Leongatha Medieval Society












A brief summary 


Len Buckland

Some weapons have carved a bloody name for themselves in history.  Weapons such as the Roman gladius, the Japanese katana and the British brown bess musket come to mind.  But not many can match the aura or legendary status of the English warbow, more commonly referred to as the English longbow.  Few weapons conjure up images of glorious victories against the odds like this most simple of bows that transformed England from a military backwater into Europe ’s most respected military power of the 14th and 15th centuries.


The longbow was used throughout Western Europe and Britain for hunting and early warfare, but it seems the Vikings were probably the first people to have used it extensively for warfare in their raids and invasions. Although the longbow was a popular weapon of the English, it was the archers of southern Wales that made the English re-appraise the usefulness of the weapon at a time when the longbow was being pushed aside by the crossbow.


During Edward 1 conquest of Wales, the Welsh had  shown that, if you made the bows big enough, you could make it an effective frontline weapon against the armoured elite of the day, not just a support weapon used more for harassing the enemy and only really effective against un-armoured opponents.


King Edward set about establishing a national training programme throughout England to convert his archers to more powerful bows and the English warbow in its true form was born.  Unlike the Welsh bow that was mainly made from wych elm, the English bow was made from yew, usually imported from Spain or Italy .  However, Yew, as now was highly sought after for bow making and  because every able-bodied boy and man was required to train in archery at least once a week and with the crown buying up most of the best yew bows for its armies, bowyers started making bows from ash and elm to help meet demand.


So, how big were these bows? Well, we know that to be considered for military service an archer had to be able to shoot a battle shaft of 3-4oz at least 220 yards and to do that you generally need a bow of at least 110 lbs and more like 120 -130lb to achieve it consistently.  Also, as the 14th century went on, armour improved considerably and so the bows could only have got bigger.  It’s interesting to note that modern replicas of the warbows found on the wreck of the warship ‘Mary Rose’ when made of the same Italian yew as the originals, usually come in somewhere between 110lb and 180lb with the average around 140lb.


The first large battle where the English used the warbow to great effect was the battle of Falkirk in 1298 where archers were used to break up the Scottish formations of spearmen.  But, with the death of King Edward 1, the military might of England went backwards until his grandson, Edward 111 was made king.  Like his grandfather, Edward 111 was an ambitious, warrior king who saw the potential of archery and he now had the means to really make it work.


In the years between Edward 1 death and Edward 111 becoming king, the English had taken to archery in a scale not seen before in previous generations and unmatched anywhere in Europe and they now had the archers in both the numbers and skill to make the most of the warbow.


Edward 111 re-organised the army so that archers were now the main component and  devised the tactics that would bring him victories over the Scots at Dupplin Moor and Halidon Hill.  Even though outnumbered, his armies at these battles slaughtered the Scots, mainly due to his companies of archers.


Edward 111 most famous victory however was against the French at the battle of Crecy where his army of around 12,000 men, of whom over half were archers, defeated the best army France could field numbering around 40,000 men.


After Crecy , the warbow was used to win victories for the English at other famous battles; against the Scots at Neville’s Cross, Homildon Hill and Flodden, and against the French at Poitiers and Agincourt and a score of smaller battles.


By the early 16th century, guns were becoming lighter, more reliable and easier to use and the great English warbow went into decline until it more or less had vanished from the battle field by the late 1500’s.  Lucky for us though, as it declined in military service its sporting cousin, the English longbow or butt bow remained, as archery as a sport grew in popularity and is with us till this day.