Thursday, July 19, 2012

The English Longbow – Available in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Video

by Scott Higginbotham

Bertrand’s body was spent as he idly fingered the leather grip on his sword, alternately pulling it halfway from its scabbard and then pushing it back down into the throat.  He hadn’t slept, owing to the fact that rain and the nausea that preceded a battle made rest an impossibility.  Additionally, his warhorse was with his squire near the baggage train; all of the knights were dismounted this day, which gave him pause.
The bowmen stood ready, guarding the flanks of knights and men-at-arms.  Their goose feathered arrows with their steel, four-sided bodkin tips were stuck into the soil at their feet.  Their bows were unstrung, which made Bertrand curious and not a little disquieted, for he could see the French Army, and their scores of knights, Genoese crossbowmen, and soldiers amassing below their perch.  Bertrand strode over to a burly archer who appeared bored with the whole affair.
“Will you be ready when they come?” Bertrand asked.
The bowman was a country yokel by his looks, his speech betraying his background.  “My lord, we can be ready in moments.  Have to wait until they are in bow shot,” he indicated, sweeping his free hand towards the crossbowmen slowly advancing.  Bertrand’s heart clenched, but the archers seem nonplussed.  “I have your back, Sir..”
“Sir Bertrand,” he explained.  “A luckless knight, hoping for better.”
“Aye, then we have something in common, Sir Bertrand. I go by Wat. ”
One of the captains suddenly called out in a hoarse voice, “String ‘em, lads!”  In unison, bowmen began pulling their bowstrings out of their hoods or from underneath their gambesons.  Bertrand looked on in interest.
“This here is the nock, Sir Bertrand, and the string is made of hemp.  The rain weakens the string.  Weak strings mean dead Englishmen,” Wat made clear as he fit the string onto the notches at both ends of the bow stave.  “The nocks are made of carved horn so the string doesn’t slip.”
Wat leaned his frame into the bow, pushing, rather than solely pulling the string back.  His muscled back and shoulders pulsed as he slowly released the tension.  Wat handed Bertrand the bow and nodded.
“If you’d like to try, lord,” he grinned.

        Wat offered the bow to Bertrand; the bow was as tall as he was and he eyed it warily, running his hands over the polished grain.  Bertrand rose to the challenge, mimicking Wat’s deft handling of the stave, but failing miserably as he puffed and strained, bending the cursed weapon only halfway.  He handed it back to Wat and shook his head.

“That’s the Devil’s own weapon, Wat!  What’s this cursed thing made of, steel?”
Wat laughed.  “No, my lord.  This here is from the yew tree.  The outside of the bow where it curves is the sapwood.  Good and easy to bend and is found right under the bark once you strip it clean.  And here is the heartwood, which pushes against you and will dispatch Frenchmen shortly,” he said, running his calloused fingers over the wood on inside of the curve.  “These types of bows came over from Wales, Sir Bertrand.  My Welsh grandsire told me tales about how an arrow from an ash tree could pass through an oaken church door and the first Edward made it law to practice at the butts every Sunday.  It has taken me many years to get thus far…”  He paused as the captain barked out an incomprehensible order, which sounded more like a string of oaths.  “Aye, my lord, the fight is upon us,” he added, fitting an arrow onto the string and bending his body into the bow.
“When the time comes Wat, I have your back,” Bertrand muttered.  Wat returned with a toothy grin and loosed his arrow in concert with hundreds others, felling the crossbowmen stationed down the slope.  Bertrand held his shield at the ready and kept his right hand on the hilt of his sword, watching the flanks, the agitated French knights in the distance, and Wat.  By his reckoning, the teams of skilled archers, including Wat, loosed 10 to 12 arrows per minute and, quickly turned stymied the French advance.
However, heedless of the plight of the decimated ranks of Genoese, the French knights charged, finishing off and trampling over the crossbowmen fleeing the field in terror.  Lances were couched and swords twirled in the arms of the armor clad chevaliers pounding up the muddy hill on their destriers.  Horses stumbled in the holes, which were dug just that morning while others were impaled on stakes protecting the ranks of bowmen loosing frantic volleys. They were close enough that Bertrand could discern that the bodkin points could pierce most plate armor, but was equally devastating to the French warhorses.  
A handful of French knights pressed through the gap and Bertrand found his voice as he unsheathed his sword, running into a maelstrom of steel and flailing hooves.  “For Saint George and England!” he bellowed. 
Bertrand repeated this act several times as the day wore on.
As night fell, Bertrand and Wat sat back-to-back, leaning on one another for support, ruminating over the day’s events. “Wat, I pray God keeps us together.  You had my back…”
“Aye, and you had mine, my lord…”
“Just Bertrand…” he replied, looking up into the stars pinpointing the black sky, forgetting everything for a long moment.            

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.  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. This means that if the date is August 26, 1346, you are a French knight, and you have gotten close enough to the English forces at Crecy, then your armor will have some added ventilation.
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).
The video below summarizes this piece and provides a unique look into history.  Notice the archer’s nonchalant demeanor as he looses the broadheads at the target and you will come to understand the respect this weapon and its archers inspired.         

Check out The Archers of Ravenwood for more information!

Scott Higginbotham is the author of A Soul’s Ransom, a novel set in the fourteenth century where William de Courtenay’s capture and escape tests his mettle and forges his future, and For A Thousand Generations, where Edward Leaver navigates a fourteenth century world where he finds a purpose that the generations cannot contain.  Both novels complement one another without detracting.

1Desmond Seward, The Hundred Years War: The English In France 1337-1453, (New York: Penguin Group, 1978), 61.
2Ibid, 53.
3Ibid, 55.


  1. Perfect description of the power of the longbow, Scott. Thank you.

  2. Love the longbow. Got to shoot one a few years back.

    1. Very jealous of that! It is such a simple, yet fearsome weapon.

  3. Wonderful article on the longbow -- so full of solid information. And the video of the steel "bib" coming out like Swiss cheese! The grand thing about the longbow was it was a weapon of such power that was so simple and cheap to make! Something about it suggests the glory of little David with his slingshot.

  4. Thanks Katherine, I am glad you liked it! I loved the video where they show the shafts riddling the shield full of holes too. The last video was a quick summary, and the archer was so nonchalant in his skill - a great display.
    And yes, it does hearken to David.


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