Sunday, December 8, 2013

Where the English Longbow Met the Crossbow

by Scott Higginbotham

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.
From Wikimedia Commons -Public Domain

Decisions, decisions...

The longbow was a formidable weapon during the Middle Ages and thus changed the nature of warfare.  At the Battle of Crecy, which was fought on August 26, 1346, King Edward III decisively won against a superior French army.  The French had been harrying the English Army and there was a skirmish at the ford of Blanche-taque (white stones) on the River Somme the day before.  Edward’s army was exhausted and running low on food, however, after fording the river there was clear path for retreat to Flanders if necessary.

At Crecy, Desmond Seward writes concerning Edward’s forces, “His army, now somewhat reduced, consisted of about 2,000 men-at-arms and perhaps 500 light lancers together with something like 7,000 English and Welsh bowmen and 1,500 knifemen—approximately 11,000 men, though estimates vary.”1  It should be noted how skewed his army was in favor of the archers.

But Edward III was familiar at this point with the longbow’s capabilities and what a four-sided steel point, called a bodkin, could do.  A bowshot was approximately 150 yards and could pierce armor at around 60 yards.2  Modern calculations give us a glimpse into the longbow’s raw power and disproves skepticism.  Seward writes, “With a typical war bow, having a draw-weight of 80-100 lb, the instantaneous thrust on the string at the moment it checks the forward movement of the two limbs when it is shot is in the order of 400 lb, so it needed to have a breaking strain of about 600 lb to allow an adequate safety margin.”3

It becomes clear that the closer an archer is to his target the greater the damage and, this was accomplished by a seemingly innocuous wooden stave from a yew tree. The descriptions of the longbow in this piece are typical.  Where yew was unavailable, there were other species of trees that were good substitutes.  Other sources differ slightly on the range, draw-weight, and length of the bow; however, there is no dispute that the English Longbow revolutionized medieval warfare.  Its use shifted the paradigm: armor improved, battlefield strategies were modified and, during the Hundred Years War, the English armies were victorious in the majority of the battles (though they never gained the French crown).

This image was first published in the 1st (1876–1899), 2nd (1904–1926) or 3rd (1923–1937) edition of Nordisk familjebok. The copyrights for that book have expired and this image is in the public domain.
From Wikimedia Commons -Public Domain

So what about the crossbow? If you had a choice between the two weapons, which would you choose? Is not the crossbow more powerful than the longbow and just a bit more complex? Perhaps it’s viewed as a weapon a few notches higher in esteem than a weapon wielded by peasants?

During the Hundred Years War, the French utilized the crossbow as their favorite ranged weapon. Crossbowmen would carry a pavise and crouch down when firing and reloading once this portable shield was put into place. It was a cumbersome and complex weapon, but it had a range and velocity above that of the longbow. There were also crude sights, for zeroing in on a target; a bolt could pierce armor at about 200 yards. Also, its user could have a quarrel “locked and loaded”, whereas a bowman could not preload his bow.

However, its rate of fire was less than the English longbow, at about four bolts, or quarrels, per minute, versus the 10-12 for a longbow. It should be mentioned that the rate of fire depends on the method of loading the crossbow there are varied methods and the more sophisticated processes tended to directly affect the crossbow's inherent power.  Additionally, it weighed in around 20 pounds, where a longbow came in less than 5 pounds.

Desmond Seward describes the process that a mercenary Genoan would have had to contend with, all while under a hail of English arrows, “The favourite missile weapon of the French was the crossbow, a complicated instrument with a bow reinforced by horn and sinew; to draw it the crossbowman had to place his foot in the stirrup at the front end of the bow, fasten the string on to a hook on his belt, which meant crouching down by bending his knees and back, and then stand up, pulling the string until it could be engaged in the trigger mechanism.”

The specifications seem to indicate that the crossbow is a superior weapon in terms of velocity and accuracy, but the time required to reload, either by pulling or winching the string tight, stacked the odds against the user. Further, at the Battle of Crecy, country lads from Wales and those scattered English hamlets were relatively rested - and more mobile based on the nature of their weapon; the Genoese mercenaries hired by the French had marched from Abbeville, about 10 miles south, and they most certainly were suffering from fatigue.

Add in a persistent English arrow storm and an anxious French cavalry itching for a mighty charge, then it becomes clear how quickly this battle turned and how useless the crossbow was rendered, based on poor strategy and the hail of English arrows. The crossbowmen had likely tossed their pavises aside during their march, combining the additional problem of protection into the fog of battle: “Highly vulnerable, they at once began to drop beneath the arrow-storm, which they never before experienced. Tired, demoralized – even the setting sun, which had reappeared, was in their eyes – the survivors started running.”5

Battles can turn on a silver penny. What works well on a castle wall can be an utter disaster on the ground.

Be sure to watch the short video and decide what’s best for you!


1Desmond Seward, The Hundred Years War: The English In France 1337-1453, (New York: Penguin Group, 1978), 61.
2Ibid, 53.
3Ibid, 55.
4Ibid,56-57.
4Ibid,64.
  Scott Higginbotham writes under the name Scott Howard and is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s mettle is tested, weighed, and refined, and For a Thousand Generations where Edward Leaver navigates a world where his purpose is defined with an eye to the future.  His new release, A Matter of Honor, is a direct sequel to For a Thousand Generation.  It is within Edward Leaver's well-worn boots that Scott travels the muddy tracks of medieval England.

6 comments:

  1. Awesome post. Most informative. Thx!

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  2. Awesome post. Most informative. Thx!

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  3. Have a look at this video of a chap who's researched how longbows were fired. Its much quicker than shown here, potentially. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zGnxeSbb3g

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  4. Super! Thanks especially for the video!

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  5. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    ReplyDelete