By Danièle Cybulskie
One of the most feared military weapons of the Middle Ages was the longbow, used to legendary effect by the English in The Hundred Years’ War. While the longbow has gone down in history as a mighty weapon, what exactly was it and why was it so effective?
A longbow was typically about 6 feet long (two ells), meaning it could be as tall as – or taller than – a medieval man. It seems to have been generally agreed that the best wood for a long-lasting and effective longbow was yew, and there are records of yew bows being imported from Spain and Ireland to supplement the English’s own yew bows (Wadge, 2012). Alternatively, good bows could be made out of wych elm, and lesser bows from basically any kind of wood. The best bows contained a combination of outer wood and heartwood, to give them both strength and flexibility. Given their size, unstrung longbows were heavy enough to be effective bludgeoning weapons on their own. Bowstrings were made from hemp or flax, and were strung by the archer before use (keeping a bow strung all the time damages it). Extra strings were part of an archer’s normal kit.
Medieval arrows were made of light wood – ash seems to have been preferred – with steel or iron heads. They were fletched with a variety of feathers from goose to swan (even peacock!) attached by either glue, birch tar, or wax and string. In With a Bended Bow: Archery in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, Erik Roth says medieval people generally preferred three feathers per arrow for most purposes, as we do today.
Given the length, design, and wood of the bows, historians estimate that longbows had a draw weight of around 100 pounds more or less, draw weight being the amount of weight it takes to pull the string to full draw. To put this in perspective, current male Olympic archers’ draw weights are approximately 48 lbs. Longbows were serious weapons, and their power was immense. Arrows could penetrate chain mail with relative ease, and frequently did, making plate armour more and more necessary. A famous passage by Giraldus Cambrensis in the twelfth century mentions a Welsh arrow going through a mounted man’s mailed leg and his saddle, killing his horse. Cambrensis also recounts an arrow driving through an oak door “four fingers in thickness”. Clearly, longbows were a force to be reckoned with.
While medieval crossbows were also very powerful range weapons, longbows were cheaper, easier to make, and faster to shoot. Because of this, it was easier to outfit infantry with longbows than crossbows, although longbows required much more strength and practice to be used effectively. Modern reproductions of medieval longbows have been shown to have a range of over 250 yards, so a well-trained army of archers would have had an impressive range to go with their rapid firing.
Longbows were not so effective that they replaced the major medieval tactic of a cavalry charge; rather, they were used to harass the enemy and to prevent the enemy from spreading out enough to threaten the sides or the flanks of an army. Archers could thin out the ranks of the enemy army, or kill the horses that were essential to the enemy’s cavalry charge. Handily, longbows could be used on uneven terrain, and (unlike the more unwieldly halberds) to hunt game to feed the army, too. They were meant to make the bulk of the fighting a little less difficult for their own army, but no one won a war with an army of archers alone.
As far as their place in history is concerned, longbows were a major factor in the English victories at Sluys, Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt during The Hundred Years’ War. At Sluys, longbows were used to win a decisive naval victory for the English by killing many of the French at long range. At Agincourt, archers thinned out the French army, and kept them tightly packed together, giving the rest of Henry V’s army the chance to fight effectively, outnumbered though they were (Bennett, et al., 2005). While the role that longbows played in the Battle of Agincourt has been disputed, the longbow was definitely a significant part of medieval military strategy, especially for the English.
For everything you ever wanted to know about medieval archery, check out Richard Wadge’s Archery in Medieval England: Who Were the Bowmen of Crecy? and Erik Roth’s With a Bended Bow: Archery in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Both of these are great resources, and highly recommended. For military techniques more broadly, I still love Fighting Techniques of the Medieval World by Matthew Bennet (et al.).
See also How Effective Was the Longbow, and What Damage Did it Do? – A debate between Kelly DeVries and Clifford Rogers
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist