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The Medieval Archer

In the first decades of the seventeenth century military theorists in Britain were concerned about how to combine missiles and close-fighting on the battlefield. One solution was the double-armed arm, drawn from a period when The Bowyers trained with the Honourable Artillery Company. As depicted in prints from the 1620s he stands, in full pikeman's armour: helmet, back- and breast-plates and tassets (covering his upper leg), with a bow fully drawn, while, in his bow hand he also holds a pike! This fantasy, an impractical super-warrior is the image with which I wish to begin my interpretation of the tactical role of archery from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries. Why, if the bow was so powerful in battle, was it thought necessary to give the archer an additional weapon for close fighting? We know also that, by the 1620s, the bow had been largely abandoned in English armies, and was directed to be so by government instructions from the 1580s onwards.

A simple explanation for this would be that the archer in 1600 was not half the man of one or two centuries earlier: the bowmen of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt (that mythic trinity of victories over the French). Yet, this seems somewhat unlikely. We know from the Mary Rose (lost 1445; recovered 1982) just how powerful were the bows of the Royal Guard archers on the doomed vessel. We also know that it took a long apprenticeship to train a man to shoot a bow, and just how effective such training could be. Even nowadays, a friend of mine (a six-foot plus policeman) taught his equally robust son to use a bow from the age of seven. By thirteen he could pull 80 lbs (while my own bow is paltry 50 lbs). It was cheaper and easier to teach men to shoot gunpowder weapons, of whatever sort (as well as being more 'modern' in Elizabethan England).

Yet even in the 'Golden Age' of the bow the archers were not expected to win the battle on their own, despite what is constantly reiterated in popular history and particularly on television. A common metaphor is that they were the machine-gunners of the Middle Ages. This is an easily understandable but completely misleading image. Bowmen did not mow down opponents like on the first day of the Somme. It has not helped that a very important interpreter of medieval warfare to the modern world Lt. Col Alfred H. Burne RA, D.S.O., fought in World War One and drew his lessons in warfare from that conflict. He espoused the view that English armies drew up with the men-at-arms (fully armoured, close-fighting men, including a few a knights and noblemen amongst their numbers), in three 'battles' (battalions) with the archers arranged in wedges between. Because these wedges projected from the main line, Burne argued that they created crossing fields of 'fire' into which the hapless enemy was driven and massacred. This interpretation bears a striking resemblance to the British 1916 manual on the use of the machine-gun, but it misinterprets the intermingling of archers and men-at-arms in a far more flexible and less formal way than drill-bound soldiers of the early twentieth century could conceive. Also, archers tended to stand on the flanks, as classically they did at Agincourt, to avoid a head-on confrontation with heavily armoured opposing men-at-arms, since the bowmen was lightly equipped for his own convenience and in order to better use his weapon. (If there is a modern comparison to archery, then the use of artillery, as an 'area weapon' causing disruption an dismay in enemy formations, is a better parallel. It is perhaps ironic that Burne, the Gunner, did not spot it!)

Agincourt holds the key to understanding that archers needed protection from attacking men-at-arms, and especially those on horseback. The French soon learnt that horses were vulnerable to archery and that a barrage of arrows could halt a cavalry charged: as happened at Crécy (1346). Already, by Poiters (1356) they had arranged for specially picked knights with armoured horses to lead the charge (although the flexible English outflanked this tactic). By the time of Agincourt, armour for both man and horse was much stronger than half-a-century earlier due to technical developments. This why, just before Henry V crossed the Somme in October 1415 he ordered each one his of 5,000-odd archers to cut himself a stake 'six feet long and of sufficient thickness, sharpened at both ends' (according to an eyewitness account). For the king had learnt from some French prisoners of the enemy plan to charge the flanking archers with their armoured cavalry, so driving them off; leaving the dismounted English men-at-arms to be overwhelmed by superior numbers. A glance at the current Bowyers' arms, shows the feet of the supporters surrounded by mini-stakes, so capturing the intention of this tactical defence.

Of course, all went gloriously well for English arms at Agincourt. The French fell into Henry's trap and the archers and men-at-arms combined sublimely to achieve victory. But the important point to remember is that the missilemen and the close-fighters depended upon one another for success. This was well understood by Sir Thomas Audley who, in about 1550, wrote a treatise for the young Edward VI entitled "A.B.C. for the wars". He described the 'shot' (as he called both gunpowder and bow users) supporting the armoured main body in a variety of formations. Sir John Smythe, writing in defence of the bow at the end of the sixteenth century claims that archers alone could hold back the enemy; but contemporaries understood the real tactical necessities, and his pleas fell on deaf ears. This is not to forget, as historians often do, that Henry VIII won a battle with the longbow a century after his great namesake (in a continuation of the so-called Hundred Years Wars 1338-1453, a Victorian chronological fallacy). At the Battle of the Spurs near Thérouanne in 1513, the 'flanking fire' of his bowmen routed a French army; although without the political impact of 1415.

A final point: I am often asked the question why the French did not adopt such a manifestly successful weapon. A very important reason is that they did not trust their peasantry to possess such a powerful tool for rebellion. English society proved as flexible as its tactical formations in accepting that non-nobles could keep potentially socially-destabilising weapons. There was a sense of community in the English host immortalised by Shakespeare in his 'band of brothers' and imitated in such gatherings as The Bowyers' Agincourt Dinner!

Matthew Bennett MA, FSA, FRHistS

Note: I use the word bow and not 'longbow' throughout because 'longbow' was not used in common parlance until its decline in the late sixteenth century. Some may think this pernickety!

Further Reading

Robert Hardy
The Longbow (of course!) (Patrick Stephen, 3rd. expanded edition 1995)

Matthew Bennett
Agincourt, 1415: Triumph against the odds (Osprey, 1991)

Matthew Bennett
'The Development of Tactics during the Hundred Years' War' in: Arms, Armies and Fortifications in the Hundred Years Wareds. A.Curry & M.Hughes pp. 1-20 (Boydell, 1994)

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