History has always fueled the base for national pride. If you’re American, you probably think of the revolution. The French might think of Napoleon Bonaparte or the great feats of architectural design. The English have their own self glamorized moments from history, the Victorian age is one such example. But England also tends to pick battles from its history to demonstrate its strength. Seen in its lore around The Spanish Armada, or, The Hundreds Year War.
The Hundred Years War is not just a demonstration of England’s nationalism, but it also perfectly shows the adoration of the longbow. In British schools we are taught of how the archers rained down arrows on their rivals like an unstoppable force. The longbow became known as distinctly English, being a staple of the army for centuries. Although its popularity peeked in the late middle ages the style of a Longbow goes back thousands of years. Examples of it as an ancient weapon where found in England, under a peat bog, dated back to 2,700 BC. Additionally, a set of 40 where found in a peat bog in Denmark dating back to the 4th Century. The English longbow from the 13th century however has no surviving specimens. Mainly due to them being easily breakable and disposable. They were not family heirlooms or great treasures. However later examples are found from the following centuries. Including examples found on the wreck of the Mary Rose.
Edward III saw the advantage in the use of the longbow in his army. In the outbreak of The 100 Years War he capitalised on the skills that many men in England had been conditioned into. The Battle of Crecy comprised of 12,000 men, 7,000 of which where archers. This is where the myth making begins. Although the French army doubled the English, the English won an exceptional victory. The archer’s role was embellished in this victory. With a greater range than the longbow the English and welsh archers rained down arrows over the opposition, decimating the French cavalry and the oppositions crossbow men. A similar story is told of Agincourt where Archers again rained down fury on the French once again breaking the cavalry. This time the archers built up nearly 80% of the army (Now under Henry V of course.)
Lets pick this apart. Many of our commonly held ideas of Agincourt where brought about by 18th century Historians building a concept of National pride. Later writers also aided in creating this myth, Even Charles Dickens presented these ideas in his book Children’s history of England. Where he named the ‘Good, stout archers’ as key in the victory. Shakespeare also was responsible for creating or modern ideas, as he wrote Henry V many years after the event. Even today, at commemorations, you are more likely to hear a fictional speech from his play rather than a direct source. So, with all this praise and recognition, where the archers beloved and acclaimed in their time? No, Not really.
There was a long-established tradition of using bows in battle. During the Norman conquest both sides used bows significantly. They were a common weapon for the lower-class soldiers. They were weapons, used commonly to hunt birds and other game they were permitted to hunt. But don’t mistake this for the bow being something just anyone could pick up and use. The longbow of the 14th century required great strength to use, back and arm muscles where integral (A draw weight of up to 120lbs). It also demanded keen vision and posture. A man who wielded the longbow well could reach a range of 400 yards and fire 15 arrows per minute. Despite these skills archers where in abundance during this era. Which in effect made them a plentiful. With the prospect of Facing the French army on foreign land Edward needed this increased manpower. Bows, of any kind where a reliable base for affordable way to arm the masses with a weapon for times of need as ‘Retainers’. These were men called into service by their Local Lords, increasing the size of the overall army. Lords also benefited from this, earning 100 Marks for every 30 men they supplied. A law was passed in 1252 stating all able men from 15-60 must equip themselves with a bow. Further laws made in 1363 made them obliged by law to practice their bow every Sunday. In 1542 another Act established that the minimum target distance for anyone over the age of 24 years was 220 yards.
With these factors considered it made perfect sense to have a bulk of the army consisting of these ready soldiers, further adding laws to encourage the practice only assisted their skills. Why waste the skill that so many people had to hand? In addition to this these men where cheap to arm. The longbow could be made of a single piece of carved wood, arrows too where cheap to make and where much quicker to produce than swords or other arms. The men themselves also came for a smaller price. Just 6d per day would buy an archer’s service. A man at arms enjoyed double this, Knights could earn 4 Shillings and higher nobles earned far more. Earls, for example, could earn 13 Shillings a day! Obviously, war was a costly matter. The kings of England had to worry about the cost of travel, arms, military wages and food. Saving money by leaning on the least costly soldiers was an excellent choice.
There was also a tactical advantage. Long range but precision weapons did, much like rumors suggest, offer coverage of a large portion of the progressing French forces. This was achieved though the archers being on higher terrain during Agincourt. Traditionally longbow men where placed on the side of a battle formation (Crossbow men where usually center back) this was designed as an enfilade position. Meaning they could fire down the longest axis of the field and pick off troops as they approached the ranks. In this position aim and estimate distance. From a side perspective any arrows that missed a target stood a decent chance of hitting another enemy following on. This is likely why the Longbow men were able to kill their rival forces in such large numbers before they even encountered the main body of the army.
The Cultural impact of the bow is significant in British History, the archer’s skills were turned into a symbol of strength and the power of the people. Robin Hood was styled as an archer. Bows where the choice armament of the peasants’ revolt, which made them fearsome to authorities as the laws passed during the early century had made most common men skilled with the weapon. Furthermore, a skilled archer could be lucrative as mercenaries. The White Company was established in 1361, an English company that contracted men form many nations. A large amount of these men had been veterans from The 100 Years War, many being longbow men. Demonstrating the reputation and low price where known on a far-reaching scope. In the decades following The 100 Years War the bow was praised as a weapon for all classes and a noble pursuit. This is perfectly exemplified in ‘Toxophilus’ a book published in 1545, in which two characters debate the worth of Archery as a noble pastime. The same book also glorifies its use in warfare.
The longbow gradually faded from popularity, becoming a relic of the past when cannons and gunpowder became widely available. The rise of the musket played a role in the decline of traditional weapons such as the bow. Similar to the Longbow they were projectile weapons capable of arming large numbers of men for a relatively inexpensive price. They became an instrument of sport rather than war, surviving till now as a professional pursuit. Well, that is unless you want to count a brief example in the 1940’s, when a British Soldier named Jack Churchill proudly carried his own longbow though France along with a sword and bagpipes.