At the beginning of Andrew Davidson’s book, The Gargoyle, the main character is driving along a mountain road, high on cocaine and bourbon. He has a distinct feeling that he is about to be ambushed, for some reason, and, sure enough, he sees “a volley of flaming arrows swarming out of the woods, directly at my car.” He swerves to avoid them and ends up breaking a wire barrier and driving over a cliff. He survives, miraculously, but is horribly disfigured by his burns and injuries.
A strange and unexplainable vision, these arrows, and one that would justifiably cause confusion and surprise in the book’s protagonist, stoned or not stoned. But if you were a French soldier on the battlefield near Crécy in 1346, and you saw the sky suddenly fill with thousands upon thousands of arrows shot by English archers, you might be filled with a different kind of confusion, a confusion borne of terror and having no way to escape the coming hailstorm of deadly shafts. For several minutes the English bowmen would send clouds of arrows raining down on the French army. Many of them would land in the ground, but many more would find their way into any exposed flesh — between plates of armour, exposed eyes, throats, mouths. Horses would be slaughtered with them. If you were lucky enough to have a shield, you would cover yourself and wait while listening to the sounds of arrows thudding into bodies and earth, bouncing off metal and the agonizing cries of wounded and dying soldiers.
In the space of five minutes the English could have fired over 100,000 arrows on the French. From their position up a slight hill on the battlefield, the longbowmen would have cleared the way for the knights and infantry to charge the French and ultimately win a decisive victory in the early stages of the Hundred Years War.
A Fearful Enemy: The Longbow Corps
The Battle of Crécy established the English as a fearful opponent, thanks to the longbow and the tactics used to gain the upper hand in battle. I’ve been interested in the longbow since I first started looking into medieval history — not so much as a lethal battlefield weapon but as an historical curiosity — such a simple, graceful weapon in itself, but when used in trademark English strategy could be devastating to the enemy.
After being on the receiving end of Welsh archers during the Anglo-Norman Invasions, the English quickly incorporated the weapon and Welsh tactics into their battlefield strategies. Effective use of the longbow required skill, strength and many years of training and the English monarchy aggressively cultivated a culture of English supremacy with the weapon. King Edward I actually banned all sports in the kingdom except archery and made weekly practice for all boys and men compulsory.
A battlefield longbow was as long as six feet and required enormous strength to pull the tightly wound drawstring as far back as the face, with the other arm fully extended. The shooting range of the longbow was estimated to be from 180 to 250 yards, but modern tests of medieval replicas have achieved distances of 360 yards. Skeletons of longbow archers are recognizably deformed, with enlarged left arms and often bone spurs on left wrists, left shoulders and right fingers. Archers’ skeletons could also be identified by the fact that they had no fingers — when captured by the French, their fingers would be chopped off so they could no longer fire arrows.
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. (An additional effect of this practice was that the point of an arrow would be more likely to cause infection). It took an archer only four or five seconds to pluck an arrow from the ground, notch it, draw the bow, take aim, shoot and then reload. Each longbowman would be provided with between 60 and 72 arrows, which could last from three to six minutes, at shooting speed. However, most archers would not fire arrows at this rate, as it would exhaust even the most experienced. The arms and shoulder muscles would burn from the exertion, and the fingers holding the bowstring would become strained; actual rates of fire in combat would vary considerably.
A Collective Sound Like a Tolling Church Bell
Ken Follett, in his recent book, World Without End, describes the first volley of arrows fired in the Battle of Crécy:
Two thousand longbows were raised. Knowing they were too distant to shoot in a straight line parallel with the ground, the archers aimed into the sky, intuitively plotting a trajectory for their arrows. All the bows bent simultaneously, like blades of wheat in a field blown by a summer breeze; then the arrows were released with a collective sound like a church bell tolling. The shafts, flying faster than the swiftest bird, rose into the air then turned downward and fell on the [French] crossbowmen like a hailstorm.
The shafts hit indiscriminately at anyone in the area, a decidedly un-chivalrous but highly effective means of combat. It was a medieval version of “shock and awe,” after which the English cavalry would move in on the enemy. Longbows could also be used in close battle, where they were accurate and powerful, with the iron-tipped arrows able to pierce most armor.
Longbow production was laborious and time-consuming. It could take as many as four years to produce a single weapon that was resilient and flexible enough to hold the drawstring tension for battlefield use. The English soon depleted its stock of yew wood, the favoured longbow material, and to maintain its supply, King Edward IV enacted the Statute of Westminster in 1472, which required every ship coming to an English port to bring four “bow staves” for every ton of goods traded. Subsequent monarchs increased the requirements.
Decline of the Longbow
After the Battle of Crécy, the longbow was critical to the English success on the Battle of Poitiers (1356) and, most famously at Agincourt (1415). Longbow archers were also used in naval battle. More than 3,500 arrows and 137 whole longbows were recovered from the Mary Rose, a ship of Henry VIII’s navy that was sunk at Portsmouth in 1545.
The military use of the longbow began a decline starting in the mid-15th century, with the rise of gun powder weapons, such as the bombard and cannon. The weapon was finally retired from wide use in 1595, though some archers were maintained for specific purposes. It is said the Duke of Wellington asked for a corps of longbows to provide a rapid fire attack in his Napoleonic campaigns, but he was told that no such skilled men existed in England any more.
Romance of the Longbow
The longbow holds a romantic place in the modern world. It’s horrible killing power on the battlefield is often overlooked, in favour of its simplicity and lyricism as a weapon. The Legend of Robin Hood has the folk hero being portrayed as a skilled archer and Arthur Conan Doyle’s poem (from his book The White Company) sings its praises in “Song of the Bow:”
What of the men?
The men were bred in England:
The bowman–the yeoman–
The lads of dale and fell
Here’s to you–and to you;
To the hearts that are true
And the land where the true hearts dwell.