The English and Welsh Longbow

Foxbat

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I'm busy reading a book on the history of the Border Reivers and, at one point, there's an account of the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333. This was an English victory in which the longbow played a large part.

What interested me was the detail given about an arrow piercing armour. Essentially, the longbow men had become skilled in using gravity to help them kill their targets. They would fire high in the air and the arrow would acquire extra momentum through gravity. This often allowed the arrows to pierce armour. But here's the rub: often the arrow could pierce platemail and even a chainmail shirt underneath but lost so much energy in the process that it didn't pierce the flesh all that armour was protecting. But it still had a devastating effect. Many knights on horseback could survive the arrow piercing but the movement on horseback caused that arrow to rub against and lacerate the skin - to such an extent that many riders would have to dismount and remove their armour to gain relief. Apparently, this also happened at Agincourt, and the sheer number of French Knights stopping to dismount and disarmour caused mayhem and crush in the ranks behind.

It sounds like all those terrible medieval battles were probably even more terrible than we imagined.
 

CupofJoe

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A little grey cloud of arrows, a strange whistling sound as they arc closer over you and then intense pain.
I always feel sorry for the horses. Most of them had far less armour than their riders and a much large "footprint".
 

svalbard

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I'm busy reading a book on the history of the Border Reivers and, at one point, there's an account of the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333. This was an English victory in which the longbow played a large part.

What interested me was the detail given about an arrow piercing armour. Essentially, the longbow men had become skilled in using gravity to help them kill their targets. They would fire high in the air and the arrow would acquire extra momentum through gravity. This often allowed the arrows to pierce armour. But here's the rub: often the arrow could pierce platemail and even a chainmail shirt underneath but lost so much energy in the process that it didn't pierce the flesh all that armour was protecting. But it still had a devastating effect. Many knights on horseback could survive the arrow piercing but the movement on horseback caused that arrow to rub against and lacerate the skin - to such an extent that many riders would have to dismount and remove their armour to gain relief. Apparently, this also happened at Agincourt, and the sheer number of French Knights stopping to dismount and disarmour caused mayhem and crush in the ranks behind.

It sounds like all those terrible medieval battles were probably even more terrible than we imagined.

70 years later another Douglas would lead the Scots in an equally disastrous battle against the English at Homildon Hill. The Longbow again proved very effective and the Scots tactics did not change.
 

Foxbat

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70 years later another Douglas would lead the Scots in an equally disastrous battle against the English at Homildon Hill. The Longbow again proved very effective and the Scots tactics did not change.
I’ve just reached that part in the book I’m reading. Archibald Douglas, son of Archibald ‘The Grim’. After the defeat, he became known as Archibald The Tyneman (which is, apparently, an old Scottish word for loser).
 

svalbard

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What is the book? Love reading about that area.
 

svalbard

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download (6).jpeg


I read this book a number of years ago about the Percy family. It is a tremendous read and obviously deals a lot with the border.
 

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That was new to me and interesting.
I had heard on documentaries that the arrows in the ground were a serious tripping hazard and that they possibly, when they had enough arrows, would put down several runs of arrows into the ground in front of a charge, which would have stuck up to knee high, in the hope of slowing or tripping the horses.

Also heard that the French thought that the English were playing dirty. That it was supposed to be noble knight vs noble knight, and you shouldn't let peasants kill knights. Not sure if that is true, would be interested in what say @sknox or one of our other historians thinks.
 

svalbard

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I have actually read a few of Alistair's books. Must check this one out.
 

paranoid marvin

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My understanding is that there is no common consensus on the matter.

We sometimes see modern demonstrations of a sheet of metal equivalent to armour, or a piece of chainmail being put on a dummy, and then an arrow fired into it. The arrow does/doesn't pierce the armour and we have a 'conclusive' answer. But things don't work that way in real life.

Part of the problem is that there were was no uniformity. Different strengths of bow, different types of shaft with different types of head. Lots of different types of armour of varying quality and of various types and coverings. It could even depend on the type of weather, the strength of the archer and some plain, simple luck.

Armour isn't perfect protection. Henry V was hit in the face by part of an arrow, and Henry 'Hotspur' Percy was also (possibly) killed by an arrow. Arrows force the knight to cover as much of himself with armour as possible, and also keep his face visor closed. Both of these things make him less effective at being what he is designed to be - a killing machine on the battlefield.

