English government bought “many millions” of crossbow bolts during the 13th century, historian finds

 14th century crossbowmanA new study about the medieval military industry shows that the English Royal government was making and purchasing as much as hundreds of thousands of crossbow bolts each year, revealing how important this weapon was to the medieval armies of England.

In his article, ‘Military Industrial Production in Thirteenth-Century England: The Case of the Crossbow Bolt’, David S. Bachrach examines royal administrative records between the reigns of Richard I and Edward I. Records such as Pipe Rolls reveal expenditures related to running workshops that made bolts as well as purchasing more quarrels from private suppliers.

Some of the earliest records show that King John was spending significant sums of money to create workshops to build this ammunition as well as purchasing more when needed. At least six royal crossbow workshops were established during his reign, and Pipe Rolls also reveal that in the year 1211 there were four separate orders sent out officials to buy crossbow bolts – in total just under 200,000 quarrels were purchased.

In 1224 King Henry III besieged Bedford Castle, which had been occupied by Falkes de Breauté and his men. The siege lasted eight weeks and involved as many as 2,700 soldiers. Pipe Roll accounts show that on June 20, 1224, Henry’s Chancery ordered the sheriff of London to send as many quarrels as he could from the supplies kept at the Tower of London (which was also a centre of production). “The same day,” writes Bachrach, “the Chancery sent a second order to the sheriff of London ordering him to find five or six smiths (fabri) to work nonstop, literally day and night (de die et nocte), to produce as many quarrels as possible for use at the siege of Bedford Castle. Within eight days, that is by June 28, 1224, the sheriff was able to acquire an additional 3,000 quarrels, which he then sent to Bedford.” Within a few weeks, however, more crossbow bolts were required and order were sent to the the bailiffs of Northampton and Oxford, as well as the sheriff of London, to send to Bedford 4,000, 6,000 and 10,000 quarrels respectively.

Bachrach is also able to provide some details about the individuals that worked in the royal workshops, including John Malemort, who started working for Henry III in 1225, became the supervisor of his own workshop in 1230 and served as a master smith until 1278. He and his assistants had a quota or producing 100 crossbow bolts per day.

Turning to the reign of Edward I (1272-1307), one can see numerous references to the production of crossbow bolts. This reached a high point during the Welsh campaigns of 1282-4, when over 564,000 quarrels were sent to English troops in Wales over that three year period. Bachrach writes:

The documents make clear that the royal government purchased well in excess of one million crossbow bolts for use in Edward I’s Welsh and Scottish wars. Yet, this is only a fraction, perhaps even a small fraction, of the total number of quarrels produced for the royal government in the thirty-five years between 1272 and 1307. The surviving administrative records, although numerous, are only a small percentage of the original volume of documents that dealt with military logistics…the crossbow bolts acquired by the royal government during King Edward’s reign should probably be numbered in the many millions. 

Comparative Perspectives on History and HistoriansBachrach’s article appears in the  book Comparative Perspectives on History and Historians: Essays in Memory of Bryce Lyon (1920-2007), which was recently published by the Medieval Institute Publications from Western Michigan University. David Bachrach, Associate Professor of Medieval History at the University of New Hampshire, specializes in medieval military history.

Click here to watch our interview with David and his father Bernard S. Bachrach from 2010.