Longbow: A Medieval Take on Long-Range Artillery

The Welsh introduced the weapon (or at least its projectiles) to the English during the 11th century Anglo-Norman invasion of Wales. The English did the same for the French, above. (Illustration by Gregory Proch)
The Welsh introduced the weapon (or at least its projectiles) to the English during the 11th century Anglo-Norman invasion of Wales. The English did the same for the French, above. (Illustration by Gregory Proch)

The earliest known reference to a “longbow” appears in the 15th century. Until then it had been known as the Welsh or English bow. The Welsh introduced the weapon (or at least its projectiles) to the English during the 11th century Anglo-Norman invasion of Wales. The English first used the weapon to effect at the 1138 Battle of the Standard, when William of Aumale defeated King David I of Scotland. By the late 13th century King Edward I was having his archers practice weekly, a discipline that led to such decisive English victories as Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415).

As described by Gerald of Wales, archdeacon of Brecon (c. 1146–1223), the original Welsh bows were primarily of elm, “ugly, unfinished-looking weapons, but astonishingly stiff, large and strong, and equally capable of use for long or short shooting.” They could also be of ash or yew, with horn nocks on either end to hold strings of hemp, flax or silk. Dried for one to two years and worked down when wet into a D-shaped cross section—heartwood in the center, sapwood in the back—these “self-wood” bows boasted a natural laminate property similar to that of modern-day composite bows. After drying, the bow staves were preserved with wax, resin or fine tallow. A well-trained bowman could hit targets out to 180 yards, though the bows were effective in volley well beyond that range.

One Response

  1. JHGlass

    I believe the most dramatic demonstration of the effect of massed long bows on heavy armored cavalry is depicted in the 1989 film adaptation of Shakspere’s, Henry V, which recreates the stunning English victory at Agincourt due primarily to the effect of King Henry’s longbowman on the massed French knights as they recklessly attacked the English position.

    Another good example would be the defeat of the Scottish army under William Wallace by the English King, Edward I, at the battle of Falkirk in 1298, depicted in the 1995 film, Braveheart. This time though the archers are directed to fire upon Scottish infantry who threatened to withstand the English assault. Unfortunately, the film does not depict the massed (schiltron) formations actually deployed by Wallace in the battle that managed to repel the mounted English knights up until a rain of arrows launched by Edward’s archers thinned their ranks, thus allowing the knights to penetrate and break-up their formations and so win the engagement.

    In any case, these films provide a visual that demonstrates the highly effective use of the longbow against both offensive as well as defensibly deployed opponents. The longbow was certainly the weapon of mass destruction for its day.

    JHG

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