In the century before guns, the longbow brought a lethal efficiency to medieval warfare and gave England an early advantage in the Hundred Years’ War.
In July 1333, Edward III stood at Halidon Hill, on the English border of Scotland, hoping to taste battlefield victory for the first time in his short, troubled reign over England. The king had come to the throne at 14, a puppet ruler for his mother, Queen Isabella, and her lover, the lord Roger Mortimer, who had forced the abdication of the unpopular Edward II. In 1330, at 17, Edward had seized power from them, executing Mortimer and banishing Isabella to Castle Rising in Norfolk.
The young king had been tested by battles with Scotland, which under Robert the Bruce had defeated his father in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. An invasion Edward III led in 1327 ended disastrously in a treaty known to the British as the “Shameful Peace of Northampton.” By 1333, however, he had the advantage of a fearsome new weapon. Known in Wales for more than a century and first introduced to the English by Edward’s grandfather, the longbow had been virtually ignored elsewhere. Yet it was incredibly deadly. Made from a single piece of seasoned wood, it could drop a knight armored with chain mail from 200 yards; within 100 yards, it could pierce plate armor.
The rise at Halidon Hill gave Edward’s army a clear view of the surrounding countryside—a great vantage point to put his new weapon to use. Lining up his forces, Edward improved upon tactics originated by his countryman Edward Balliol, who once ruled Scotland and had defeated the Scots at the Battle of Dupplin Muir a year earlier.
Edward, like Balliol, massed longbowmen on the wings of his knights and infantry, positioning the archers slightly forward. But he improved on Balliol’s idea by splitting his forces into thirds, with each third flanked by the longbowmen. When the Scots attacked, they were caught in a crossfire. The air was so thick with arrows that one witness reported that the first Scottish soldiers were “blinded by the host of English archery” and rendered helpless.
Many of Scotland’s leaders died that day, while English losses were negligible. Most important, Edward at Halidon Hill discovered how best to use the longbow— a weapon that would transform medieval warfare and help England dominate the richer and more powerful France for much of the Hundred Years’ War.
The Welsh developed the longbow as early as the second half of the 12th century. Often more than six feet long and up to two inches thick, it was made from seasoned and shaped wood—preferably yew, but sometimes elm, ash, or witch hazel. Bowstrings—one-eighth-inch thick and made of hemp or occasionally flax and even silk—required 80 to 120 pounds to draw, which meant the longbow was best suited for strong men. Horn or metal tips were sometimes fastened to the bow’s ends to protect the notches and make stringing easier. Unlike modern bows, there was no arrow rest; archers wore gloves, presumably for protection, along with a leather bracer to protect the wrist and forearm.
Arrows were roughly three feet long and made from a variety of woods— aspen, poplar, elder, birch, and willow arrows for distance, and heavier woods such as ash and hornbeam for greater penetrating power at shorter distances. Arrows were trimmed with gray goose, peacock, or swan feathers tied or glued to the wood.
The heads of longbow arrows were made largely from steel or brass—the better to pierce chain mail or plate armor. One story told of an armored knight pinned to his horse after an arrow pierced his mail, thigh, and saddle before killing his mount.
Recognizing the longbow’s potential military value, Edward’s grandfather, Edward I, introduced compulsory archery practice on Sundays and holy days and forbade other sports on those days. In late 13th-century battles against the Welsh and Scots, he used massed archers with longbows as well as archers interspersed with cavalry. His son Edward II also used longbowmen against the Scots.
As it developed, the English longbow soon surpassed the crossbow in deadly efficiency. The crossbow was cumbersome to load: the archer had to place a foot in a stirrup on the bow, crouch, and fasten the arrow in an awkward manner. The longbow loaded far faster; archers could fire five arrows for every one from the crossbow and up to 15 a minute. Because the bow was held vertically, ranks of archers could be positioned close together for more effective volleys.
