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A Brief History of the Longbow

Archaeological evidence, supported by early drawings, suggests that it was the middle Stone Age which saw the emergence of the proto-longbow. Man had discovered, quite early, that by converting muscular potential to kinetic energy one could satisfactorily influence the order of things. Whilst throwing sticks of the late Mesolithic and early Neolithic periods would propel an arrow with a certain velocity, hunting with bow and arrow was more efficient of power and thus more effective of purpose.

We move, on: through continental Bronze and Iron Age to early historic times and to the appearance of the weapon used equally for hunting and warfare by both native Briton and invading Anglo Saxon.

Although it would seem from contemporary accounts that the British (Welsh) employed a heavier weapon than did their Saxon adversaries, it would be wrong to credit them with what has become known as the 'warbow'; for there is evidence that the Saxons also used the bow in warfare, albeit as a limited supporting arm. Only occasionally do we find the Saxon bogaman emerging from the shadows and as silently slipping away; for the military ethic of our early English ancestors relied upon the shield wall and hand to hand combat to settle matters - the bow was used to 'soften up' the opposition.

When Richard de Clare (Strongbow) invaded Ireland in 1170 from his power base in Gwent, he took with him Welshmen trained as archers and they served to great effect. It has even been suggested that the heavy draw-weight war weapon, attributed to the native Briton, and which gave the bowmen of Gwent such a fearsome reputation, may have been introduced to them by Richard de Clare and - far from being a native weapon, and the implied forerunner of the English longbow - was thus the product of an archery conscious Norman Lord!

The battle of Hastings in 1066 saw a clash between disparate military ideologies: the stand-off capability of Breton archery combined with cavalry, against the stolid determination of the Saxon shield wall. It was this type of tactical use of the bow en masse that would serve the English so well in defensive battles yet to come.

Although archery was adopted in England as early as the battle of Northallerton in 1138, it is to the 1251 Statue of Henry III that we turn to see the requirement for citizens to muster for warfare with bows and arrows; and this marks its formal acceptance as a weapon of war; an acceptance which, through the power of its limbs and the strength required, was to dub the brawny bowmen who used it "Milices redoubtable. La fleur des archiers du monde"

It is difficult to believe today, but fourteenth century continentals did not rate England as a martial nation. English ability to deal effectively with semi-savage Scots when the occasion arose was reluctantly recognised but, one feels, with a slight curl of the lip. How could these barbarians from a small island stand up to the might of the mounted French chivalry ? A mistaken impression due all to soon to change.

A taster of events to come took place in 1337. King Edward III had repudiated his homage to Philip of France, described himself as rightful king of France and followed this up by an attack - led by Sir Walter Mannay - on the Flemish island of Cadsand. Here, for the first time, the French met the deadly power of massed English archery in support of brawny men-at-arms. The result was never in doubt. This precursor to the protracted French Wars gave both nations food for thought; although a further nine years were to pass before Edward felt able to mount an attack on mainland France.

On 12th July 1346 the English fleet made landfall at St. Vaast. The army came safely ashore with no interruption and the king had knighted his young son, the Black Prince. A necessary move, this, since the Prince was to take titular command of the advance guard. After subduing some light local resistance Edward reached Caen on July 26th and made overtures for a peaceful takeover of the city. His demands were contemptuously rejected and the city prepared for defence.

One might imagine the scene. The attackers rode to the field on horseback, banners and pennants fluttering in a light breeze. Behind them marched bowmen in tightly ranked units. Here a twinge of apprehension may have seized the Norman defenders, for precision formation had long since disappeared as a military concept in medieval France. Here was not the expected rabble of un-rated bucolics, to be cowed by the might of France; confronting them was a determined army of trained soldiers, armed not with the familiar arbalest but with a new and strange weapon of great length. The defenders of Caen were about to meet the mighty English warbow and its murderous, bodkin pointed battleshaft.

Caen was taken and, after resting his troops, Edward resumed his march towards Paris. His subsequent crossing of the Somme at the ford of Blanchetaque is well documented; the boost it gave to the army was immense, morale rose with a bound. Their trust in Edward was absolute, nothing was now impossible. That faith was to be severely put to the test in two days time, for by then they had arrived at the little village of Crecy-en-Ponthieu.

