The Decline of the Longbow

by P. Valentine Harris

This article was first published in the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 19, 1976.
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Prior to the advent of firearms on the medieval battlefield the longbow had been all-powerful. Bowmen were infantry and artillery combined; indeed archers were designated "Artillarie" in Henry VIII's reign when the Honourable Artillery Company was formed to encourage the "science and feat of shooting long bowes, cross-bowes and handgonnes". Unlike hand- gunners, bowmen needed no pikemen to protect them.

Long after the introduction of handguns the longbow still proved to be superior to the new- fangled weapons which were often as dangerous to the handler as to the enemy. As armour increased in strength, however, and weapons of fire, including cannon, improved, it became only a question of time before the longbow became obsolescent. European nations, except the Swiss who remained faithful to the pike, took to firearms more avidly than the English, except some of those who had been in Dutch or Spanish service. The French relied mainly on cannon until the disaster at Pavia in 1525, but the Spaniards exploited cannon and small- arms while retaining pikes and swords.

English loyalty to the bow, which has been described as one of the most striking examples of conservatism in their history, is hardly surprising. Most of the English soldiers had not fought against Europeans for some time. They knew the power of the bow. Daily they had evidence that their arrows could pierce the target -- and sometimes stupid encroachers on their fields! -- to a depth of several inches, and the firearms they saw used or experimented with proved so slow and inaccurate that their penetrating power was discounted.

Before the handgunman could fire he might have been hit by several arrows, and even if he escaped injury his bullet would often go wide or not reach the target. How could any hand- gunner equal the legendary performances of Robin Hood who could split a willow wand at umpteen paces or the deeds of the bowmen of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt?

The change-over from bows to firearms lasted over several reigns, so that the impact was not nearly so violent as it would have been in the Industrial Age. The first crude firearms were replaced by the serpentine which applied the burning match -- a length of cord soaked in saltpetre -- to the pan by means of a trigger. Later the butt became a shoulder-piece and the weapon was called an arquebus or harquebus. The effective range of this or of the later caliver was still less than that of the longbow or cross- bow, but when it hit armour the bullet from any of these weapons could penetrate and make a dangerous wound.

There were a number of archers at the siege of Leith in 1560. According to Humphrey Barwick,1 an advocate of firearms, a French captain told him that only one man had been wounded by an arrow and that one suffered more from the efforts of the surgeon to remove it than from the original wound. Barwick was of course prejudiced. He said that 448 men were killed by other means. This probably meant mostly by cannon shot or during an assault. Against defenders of walls neither arrows nor that arrowheads were difficult to extract was surely a point in their favour.

From a nineteenth-century artist's impression of Elizabethan soldiers, armed with a bill, pike, caliver and bow.

It is evident that even good archers wished at least to try the new-fangled weapons, for in 1569 the government forbade trained archers to learn the use of firearms, and in 1577 the Council stated that the neglect of archery was caused by "people imagining it to be of no use for service as they see the caliver so much embraced". The bow in which England had always excelled, was still necessary and again, the Council commanded that illegal pastimes be suppressed. 2

In 1569 bowmen had taken part in the suppression of the northern rebellion and a company of bowmen went with Leicester to the Netherlands in 1585. But in 1589 the Council decided that archers were no longer required in the standard company organization but could be formed into their own companies. In 1595 the commissioners of musters in Buckinghamshire reported that they had begun to convert some of their archers into calivermen and musketeers. The Council instructed them to have all known bowmen so converted3 One can imagine some good archers grousing, but most of them would be willing to try their hand: the desire to be in the fashion, to go with the crowd, is part of human nature.

Herefordshire required only archers "suche as are both Lustye in body, and able to abyde the wether & can Shoote a good Stronge Shoot for heretofore we have alowed manye Simple [frail, delicate] and weake." Huntingdon pleaded for a smaller quota of archers as of many who attended the butts as required by law not more than 100 were competent.4 Reluctant soldiers could affect inability to draw a bow when the commissioners were around.

But it was not only archers who were found to be inefficient. In 1569 Lord Clinton, marching north, complained that his harque- busiers ought to stay in Newark as they were not trained, and two years later Sir Henry Redecliff found the 100-strong Portsmouth garrison the worst he had seen. "Amonghtes three and twenty which were alowed to be serviceable, not fyve of them shott withing fyve foote of a marke being sett within foure score yardes."5

The government, towards 1588, attempted t replace the so-called "country-weapons", bows and bills, by an equal proportion of pikes and firearms.6

The defenders of the bow were not silent, and with good reason. They did not deny that firearms were of use, but they insisted that the bow still had a place on the battlefield, for many reasons. First and foremost, there were good bowmen already trained, with weapons to hand, all over the country, whereas handgunmen had to be trained from scratch and at great cost in weapons and ammunition.

The disabilities of weapons of fire were many, said Sir John Smythe: If there was insufficient saltpetre in the powder or it was damp it furred the pieces and they did not go off. The match must be well twisted and dry. Weapons must be clean and not overcharged. Bullets were some- times discharged with only half the powder burnt. The men had first to charge their pieces with powder from their flasks, by charges filled with powder or by cartridges. The bullet had to be placed on top of the charge and a plug pressed down with the scouring-stick or ramrod to keep the bullet close to the powder. Touch-powder had then to be put in the pan and the match into the cock or serpentine. After all this the wind might blow the powder away. It might have been added that the harquebusiers' glowing matches gave them away in the dark.

In contrast, the only imperfection of the longbow, said Sir John, lies in the breaking of the bow or the string, but "in times past ..there was especial care that all Livery or war bows, being of yew, were longer than they are now and so well backed that they seldom broke". Bowmen used a mixture of wax, rosin and tallow to coat their bows and strings were made of very good hemp with a kind of waterglue to resist wet.7 While the harquebusier was firing one shot the archer could loose six arrows.