Which is one of the reasons why you have a shower of arrows, rather than individual sharpshooters (although you could have those as well). Lots of arrows kills the thing that makes a knight most effective - his horse - and his retinue, as well as the un- or lightly-protected ground troops who would stop him from being overrun by enemies. A rain of arrows also (quite literally) find chinks in the knight's armour, as well as weak parts. A suit of armour that has been through a few battles will have lumps and bumps, and likely have been hammered back into shape. Or may have been handed down, stolen or captured and had to be reshaped for the new owner. Such armour may have weak spots, which would only become apparent when an arrow comes flying into it.

An arrow may pierce armour and then come up against padding underneath. It may also pierce the padding, and even if not fatal become quite uncomfortable for the recipient, especially if there are several. It also would be quite difficult to easily remove, and could hamper the vision or movement of the knight. As well as this, a 'lucky shot' could go through a visor, or shatter and send shards of the shaft through slit holes. And even if an arrow did only scratch the skin, the lack of antibiotics could mean the wound proved fatal. Richard I didn't die from an arrow/bolt in his shoulder, he died from the infected wound. Knights would know this, and although it wouldn't make them stay away from the battlefield, it may encourage them to stay out of the firing line.

Knights wore armour for several reasons. One was that it made them look good on the battlefield. It also made them stand out, and although they would be more of a target for the enemy, they would also be a rallying point for their own troops. It also meant that if they were captured or surrounded on the battlefield, they would more likely survive as their attackers would know they were worth a fortune in ransom money and so (probably) wouldn't kill them out of hand.

Some may say "Well if it didn't stop arrows, why did they wear it?", and I would answer this in two ways. Armour was designed for melee combat, and (other than concussive wounds) it would protect the wearer very well against bladed weapons. So the knight's job was to get to close quarters in a battle as quickly as possible, for which a horse could prove useful. Arrows could -directly and indirectly - kill or seriously hamper a person wearing armour, but here's the key thing - it was better than wearing nothing. It was the most modern, most expensive, piece of kit on the battlefield and whilst it wasn't perfect there was nothing.

So I think that the main point of arrows on the battlefield was to kill all the 'support services' of the knight, as well as forcing him into protecting himself as much as possible. Which meant he had reduced vision, reduced movement, was less effective with a weapon, and could even lead to heat exhaustion.
 

paranoid marvin

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That was new to me and interesting.
I had heard on documentaries that the arrows in the ground were a serious tripping hazard and that they possibly, when they had enough arrows, would put down several runs of arrows into the ground in front of a charge, which would have stuck up to knee high, in the hope of slowing or tripping the horses.

Also heard that the French thought that the English were playing dirty. That it was supposed to be noble knight vs noble knight, and you shouldn't let peasants kill knights. Not sure if that is true, would be interested in what say @sknox or one of our other historians thinks.


Yes, hedges of arrows could be a deterrent, especially if holes had been dug into the earth, and the horses were guided into them by getting around the arrows. An awful fate for the horses, but effective in stopping charging knights.

This was the idea of chivalry, which never really happened (especially on the battlefield). Knights were pretty annoyed about the fact that they had years of training, spent fortunes on armour, horse, retinue and weapons. All of which made them highly skilled killers on the battlefield. They were pretty much unstoppable, and knew that almost any military encounter they went into, they would very likely survive. Then along came the crossbow; now an illiterate peasant dragged from his ploughing, and with the minimum of skill, strength and training could bring him down with a single shot. Not at all 'chivalric' and pretty annoying for the knights; so much so that the Pope tried to ban its use.
 

Montero

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So it was the cross bow not the long bow they were annoyed by?

Also is a bit like the films where everyone has a posh fast car and the race in won by the kid in the souped up banger.
 
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paranoid marvin

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So it was the cross bow not the long bow they were annoyed by?


The crossbow could be used by anyone of almost any age or sex. It required little strength or skill to use (although both were an advantage). A bow (especially a longbow) at least required both to be used effectively. Richard I was slain by a crossbowman, who some say was just a child.

If you were on the losing side in any battle, and unless you were rich, you would likely come in for ill treatment whether you used a halberd, club or bow. According to some, the crossbowmen were given 'special treatment' (although this is disputed). But seeing as most of the invading English army in France (other than knights) were crossbowmen, it's difficult to know if they were really treated any differently.
 

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OK - I thought they were mostly longbowmen not crossbowmen. Live and learn. I read Bowman of Crecy by Ronald Welch years back and it is an excellent account of the training and skills of a longbowman by the way. Like the whole series. Written for teens really, but a readable clean history that gets the details right - well as per 1950s knowledge and has a good range of characters. The main character is not a macho plonker in any of his books.
 

paranoid marvin

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OK - I thought they were mostly longbowmen not crossbowmen. Live and learn. I read Bowman of Crecy by Ronald Welch years back and it is an excellent account of the training and skills of a longbowman by the way. Like the whole series. Written for teens really, but a readable clean history that gets the details right - well as per 1950s knowledge and has a good range of characters. The main character is not a macho plonker in any of his books.