A boy’s training in archery, which became mandatory in England in 1363, usually began at about age seven. Military archers were handpicked from the best at tournaments. When going to war, the archer carried extra bow frames, called staves, along with three bowstrings for each stave. He kept his arrows in a quiver or stuffed them into his belt. They usually carried some 24—six or eight light arrows for greater range, the rest heavier ones for greater penetrating power. The British archer was also armed with a sword or battleax and in some cases a maul, a five-foot-long mallet. He wore a steel cap and light, flexible armor covered by a white surcoat emblazoned with the Lion of St. George.
Having quelled the Scots at Halidon Hill, Edward turned his attention to France. A few years earlier, after the death of Charles IV of France, Edward had claimed the French throne. His mother was the sister of Charles IV and two other French kings—all children of King Philippe the Fair. But an assembly of French vassals, prelates, and notables rejected the 16- year-old and handed the throne to Charles’s cousin, 35-year-old Philippe of Valois, who became Philip VI.
Philip seemed unsure of his right to reign. His wife, Joan of Burgundy, a strong-willed and intelligent woman who one chronicler said “caused the destruction of those who opposed her will,” dominated him. Philip, like his great-grandfather Saint Louis IX, was a religious man but lacked his relative’s intelligence or willpower. He was fascinated with the Beatific Vision, the idea that the righteous dead would see God face-to-face after death, and feuded with Pope John XXII about it.
Edward initially accepted his loss of the French throne, even crossing the English Channel to pay homage to Philip. France at the time was stronger even than the Holy Roman Empire, with a force of knights and men-at-arms believed to be the greatest in Western Europe. With 11 million people, the country had about four times the population of England. Paris alone boasted 150,000 residents— three times that of London. While France was a rich land with merchants, artists, fine cities, and cathedrals, England was then a poor country with its wealth, what little there was, to be found in its wool.
Still, as his coup against his mother showed, Edward suffered no lack of self-confidence. Solidly built with long, blond hair and a trimmed beard, he has been criticized as self-indulgent and vain. But he also was bold, aggressive, and adept at war and politics. Edward loved tournaments, hunting, and war. Filling his court with military men, many of them jousting champions and veterans of the Scottish campaigns, he would go on to become one of England’s greatest military leaders, thanks largely to the longbow tactics he adopted.
In the years after Edward’s 1333 victory over the Scots, tensions be- tween France and England bubbled over. When the 10-year-old king of Scotland, David II, fled after the Halidon Hill defeat, Philip gave him safe harbor. The French monarch confiscated valuable lands of Edward’s in the Duchy of Aquitaine, or Guyenne, in southwest France—lands that English kings had ruled since 1152, when Eleanor of Aquitane had divorced the French king Louis VII to marry Henry II of England.
Meanwhile privateers from France began preying on English merchant ships and coastal towns, including Dover and Folkestone. Southampton was burned, as well as almost all of Portsmouth. French ships even appeared in the estuary of the Thames east of London.
Edward, in turn, took up residence in Antwerp and launched attacks against Le Tréport, Boulogne, and other towns in the north of France. In 1339 he personally led an invasion campaign and met a French force of 35,000. Philip withdrew without giving battle, but Edward, who was running out of money, retreated, burning and destroying everything in his path.
On February 6, 1340, Edward renewed his claim to the French throne and called an assembly at Ghent, unveiling a banner with the golden lilies of France on blue as well as the golden lions of England on red. Returning to England, he asked Parliament for new taxes and prepared to invade France again, assembling a fleet on the Suffolk coast. He also sent a letter to Philip challenging him to personal combat, a letter Philip never answered.
Neither the French nor the English had a large navy at that time, in part because of the hefty cost of shipbuilding and maintenance. Aristocrats also considered naval warfare insignificant, its strategy unsophisticated. Edward’s father and grandfather had a few ships, and Philip IV had built a dockyard at Rouen, the capital of Normandy. Typically, however, Western European kings in need of boats impressed whatever merchant ships could be had and outfitted them for battle.
