The English Longbowman


The English military ascendancy which lasted from the mid-14th to the early 15th century was founded upon defensive tactics based on the use of the longbow. This weapon, distinctive in that it was used by English forces alone, was probably the most effective missile weapon of the Late Middle Ages: its arrow had the same penetrative ability as a modern day bullet and the bow’s rate of fire was not equalled by any weapon used by English forces until the adoption of the Lee Enfield rifle at the beginning of the 20th century. So formidable was its performance that the French actually refused, by and large, to engage English forces in the open field between 1360 and 1400. It was crucial in the winning of such famous and influential battles as Halidon Hill (1333), Crècy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and, most famously, Agincourt (1415). Its eventual obsolescence and withdrawal from the 16th century onwards was due to the increasing use of firearms; not because they performed any better than this traditional string-drawn weapon, but because they were far easier to train a man to use.

The historical English/Welsh longbowmen were considered members of the standing army, as both archer and infantry within the military structure. They were trained as hard as any armsman, and were in just as good physical condition.

Their bows did require that they wear lighter armor, which was a liability in close quarters combat, but longbowmen generally were still very skilled with a sword. The time training in the use of the bow did not take them away from practicing their swordplay, just from practicing close quarters drill that the regular armsman learned. So longbowman didn’t lack in melee skills, just melee tactics.

One very good reason that longbowmen practiced sword use was that they would do so in order to be harder to recognize as a longbowman! If a battle was going bad longbowman fearing capture would drop their bows and fight with swords as a melee. Why? Captured prisoners of war that were thought of being possible longbowman were usually ransomed back to their kingdom, but not after having both of their draw fingers cut off. A bowman who could use a sword adeptly, came back home with all his digits intact. That was enough to assure that they learned to be proficient in the sword so they could playoff of as being nothing more than “light infantry” if captured.

As the name implies, the longbow was generally longer in length than the common bow. The bow length was usually the height of the archer with the arrow length half that. By virtue of its greater length and bowstring span, the long bow let fly a more powerful arrow over greater distances. Longbows were simple bows, meaning they were constructed of a single material (wood, preferably yew with elm as a substitute). Associated almost exclusively with the Welsh and English during medieval Europe, the long bow was particularly responsible for revolutionizing the way in which large scale combat was conducted: in the first three organized employments of the long bow, at the battles of Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, English longbowmen decimated the French ranks several hundred yards away. Forced to dismount and cover the distance to the English lines on foot, exhausted French knights in full plate armor proved little match for the waiting English soldiers. For the first time since the days of the Roman legions, the foot soldier once again ruled the battlefield.

English armies of our period were composed primarily of two types of troops: archers and men-at-arms. Other types appeared from time to time but were always in the minority. While proportions of troops varied throughout the Hundred Years War, in general, the ratio of archers to other troops rose as the war went on. In 1334 (when the first reference to a mounted archer appears) the ratio of men-at-arms to archers was 1 to 1. Late in Edward’s reign the ratio was usually 2 to 1. By the early fifteenth century, it was up to 3 to 1, as was specified by Henry V’s indenture of 1415. Actual proportions in the field were often higher, reaching an estimated 4 to 1 in the late fourteenth century. The extra archers beyond those called for in indentures came from specially raised bodies of “army archers” and the use of town militias from garrisoned French towns.
English armies were not large. The largest of the period, raised in 1347 by Edward III to lay siege to Calais consisted of just over 32,000 men of whom just over 20,000 were archers, about 1/5 of them mounted. Edward’s recruiting methods for that army were unpopular and thereafter no army exceeded 10,000 to 12,000 men.

The organization of English armies is a little vague. A captain, whether noble or common, commanded a body of men. Apparently no minimum number was necessary. Men were often arranged into 20s, 100s, and 1000s. Under this scheme 19 men were commanded by the twentieth, the vintenar. Five of these units were commanded by a centenar. Such units were formed at enlistment. At an assembly point such as a regional headquarters or a port of embarkation, the 20s and 100s could be amalgamated into 1000s. How retainers and retinues fit into this scheme is not clear.

cresy Ultimately the troops were grouped into three “battles”: the vanward, the mainward, and the rearward. On the march, the van and the flanks were screened by detachments of mounted archers and men-at-arms. When drawn up for an engagement, the army could deploy in a linear fashion and fight with all three battles simultaneously or in a columnar fashion and fight with each battle sequentially. Columns were favored for offensive operations, the depth of formation providing mass at the point of contact and offering a greater chance of achieving a decisive penetration of an enemy line. The English favored finding a good defensive location, deploying the battles in line, and waiting for the enemy to come to them. The line formation covered considerable frontage and was difficult to outflank, especially when anchored, as the English were known to do, in difficult or impassable terrain.

But pitched battles were something the English avoided for most of the Hundred Years War. Theirs was a different strategy. Rather then risk all in a decisive engagement, they preferred the strategy of chevauchée, a looting, pillaging, destructive raiding style of warfare designed to demonstrate that the French king could not protect his subjects. It was no coincidence that such a strategy filled English coffers and made rich men of successful soldiers.

(c) La Belle Compagnie, Inc., 1998


1415 AD – 25th October – Battle of Agincourt – Henry V of England army was attacked by the French army near Calais. Some 60,000 French soldiers faced off 6,000 English soldiers, mainly archers. The opposing forces faced each other for several hours waiting to see who would move first. Henry sounded the attack, whereby the archers advanced a short distance and planted a row of stakes in front of them. This prompted the French to attack with a cavalry charge. This charge was repelled, but the retreating force ran into the second charge of the advancing French cavalry. This caused mass confusion in the French attack.
The English archers continued to shower arrows down on the French cavalry until finally running out of arrows. The archers then attacked with swords, daggers and even mallets they had used to drive in the stakes.
Some accounts state as many as 10,000 French soldiers killed, with only 100 English soldiers killed. Other accounts state only 29 English killed.

Examples the various types of arrow tips used during the 15th. Century.

The ‘barbed’ arrow tips were the most common used.
The small triangular tips without ‘barbs’ were used to pierce the chainmail armour.
The ‘half-moon’ arrow tips were used to shoot through the rigging ropes of opposing ships.

Some very interesting historical notes about the longbow…

The V symbol (for Victory, and now Peace) formed with the index and middle finger, palm outward, popularized by Winston Churchill during WWII, has a very different connotation in Britain when formed with the back of the hand toward the target of the symbol. It means essentially the same thing as showing them your middle finger. English longbow men of the middle ages gave the V-symbol, palm facing inward, its significance as an insult. At the battle of Agincourt, the English longbowmen wreaked havoc upon the French knights. As a result, from that point forward, the French would cut off the index and middle finger of any English archer they captured; this would prevent the archer from ever drawing a bowstring again. In response to the French practice, English longbowmen would flaunt their intact index and middle fingers at their French adversaries from across the battlefield in future conflicts, and thus the symbol derives its very insulting nature among modern day British culture. (thanks to Vollendam for that anecdote!)

The longbow was not a weapon for the weak-hearted or weak-armed. The bowstring itself required in upwards of 100 foot-pounds of pressure to draw it, let alone aim it properly. Further, English archers were required to hit a man-sized target with their arrows at more than 200 yards distance. While a great weapon in and of itself, the longbow was even more deadly in the hands of a skilled archer.