The longbow (or English longbow, or Welsh longbow, see below) was a type of bow about 6 feet long used in the Middle Ages both for hunting and as a weapon of war. It reached its zenith of perfection as a weapon in the hands of English and Welsh archers.
There are various descriptions of the medieval longbow. There are no surviving longbows from the Middle Ages and only 5 from the Renaissance period (see Surviving bows). Of those 5, all are about 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, and made from the centre of a yew tree. Estimates for the draw of these bows varies considerably, from 60 pounds-force (25 kilograms-force or 250 newtons) at the low end, with some estimating as high as 180 lbf (80 kgf, 800 N) for the largest bows on the Mary Rose. A modern Mary Rose replica has a 102 pound (46 kgf, 454 N) draw; a modern longbow's draw is typically 60 pounds (27 kgf, 270 N) or less.
As to the bow length there is no agreement. In continental Europe it was generally seen as any bow longer than 4 feet (1.2 m). The Royal Antiquaries Society of Great Britain says it is "of five or six feet" in length. Richard Bartelot of the Royal Artillery Institution says "the bow was of yew, six feet long, with a three foot arrow".2 Gaston Foebus in 1388 wrote that a longbow should be "of yew or boxwood, seventy inches between the points of attachment for the cord,".3
The range of the medieval weapon is unknown with estimates from 180 yards to 249 yards (165 m to 228 m). Modern longbows have a useful range up to 200 yards (180 m).
A longbowman could shoot up to 12 arrows a minute, "The longbow was the machine gun of the Middle Ages: accurate, deadly, possessed of a long-range and rapid rate of fire, the flight of its missiles was liken to a storm."9 This rate of fire was much higher than crossbows or any other projectile weapon of the period, including firearms.
The construction of a longbow consisted of seasoning the wood for 1 to 2 years then slowly worked in to shape with the entire process of the wood taking up to 4 years. Bows would last a long time and were protected with a rub of "wax, resin, and fine tallow".
Bow strings were made of hemp or flax or silk and attached to the wood with bone.
In the British Isles the weapon was first recorded as being used by the Welsh in AD 633, when Offrid , the son of Edwin, king of Northumbria, was killed by an arrow shot from a Welsh longbow during a battle between the Welsh and the Mercians — more than five centuries before any record of its military use in England. Despite this, the weapon is more commonly known as the "English longbow" than the "Welsh longbow".
At least two Neolithic longbows have been found in Britain. One was found in Somerset. It was identified as Neolithic by radiocarbon dating in the 1950s, much to the consternation of some archaeologists at the time. A second was found in southern Scotland at Rotten Bottom. It was made of yew and dates to between 4040 and 3640 BC . A reconstructed bow had a draw-weight of about 23 kgf (50 lbf, 220 N) and a range of 50 to 55 metres. The famous Ötzi the Iceman, of the Early Bronze Age, found in the Ötztaler Alps, bore a bow very similar to the Rotten Bottom example, with a bowstring of nettle or flax fibre.
Weapons resembling a longbow have been discovered by archaeologists in Scandinavia dating from the Mesolithic period, made of elm wood found in the Holmegaard-bog in Denmark (although during the medieval period Scandinavians were characterized by the effective use of the shortbow). From the Neolithic onwards, yew was the preferred material, it was ideal as the inner heartwood would compress, while the outer sapwood would stretch, making a powerful natural spring.
During the Anglo-Norman invasions of Wales, Welsh bowmen took a heavy toll on the invaders by using this extraordinary weapon of war. The English were quick to realise the impact that the longbow could produce on the battlefield. As soon as the Welsh campaign was successfully over, Welsh conscripts began to be incorporated into the English army. The lessons the English learned in Wales were later used with deadly effect on their enemies on the battlefields of France and Scotland.
The longbow decided a number of medieval battles fought by the English, the most significant of which was the Battle of Crecy and later the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years' War. A variant (bow-staves) was used by 14th century mercenary troops of Sir John Hawkwood. Longbows were used until around the 16th century, when gunpowder began to be used, and such units as arquebusiers and grenadiers began appearing. Longbowmen armies would aim at an area and fire a rain of arrows indiscriminately hitting everyone in the area, a decidedly un-chivalrous, but highly effective, means of combat.