Before invading France, Edward III planned to destroy a French fleet gathering on the coast of what is now the Netherlands at the town of Sluys, near the mouth of the River Zwyn. This fleet threatened his lines of communication with the Continent as well as his wool and wine trade. Edward also suspected that the growing French fleet foretold a coming invasion of England.
Histories disagree as to the size of the two fleets. It is possible that Edward had as many as 250 ships, with about 4,000 men-at-arms and 12,000 archers. One chronicler claimed he had 147 ships. The majority of his fleet were cogs, 30- to 40-ton merchant ships that were broad-beamed and of shallow draft, with high sides and rounded bows and poops. Navigated with a rudder, they carried a single square sail and could be fitted with towers fore and aft from which archers could fire down on enemy craft. Naval tactics of the day usually consisted simply of maneuvering downwind of an enemy ship, then ramming it to sink it or drive it aground.
Some accounts suggest Philip had 200 ships; Edward in a letter to his son put the number at 190. Regardless, Edward’s advisers repeatedly warned he was outnumbered by the French and should avoid combat. Undaunted, the English king is said to have replied, “I shall cross the sea and those who are afraid may stay at home.”
Philip’s fleet included Genoese mercenaries as well as ships from its ally Castile, a small kingdom in what is now Spain. The French had cogs as well as a number of galleys—fast, flat-bottomed craft propelled by oars and sail and armed with stone-throwing catapults and a ram. Without a keel, they could skim very close to shore and be used as landing craft. Their oars also made them more maneuverable than Edward’s cogs, which would put the English at considerable disadvantage on the open seas.
Commanded by Edward aboard the cog Thomas, the English fleet sailed on June 22, 1340, less than six months after the assembly at Ghent. On the way an additional 50 vessels joined him. The English arrived off the coast near Sluys the next day.
Three squires sent ashore as scouts returned and reported that the French had “so great a number of ships that their masts seemed a great wood.”
The French fleet was commanded by Admirals Hugues Quiéret and Nicolas Béhuchet. Neither was a seaman; Béhuchet, in fact, was a former tax collector. The captain of the Genoese troops, Pietro Barbavera, unsuccessfully lobbied the French admirals to put out to sea and meet Edward where they would have the advantage of their fast galleys. Instead, the French formed their fleet into three lines, one behind the other, with ships in each line chained together, a common tactic of the day. Crossbowmen defended each vessel. In all, the French had about 20,000 men— most of whom had never seen battle—as well as some 150 French knights and 400 mercenary crossbowmen.
The night of his arrival Edward arranged his fleet into three lines. Each ship filled with men-at-arms was flanked by two filled with longbowmen—a variation of the formation that had worked so well at Halidon Hill. He kept a fourth squadron defended solely by archers in reserve.
Early the next morning, June 24, the English entered the harbor on the high tide with the sun behind them and the wind with them. Recognizing the danger, Barbavera again pressed the French to put out to sea. Again he was rebuffed. His Genoese galleys quietly slipped their anchors and fled the harbor.
About 9 a.m., the English sailed directly into the French, their ships aligned “like a line of castles,” according to one chronicler. The sky darkened with clouds of arrows and crossbow bolts. When the English ships crashed into the French, Edward’s men threw over ropes and grappling hooks to bind the mass together like a large raft. The tactic gave the longbowmen easy targets. At such close range, their shafts pierced chain mail and even shields an inch thick.
Soon the decks of the French ships turned into a jumble of dead and dying. The Frenchmen who escaped the initial volleys huddled behind the corpses, shielding themselves from the rain of arrows. As the archers continued their slaughter, English men-at-arms boarded the French ships with swords, axes, and pikes. Seamen threw stones and quicklime from the masts.
The action surged back and forth like a land battle, with men slipping on the blood-slicked decks. According to one report, Edward’s white boots were covered in blood from a wound in the leg. When the English became too mixed with the French for the archers to shoot toward the deck, they joined the fighting with their mauls and swords. Jean Froissart, the French chronicler who is believed to have talked with men who fought at Sluys, later described the fighting as “right fierce and terrible.”
