The Longbow
THE LONGBOW, defined as one over 4ft. in length, was probably first used by the Germans or Scandinavians in about 500AD. In about 1000AD it was being used in Wales but it is not known if it was developed there independently or if it was borrowed from other parts of Europe. Around 1300, during a skirmish with the Welsh, an English knight received a wound from an arrow that had penetrated his chain mail, passed through his thigh, the chain mail on the other side of his leg, a wooden saddle and wounded the horse. The English decided this was a weapon with real potential as lowly infantry could handle a weapon that could defeat the finest armor. Early tests showed that the longbow could fire an arrow with such force that it could penetrate a four inch oak door with a handspan of the arrow’s shaft exposed on the other side.

The first time it played a major role was at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 when Edward I defeated William Wallace, largely due to a devastating hail of arrows from Welsh archers against the Scots.

English archers proved decisive against the French during the 100 Years War (1337-1453) at the battles of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. Each of these major victories were won against far larger French armies.

The best longbows were made of yew. The staves were cut in winter when no sap was running, from the junction of the inner heartwood and the outer sapwood. The staves were seasoned and worked on gradually over a period of three to four years. Today only six longbows survive, none from the "golden age" and sources do not agree on the dimensions. Most give the length as about 70in. with a drawing pull of 75-100lbs. The arrows were between 27-36in. long. A trained archer could shoot 12 arrows a minute, but some sources say that the most skilled archers could fire twice this number. The arrow could wound at 250 yards, kill at 100 yards and penetrate armor at 60 yards.

At the battle of Agincourt in 1415, 1,000 arrows were fired every second. After the battle, observers wrote that the white feathers from the flights were so thick on the ground, it looked like snow.

The surviving examples of longbows look unfinished and it is probable that most of the bows had this appearance: the junction of the inner and outer woods would rarely be straight but this was not important. Interestingly English yew was not considered suitable to make bows and the staves were imported, largely from Italy and Spain. To ensure a regular supply, each ton of certain imports, including wine, had to be accompanied by 10 yew staves.

The French did not at first credit the major victories of the English to the longbow but to the other tactics, especially the use of the English knights fighting on foot. The French did start to train some infantry in the use of the longbow in the late 1300s but the king was most concerned about peasants having such powerful weapons and the idea was dropped.

The training adopted by the English was rigorous. All sports were banned on Sundays and men between 12 and 65 were expected to practice their archery. Every man with an income of over £2 a year was required to own a bow.

The longbow was the most powerful weapon in Europe from about 1300 to 1588. In that year, the Spanish Armada, aware of the English skill with the longbow, armed their troops with bows. The English however experimented by having 10,000 harquebusiers (early firearms) which proved superior. However, the longbow still had its supporters. After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, a senior British officer seriously suggested the readoption of the longbow by the infantry.

This article extracted from the Oct/Nov 1999 issue.
return to contents