Although longbows were much faster and more accurate than any black powder weapons, longbowmen were always difficult to produce because of the years of practice necessary before a war longbow (examples from the Mary Rose typically had draws greater than 45 kgf (100 lbf, 450 N)) could be used effectively. To train the average commoner to use a handgun required a mere fifteen minutes, and the most difficult thing to master was keeping one's eyes open when the powder ignited. In addition to this, the longbow was a powerful weapon to put in the hands of the commoners — many nations (e.g the French) simply did not trust their people enough to instruct them in how to use a weapon that could be turned against the nobility.
Longbows were difficult to master because the draw-weights often exceeded 45 kgf (440 N, 100 lbf). Considerable practice was required to produce the swift and effective fire combat required. Skeletons of longbow archers are recognizably deformed, with enlarged left arms, and often bone spurs on left wrists, left shoulders and right fingers.
To penetrate light armour, war arrows had "chisel" (or "bodkin") heads. Bodkin arrows have tips like elongated pyramids, which results in a very sharp and very narrow point. There was also a war arrow of Turkish origin called the "flight arrow" which was capable of ranges exceeding 850 yards (780 m) using conventional bows. In peace-time, in some regions, carrying chisel points was a hanging offence, because it was thought to threaten noblemen, or they were taken as evidence that one was a highwayman. Specialist war-arrows were designed to tackle the problem of different types of armour. For example, arrows with thin and sharply slanted heads were used to pierce chainmail suits, breaking one ring and consequently 'popping' a huge hole in the armour as the force of the impact knocked the other rings out of place. Many war-arrows had heads that were only attached with a small blob of wax, so that if they were to be removed conventionally only the shaft would come out, leaving the head lodged in the victim which would almost certainly cause an infected wound. The effects of a longbow are illustrated by this 12th century account by Gerald of Wales:
- ..in the war against the Welsh, one of the men of arms was struck by an arrow shot at him by a Welshman. It went right through his thigh, high up, where it was protected inside and outside the leg by his iron cuises , and then through the skirt of his leather tunic; next it penetrated that part of the saddle which is called the alva or seat; and finally it lodged in his horse, driving so deep that it killed the animal. (Itinerarium Cambriae, (1191))
On the battlefield, English archers stabbed their arrows upright into the ground at their feet, reducing the time it took to notch, draw and loose (drawing from a quiver is slower). An additional effect of this practice was that the point of an arrow would be more likely to cause infection -- especially since bowmen relieved themselves on the same ground. The only way to remove such an arrow cleanly would be to tie a piece of cloth, soaked in boiling water or another sterilising substance, to the end of it and push it through the victim's wound and out of the other side - incredibly painful. There were specialised tools used in the medieval period to extract arrows if bone meant that the arrow could not be pushed through.
Prince Hal (later Henry V) was wounded in the face by an arrow at the Battle of Shrewsbury 1403. The royal physician John Bradmore had a tool made which consisted of a pair of smooth tongs, once carefully inserted into the rear of the arrowhead, the tongs screwed apart till they gripped its walls and allowed the head to be extracted from the wound. Prior to the extraction, the hole made by the arrow shaft had been widened by inserting larger and larger dowels of wood down the entry wound. The dowels were soaked in honey which contain natural antibiotics. The wound was dressed with a poultice of barley and honey mixed in turpentine. After 20 days, the wound was free of infection.
Hunting arrows generally had what is called a 'broad-headed' arrowhead, though specialist hunting arrows did exist. Broad-head arrows leave wide cuts when they pierce flesh, which results in rapid blood loss. This is typically enough to render an adult deer unconscious in under half an hour. An arrow with a head shaped like a crescent moon was used to knock birds and other small animals out of trees so that both the animal and the arrow could be retrieved with relative ease, when a normal arrow would have pinned itself and the animal to the tree, making recovery difficult. At one time it was thought that the crescent headed arrow was used at sea to cut ropes on enemy ships, but the fact that an arrow rotates in flight would mean that cutting a rope at distance — requiring the crescent arrow to remain exactly horizontal — would be nigh-on impossible.
