Saturday, February 7, 2015

More On The English Longbow

by Scott Howard Higginbotham

This post is a redux of some previously posted information with some new hands-on discoveries added to the mix. It's exhilarating trying on a Great Helm, swinging a two-handed sword, or shooting a bow, just to get a feel for history.

English longbow - Public Domain

So why do my arms ache and feel useless?  And why does it feel as though every muscle and tendon in my back is yearning for a hot compress?  My right fingers are bruised.  Getting a bow with a 50 lb pull has some painful drawbacks - no pun intended.  Had I lived in the fourteenth century as a country yeoman I would have spent my Sunday afternoons after Mass practicing at the butts, and that from a young age.  Back then, you literally grew into the art.  

So who would have thought that mere country rabble stationed on the wings of a ragtag English army could help thin the ranks of French Chivalry?  The French were not expecting a loss on so grand a scale.  At the Battle of Crecy, which was fought on August 26, 1346, King Edward III decisively won against a superior French army. 

Battle_of_crecy_froissart - Public Domain

Concerning Edward’s forces Desmond Seward writes, 
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.

      It should be noted how skewed his army was in favor of the archers armed with sticks, string, and sharp points.  A bodkin is a four-sided steel point, tapered and hardened, capable of piercing armor at the correct range and angle.  A bowshot was approximately 150 yards and could pierce armor at around 60 yards.2  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.  Ahh, the caveats!  However, exposed spots had no such deflecting and protecting qualities. 
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

      From direct experience a 50 lb compound bow, firing blunt-tipped arrows, can fully embed the point into a tree at 20 yards.  Imagine what a longbow could do at a short range, should a Welsh lad find himself facing down an armored knight atop a mad destrier.

Photo by Scott Howard Higginbotham

A bowman had to be stout; pushing into the bow and simultaneously pulling back the hemp string with just three calloused fingers could be exhausting.  Repeated bowshots resulted in bone deformities as the muscles that formed and hardened over the years skewed your skeletal structure. “Skeletons of longbow archers are recognisably adapted, with enlarged left arms and often bone spurs on left wrists, left shoulders and right fingers.”4  This explains why I have taken to stretching and strengthening and using a pair of gloves before bending myself into the bow.  

It also helps explain why I wish I had begun at an early age, and the proceeding quote summarizes it nicely:
[My yeoman father] taught me how to draw, how to lay my body in my bow ... not to draw with strength of arms as divers other nations do ... I had my bows bought me according to my age and strength, as I increased in them, so my bows were made bigger and bigger. For men shall never shoot well unless they be brought up to it.—Hugh Latimer.”5

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, and that you would have had to mature along with your bow and ignore the pain.  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.

      To see how our way of thinking on archers is further being turned on its head, watch the video that follows.   

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

Scott Howard 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 Generations.  It is within Edward Leaver's well-worn boots that Scott travels the muddy tracks of medieval England.

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