The battle continued until about noon, when Philip’s two admirals surrendered. One was beheaded, the other hanged. The sight of his body swinging from the yard – arm sowed panic among the French. As night settled over a harbor of burning ships and floating bodies, 30 French vessels fled. The remainder of the French fleet, as many as 170 ships, had been captured or sunk. Edward claimed that 30,000 French had been killed, but a more reasonable estimate would be 10,000. The English lost about 4,000 men and one ship.
According to legend, Philip’s court jester was the only man who dared tell the king of the humiliating defeat. He softened the news by claiming that the English were cowards because they dared not jump into the sea as the brave French fighters had.
Sluys proved to be the first major battle of the Hundred Years’ War. Edward’s victory only earned him temporary control of the English Channel, but it did protect England from invasion. The battle also introduced England to Western Europe as a military power with a weapon—the longbow— that changed the calculus of the fighting for more than a century. English archers, as one historian has noted, became “the artillery of the army.”
Sixteen years later, in 1346, Edward again landed in the north of France. He took Caen and met Philip’s forces in a legendary battle at Crécy. Outnumbered at least two-to-one as well as nearly three-to-one in men-at-arms, Edward deployed the formation he had used at Halidon Hill and Sluys. His massed longbowmen first knocked out Philip’s mercenary crossbowmen, then decimated the heavily armored French cavalry as it charged, killing many of France’s leading nobles. Edward’s use of archers on the flanks of his cavalry would become known as the Crécy formation, and the battle would go down as one of the greatest tactical triumphs in military history.
For the next century, the longbow and the tactics honed at Halidon Hill would prove critical to British victories. When repeated truces failed, Edward’s son, the Black Prince, invaded France in 1355 and—again using the Crécy formation— inflicted a crushing defeat, even capturing King John. In 1415, at Agincourt, though again outnumbered, the English relied on the archers to soundly defeat the French, a victory that prepared the way for English domination in France.
By the early 15th century, however, the French finally recognized that the longbow was lethal to large-scale, medieval-type attacks of armored cavalry. Changing tactics, they attacked while the English were on the march, in camp, or in a town—before they had a chance to select the battleground and establish defensive positions. French victories began to mount. In 1429, led by the 16-year-old Joan of Arc, they raised the siege of Orléans in north-central France and later routed the English at nearby Patay. The tide of war began to turn. In 1450, the French defeated the English at the coastal town of Formigny when the French enfiladed the English line with two guns, the first time in the Hundred Years’ War that the French deployed field artillery.
Gunpowder began to play a larger role in warfare, though the archer and his bow remained the superior weapon, firing faster and with greater penetrating power and accuracy. But as the 15th century progressed, cannons grew more efficient. In addition, a gunner could be trained in a matter of months, whereas it took years to make a skilled archer. In the War of the Roses, fought by the English families of Lancaster and York after the Hundred Years’ War, cannons and archers were often combined. By 1622, the longbow was no longer routinely mentioned among the weapons of the English army.
Historians have argued that the longbow was still superior to the musket at the time of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, noting that it had greater range and accuracy as well as a better rate of fire. Even as late as 1846, the effective range of the British musket was at best 150 yards, still far short of the longbow’s.
Nonetheless, the demise of the longbow was inevitable as guns improved. The breechloading rifle presented another benefit: A man could load and fire while lying down. The longbowman, meanwhile, had to stand to load and fire, presenting a good target.
The longbow had completely faded from history by 1792, when an English lieutenant colonel named Lee advocated its return. It was faster and more accurate than a musket, he argued, and a musket generated smoke that often blinded the rifleman. In addition, Lee claimed, a flight of arrows was more dispiriting and terrifying than any volley of gunfire—something the French had learned at Sluys, Crécy, and Agincourt.
But the longbow’s day was over. The English command took no action on Colonel Lee’s proposal.
Originally published in the Summer 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.