Although bowmen were still deadly at close range, they were light skirmishers unsuited to prolonged hand-to-hand combat and were understandably vulnerable to a committed attack by cavalry. Consequently they were often deployed behind physical barricades, such as stakes and poles driven into the ground.
A common battle formation:
- Light Infantry (such as swordsmen) in the centrer forward, in rank formation.
- Heavy Infantry (often armed with pollaxes or pole weapons with bill hooks being the preferred English weapon) in the centre middle, in rank or square formation.
- Traditional Archers and Crossbowmen in the centre back, in rank formation.
- Cavalry either on the flanks (to protect against attacks), or deployed in the centre to counter any breakthroughs and such.
- Longbowmen were usually on the side, in an enfilade formation, rather like this: \ ___ /, with the middle being occupied by melee troops.
A skilful general would alternate flights of arrows with cavalry charges, sometimes alternating flank attacks to induce shock and fear in the enemy. The arrows were used in volleys, and not aimed at specific targets until the enemy got quite close; the psychological effect on the enemy of the famous 'cloud of arrows' produced by such a volley is not to be underestimated.
The first of five surviving bows dates to the Battle of Flodden ("a landmark in the history of archery, as the last battle on English soil to be fought with the longbow as the principal weapon..."4) in 1513. It hung in the rafters at the headquarters of the Royal Scottish Archers in Edinburgh, Scotland.5 It has a draw weight of 80–90 lbf (35–40 kgf, 350–400 N).
The second surviving longbow comes from the armoury of the church in the village of Mendlesham in Suffolk, England and is believed to date either from the period of Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth. The Mendlesham Bow is broken, has an estimated length of 68–69 inches (1.73–1.75 m) and draw weight of 80 lbf (35 kgf, 350 N). 6
The third bow comes from the Battle of Hedgeley Moor in 1464 during the War of the Roses. A family who lived at the castle since the battle had saved it to modern times. It is 65.5 inches (1.66 m) and 60 pounds (27 kgf, 270 N) draw weight. 7
The last two bows come from the Mary Rose, a ship of Henry VIII's navy that was sunk at Portsmouth in 1545. It is an important source for the history of the longbow, as the two bows, archery implements and the skeletons of archers have been preserved. The draw weight of the Mary Rose longbows is controversial, but most modern estimates suggest about 100 lbf (45 kgf, 450 newtons). A modern replica has a draw of 102 lbf (46 kgf, 450 N).8
The importance of the longbow in medieval English culture can be seen in the legends of Robin Hood who was increasingly depicted as a master archer and in the "Song of the Bow," a poem from The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The longbow was the weapon of choice for rebels during the Peasants' Revolt. From the time that the yeoman class of England became proficient with the longbow, the nobility in England had to be careful not to push them into open rebellion. This was a check on power of the nobility of England which did not exist on the European continent.
- "The Berkhamsted Bow", Antiquaries Journal 11 (London), p.423
- Note 2: Major Richard G. Bartelot, Assistant Historical Secretary, Royal Artillery Institution, Old Military Academy, Woolwich, England. Letter, 16th February, 1976
- Note 3: C.J. Longman and H. Walrond, Archery (New York: Fiederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1967), p.132
- Note 4: E.G. Heath, The Grey Goose Wing, p. 134
Note 5: Robert E. Kaiser, "The Medieval English Longbow", Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 23, 1980
- Note 6: W.F. Paterson, Chairman, Society of Archer-Antiquaries. Letters, 5th May, 1976.
- Note 7: Henry Gordon and Alf Webb, "The Hedgeley Moor Bow at Alnwick Castle", Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries 15 (1972), pp. 8-9
- Note 8: Alexander McKee, King Henry VIII's Mary Rose (New York: Stein and Day, 1974), p. 103
Note 9: Robert E. Kaiser, "The Medieval English Longbow", Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 23, 1980
Last updated: 10-25-2005 01:53:45