Securing Henry V’s famous victory at the Battle of Agincourt, the English longbow was a powerful weapon used throughout the medieval period. The impact of the longbow has been popularised for centuries by popular culture in stories of outlaws and great battles where armies showered arrows down upon one another.
Here are 10 facts you need to know about medieval England’s most notorious weapon.
1. Longbows date back to the Neolithic period
Often thought to have originated from Wales, there is evidence the long ‘D’ shaped weapon was in use during the Neolithic period. One such bow dating to around 2700 BC and made of yew, was found in Somerset in 1961, while there is thought to be another in Scandinavia.
Nonetheless, the Welsh were renowned for their skill with longbows: having subdued Wales, Edward I hired Welsh archers for his campaigns against Scotland.
2. The longbow rose to legendary status under Edward III during the Hundred Years’ War
The longbow first rose to prominence during the Battle of Crecy with Edward’s force of 8,000 men led by the Black Prince, his son. With a firing rate of 3 to 5 volleys per minute the French were no match for the English and Welsh bowmen who could fire 10 or 12 arrows in the same amount of time. The English also prevailed despite reports that rain had adversely affected the bowstrings of the crossbows.
3. Archery practice was allowed on holy days
Recognising the tactical advantage they had with longbowmen, English monarchs encouraged all Englishmen to gain skill with the longbow. The demand for skilled archers meant archery was even allowed on Sundays (traditionally a day of church and prayer for Christians) by Edward III. In 1363, during the Hundred Years’ War, archery practice was ordered on Sundays and holidays.
4. Longbows took years to make
During the medieval period English bowyers would have waited years to dry and gradually bend the wood to make a longbow. Yet longbows were a popular and economic weapon because they could be made from a single piece of wood. In England, this traditionally would have been yew or ash with a string made from hemp.
5. Longbows secured Henry V’s victory at Agincourt
Longbows would reach up to 6 feet tall (often as tall as the man wielding it) and could fire an arrow almost 1,000 feet. Although accuracy was really dependent on quantity, and longbowmen were used like artillery, firing huge numbers of arrows in successive waves.
This tactic was used during the famous Battle of Agincourt in 1415, when 25,000 French forces met Henry V’s 6,000 English troops in the rain and mud. The English, the majority of which were longbowmen, rained arrows down upon the French, who became unnerved and spread in all directions trying to escape.
6. Longbowmen adapted to changing times
The type of arrow-head used with the longbow changed throughout the medieval period. At first archers used the highly expensive and more accurate broad-head arrows that looked like a ‘V’. Yet as infantrymen such as knights were better outfitted with tougher armour, archers began using chisel-shaped bodkin arrow-heads that would certainly still pack a punch, especially to cavalrymen charging forwards with galloping momentum.
7. Longbowmen took more than a bow into battle
During times of war, English longbowmen were outfitted by their employer, usually their local lord or king. According to a household accounting book from 1480, a typical English longbowman was protected from the string whipping back by brigandine, a type of canvas or leather armour strengthened by small steel plates.
He was also issued a pair of splints for arm defences as using a longbow took a lot of strength and energy. And of course, a longbow would be little use without a sheaf of arrows.
8. The longbow has been popularised by legendary outlaw Robin Hood
In 1377, the poet William Langland first mentioned Robyn Hode in his poem Piers Plowman, describing an outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor. The folk legend Robin Hood has been shown in modern depictions to use a longbow, such as the iconic 1991 film starring Kevin Costner. These images of the outlaw have undoubtedly spread awareness to today’s audiences of the longbow’s significance both for hunting and combat in English medieval life.
9. Over 130 longbows survive today
While no English longbows survive from their heyday in the 13th to 15th centuries, more than 130 bows survive from the Renaissance period. An incredible recovery of 3,500 arrows and 137 whole longbows came from the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s ship that sank at Portsmouth in 1545.
10. The last battle involving the longbow took place in 1644 during the English Civil War.
During the Battle of Tippermuir, the Marquis of Montrose’s Royalist forces in support of Charles I fought the Scottish Presbyterian government, with heavy losses for the government. The town of Perth was subsequently sacked. Muskets, cannons and guns soon dominated the battlefield, marking the end of active service for the famed English longbow.