Apologies, I meant to say the English were mainly longbowmen, especially during the Hundred Years war. The crossbowmen tended to be from the Continent.

Bernard Cornwell wrote a great set of novels featuring an archer Thomas of Hookton which are well worth a read.
 

Danny McG

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Question about longbows for all you history buffs..

I was taught that longbow training formed a part of the medieval peasant's life. They had compulsory practice most Sundays to both develop their strength and accuracy.
My question is, how was all this managed?

Did some soldiers come out from the local lord's castle to supervise this practice?
Did someone keep records so they'd know if some peasant was skiving off?
What was the practice criteria, did they have to fire a certain amount of arrows during the session or hit a number of targets?
Was it a roughly standardised training all around the English villages, so when the call to arms happened the king would know his archers were of a similar skill?
 

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I have a 50lb English Long bow (hand made from Oak) and from what I learned from research is that the loyalty to the crown was strong, despite ones views. Their bow draw was much more than that. (80-100 I believe) And their main form of practice was to hit the trunk of a large tree at 100 yards as fast and as many times as they could.

Bullseye targets may have been used be the Nobel, but the peasants had the woods around them. So, if they could hit the trunk of a large tree at 100 yards, they could hit a deer or person at that distance. Professional archers practiced more often and as thus, could do so more often and a bit faster.

So, from my understanding as they readied for war (Please correct me if I am wrong!) was:
"Here are some arrows, now hit that tree trunk at 100 yards. Go!"
 

CupofJoe

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Question about longbows for all you history buffs..

I was taught that longbow training formed a part of the medieval peasant's life. They had compulsory practice most Sundays to both develop their strength and accuracy.
My question is, how was all this managed?

Did some soldiers come out from the local lord's castle to supervise this practice?
Did someone keep records so they'd know if some peasant was skiving off?
What was the practice criteria, did they have to fire a certain amount of arrows during the session or hit a number of targets?
Was it a roughly standardised training all around the English villages, so when the call to arms happened the king would know his archers were of a similar skill?
I will bow [no pun intended] to the historians amongst up, but as I understood it, the Lord was responsible to their boss for supplying V knights, X Men-at-Arms and Y Archers and Z levees if called upon. So there was an incentive to keep training going all the time.
You can learn to use a bow in a couple of hours. It would be the repetition in practice that gave them the ability to do it for hours on end.
I'm guessing that most archers would be used for volley attacks rather than sharp shooting so I can see something like golf practice when you try to lengthen your tee-shot by doing it time and time again, perfecting technique and gaining muscle memory.
I live near two smallish town both of which have large common ground called "The Butts".
In years gone by [1970s] I can remember archery days on at least one of them. I'm not saying the tradition lasted that long, but the original use of the land was still remembered.
 

paranoid marvin

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Good question.

After the battles of Crecy and Poitiers, it became clear that the longbow was not only an effective weapon and a battle winner, the French had no real tactics against it (at that time).

Longbowmen were cheap to arm, required little to no armour and relatively little training. What they did need were strong biceps, forearms and fingers accustomed to firing arrows. It was a long term stratagem, and required young men to condition their arms, hands and spines to drawing a bow over a period of months and years.

For most young boys and men, having seen the glorious victories at Crecy and Poitiers fought and won not by rich nobles but by common folk like themselves, which of them would  not have leapt at the chance to emulate their heroes over in France, or to impress their friends and fair maidens? Handy too for hunting, and no doubt there would have been fairs, events and tourneys held with prizes and fame to be won. Although in an earlier period of history Robin Hood entered an archery competition.

For those conscripted into the army, an archer's life wasn't a bad one. For a start you wouldn't be at the forefront of the action: indeed the lightly armoured highly-valued bowmen would have been some of the best protected soldiers on the battlefield. Preferable to being handed a scythe and a rusty piece of chain mail, and being stuck in the front line as a barrier between the knights and your opponents.

The law introduced by Edward III was arguably more of case of ensuring that money was set aside for equipment and rudimentary training by the local landowner.

In times of war, the landowner would be expected to produce these men for inspection, and it would become immediately obvious if any had not kept up their training. Even the briefest of inspections by the King's sheriffs, under-sheriffs or their subordinates would be able to tell if the young men had been keeping up their archery practice.

Then there would no doubt have been heavy fines handed out. So it was in no one's interest  not to practice archery.

It's interesting to note that it's said the French didn't adopt similar tactics because they didn't want their peasants armed and trained with such deadly weapons.
 

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