about 160 cm tall).
Around thirty years ago, many longbows were found on the Mary Rose ship. This ship had sunk around 1545 and carried approximately 250 long arches measuring from a minimum of 187 cm to a maximum of 211cm. The average arch measured 198cm. Contemporary scholars claim that the typical English longbow measured around 174 cm.
However, arches with these dimensions date back also to the Roman period, and the Vikings. Some longbows date back to 27 centuries before Christ and were found in Somerset.
At this time, this is the only indication that the longbow may be an English invention. Some claim it was the Welsh who invented this weapon. However, this does not seem to be the case. In fact, it is worth remembering that the Welsh were the worst paid among the archers in the service of the English kings: they were paid less than the mercenary crossbowmen and even less than the English archers. Moreover, the chronicles of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland (1169-70) claim that the Normans enlisted Welsh youth (the 5/6 of the expedition) and the Irish suffered heavily from the effects of their arrows.
Replicas of bows like those of Mary Rose have demonstrated to withstand maximum traction of 84 kg, with an average of about 70kg. With arrows that weighed half a pound, the longbows were able to shoot the arrows for about 330 meters. Arrows that weighed one pound could reach up to 250 meters. During a sporting event, one of Edward III’ archers reached a distance close to 370 meters. However, during their training archers had to aim for their target which often consisted of a cloth lying on the ground. This target was placed at least 200 meters, which typically was the maximum distance of shooting in battle. By pure calculation of the probabilities, it was the amount of arrows drawn, that could cause some injury on an opponent’s uncovered point.
The speed of the arrow was instead determined by the amount of thrust given to the arrow. This factor determined the ideal length of the arrow, which should not be shorter (nor longer) than its theoretical distance. Determining the arrow’s length implies a calculation that is anything but simple. But, as you can guess, the length of the arrow depended on the length of the arc.
[1.] Bryant, Arthur (1963). The Age of Chivalry.
[2.] The Great Warbow: From Hastings to the Mary Rose, by Dr. Matthew Strickland and Robert Hardy, Pub Sutton, 2005.
[3.] Longbow: A Social and Military History, by Robert Hardy, CBE, FSA. Pub Sutton, rev 2006.