The battle of Crecy was Homeric. Whilst the original strength of the English army may have been between 15,000 and 16,000 fighting men, it had dropped by wastage to some 12,000 to 13,000 on the day of the battle. Against them their opponents mustered at a conservative estimate 40,000 men - including 6,000 Genoese crossbowmen. These brave men were marched to within 150 yards of the English position before preparing to engage. Before they were ready, however, volley upon volley of English arrows landed amongst them and, in panic, they retreated.

But their problems were not over. The Count d'Alencon, King Philip's brother, wrongly accused the Genoese of cowardice, and he and his men rode them down. Forced to defend themselves, these men shot point blank at their erstwhile companions in arms, and an internecine battle took place in which many French knights were killed.

With this matter settled, the main French forces charged uphill to meet the dismounted English men-at-arms and fierce fighting took place. It was during one such charge that the Prince of Wales came under sever pressure - one lingering account has it that he was knocked down, and that his personal body guard of Welshmen rallied around him in defence until he was ready to fight once more. It is said that, for this, their valour was recognised and land in Wales was granted to them in perpetuity. Today, the Black Bowmen of Llantrisant will tell with pride how their direct bowmen ancestors gained their prized possession.

Contemporary accounts tell us that there had been fifteen separate attacks by the French before the decision to retreat in disarray. The sun had gone down long since, but still they had pushed forward until, leaderless and with broken spirits, the survivors made their sad way home.

It would be inappropriate to deny Edward his victory; but it should be said that against his trained, disciplined, well armed and confident army -and, moreover, one which included thousands of longbowmen - was pitched a largely untrained force, collected from differing lands and races. Each unit distrusted by its neighbours and lacking order and respect for authority. Such an army was calculated to disintegrate when faced by strenuous opposition - and that is exactly what it did. The battle of Crecy was a triumph of discipline over muddle.

The war bow was to reign supreme for much of the French campaign: Poitiers, Agincourt and Verneuil are testimony to its power; but Crecy must ever remain as a prelude to its tactical effectiveness. It was to guard this country's interests at home and abroad for a further 200 years before its last tactical use en masse at the battle of Pinkie Cleugh in 1547.

For all its war-like vigour, however, the longbow had a gentler side. Few weapons match it for the pleasure it brings in this civil role. Monarch and commoner alike, whilst recognising its power, used it to relax from life's stresses. Notable amongst them : Henry VIII, whose skill equalled that of his archer bodyguard, and whose creative foresight lives on with us today in the form of the Honourable Artillery Company - founded originally as the Guild, or Fraternity of St George, by his patent in 1537.

Although the reign of Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I, was to see the decline and obsolescence of the bow as a warrior's weapon, she was - as a young woman - taught the pleasure of shooting in a bow by her tutor, Roger Ascham, author of the vade mecum of recreational archery Toxophilus, or the Schole of Shooting (1544).

With the omission of the weapon from the assize of arms the recreational longbow came into its own. Encouraged by Charles II, it flourished until his death in 1685, after which enthusiasm amongst the leisured classes waned, to be revived late in the succeeding century when, once again under royal patronage, many clubs and societies were formed. Some of these - notably the Royal Toxophilite Society and the Woodmen of Arden - remain today. It is from this 18th century revival that today's traditional archery stems.

Recent years have seen a re-learning of the old crafts of bowyery and fletching, and these skills have flourished, encouraged by those ancient Livery Companies originally formed to monitor the quality of that most destructive yet charismatic of weapons, the mighty English warbow and its grey, goose-wing fletched arrow. So has the 'crooked stick' come to peace.

Hugh D Hewitt Soar Freeman
With acknowledgement to Col. A.H.Burne. DSO "The Crecy War"

Suggested further reading

The Crooked Stick - a History of the Longbow by H.D.H.Soar
Secrets if the English Warbow by H,D.H.Soar
Of Bowmen and Battles by H.D.H.Soar
The Medieval Archer by J.Bradbury

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