The Medieval English Longbow

by Robert E. Kaiser, M.A.


This article was first published in the Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 23, 1980.
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From the thirteenth until the sixteenth century, the national weapon of the English army was the longbow. It was this weapon which conquered Wales and Scotland, gave the English their victories in the Hundred Years War, and permitted England to replace France as the foremost military power in Medieval Europe. The longbow was the machine gun of the Middle Ages: accurate, deadly, possessed of a long-range and rapid rate of fire, the flight of its missilies was liken to a storm.1 Cheap and simple enough for the yeoman to own and master, it made him superior to a knight on the field of battle.2 Yet, important as this weapon was, most of our present day beliefs concerning it are based upon myth.

There are many statistics available on the longbow, but few agree. The term longbow implies a weapon of greater length than the 4 foot bow used on the continent. Geoffrey Trease, author of The Condottieri, maintains the longbow used by the 14th century mercenary troops of Sir John Hawkwood "was as tall as themselves or a fraction taller".3 This would make the bow approximately five feet long, since the average height of the medieval yeoman soldier was five feet to five feet two inches.4 The Royal Antiquaries Society of Great Britain maintains the weapon was "of five or six feet" in length.5 Major Richard G. Bartelot, Assistant Historical Secretary of the Royal Artillery Institution says "the bow was of yew, six feet long, with a three foot arrow".6
Finally, Gaston Foebus, Count of Foix, wrote in 1388, that a longbow should be "of yew or boxwood, seventy inches between the points of attachment for the cord..."7 These quotes demonstrate that the weapon was considerably longer than its continental counterpart, but still leaves the length in question.

Another chracteristic of the English weapon was its superior strength. An early 14th century English inquiry into the murder of Simon de Skeltington records the instrument of death as an arrow shot from a five foot seven inch bow. "The wound measured three inches long by two inches wide and six inches deep".8 This was the powerful weapon used by Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, in the Hundred Years War.

The two current authorities both agree the weapon was much stronger than our present day bows. Count M. Mildmay Stayner, Recorder of the British Long Bow Society, estimates the bows of the Medieval period drew between 90 and 110 pounds, maximum.9 Mr. W.F. Paterson, Chairman of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, believes the weapon had a supreme draw weight of only 80 to 90 pounds.10

A bow of the strength described by Stayner and Paterson would project a war arrow a long distance. But here again, no one is sure how far: Stayner believes the war arrow had an effective range of 180 yards;11 Paterson maintains a slightly further distance of 200 yards;12 and Bartelot estimates a useful range of 249 yards.13 Captain George Burnet, Secretary to the Royal Scottish Archers, notes that the members of the Queen's Body Guard for Scotland, who still shoot, use six foot long self yew bows of 55 to 60 pounds draw weight. The range of these modern bows is 180-200 yards shooting light target shafts.14

The longbow, because of its rapidity of fire, was a medieval machine gun. It has been calculated that a bowman of the Hundred Years War period, when military archery was at its zenith, could shoot 10 to 12 arrows a minute.15 The closest weapon in range and strength to the longbow was the crossbow. But, as the battle of Crecy (1346) showed, even the superior Genoese composite crossbow - made of wood, horn, sinew and glue - was no match for the English weapon.16

After firearms were introduced into continental warfare, Sir John Smythe, soldier of fortune, and Queen Elizabeth's ambassador to the Spanish Court of Philip II, noted that "archers are able to discharge four or five arrows apiece before the harquebusies shall be ready to discharge one bullet.17

The reason for present day confusion and controversy over the longbow is the limited number of surviving artifacts. There are no longbows in existence from the Early Middle Ages. There are, however, five surviving Renaisance weapons.

All of these bows are similar. They are nearly six feet long; made of wood; shaped in order to use both the centre and sap wood; are symmetrically tapered; and appear to have a very stiff draw weight. What is more, all five weapons are self bows. This means that they are made from a single stave of wood. Horace Ford, Champion Archer of England from 1850 to 1859, and an authority on English archery, maintained:
"The self bow of a single stave is the real old English weapon - the one with which the mighty deeds that rendered this country renounced in by-gone times were performed."18

The first of the five surviving bows, by tradition, dates from the Battle of Flodden (1513). Burnet verifies that the artifact hangs on the wall of Archers Hall, headquarters of Royal Scottish Archers, in Edinburgh.19

About the turn of the twentieth century, Colonel Fergusson of Huntly Burn presented it to Mr. Peter Muir of the Royal Scottish Archers. Fergusson claimed the artifact from the rafters of a house near Flodden Field where it had been for generations. 20

The Flodden Bow is a self yew weapon, 'probably of English yew", approximately six feet long, and "rather roughly made". The estimated strength of the weapon is between 80 and 90 pounds.21 Burnet's decription can be deceiving. The rough appearance of the weapon does not imply it was poorly made.

Most yew, even the kind that makes the finest bows, is quite irregular in appearance.The sapwood of the stave, following the longitudinal line of the trunk, rises and falls and tilts upwards or down in places. It has 'pins' (tiny black knots) too, as a rule."22

It is ironic that a weapon should survive from this battle. "Flodden is a landmark in the history of archery, as the last battle on English soil to be fought with the longbow as the principle weapon..."23 Modern authors maintain that the victory of Flodden was due to archery. Indeed Longman and Walrond in their book, Archery, maintain that a 1515 statute endorsing the use of, and practice with the bow was a result of the victory.24 These authorities are probably correct, but not for the reasons they believe. The sole contemporary account of the battle notes "that a few of thaim (the Scots) wer slaine with arrows, how be it the billes (spears with hooks on the head) did beat and hew thaim downe..."25 It is apparent that the law was passed because of the poor showing of the archers.

The most interesting and least known Renaissance longbow comes from the armoury of the church in the village of Mendlesham in Suffolk, England. Records show it was there in the reign of Queen Elizabeth; however, Paterson believes it may date back to the time of Henry VIII.26

Unfortunately, the Mendlesham Bow is broken. It is a self bow of 53 inches length. Paterson believes: "Assuming that the mid-point of the bow is about one inch above the centre of the grip, this would suggest a bow length of about 68-69 inches - if the remnant is an upper limb - or about 71 inches if it is the lower limb. I am inclined to suggest the former as the more likely choice."27

The surviving limb tip is shaped to take a horn nock for the bow string loop. That would make the total length of the bow a little over six feet tall. Measurements suggest a draw-weight of 80 pounds at 28 inches.28

The Mendlesham Bow, a typical longbow, is also unique for two reasons. First, although it is shaped to use the properties of the yew centre and sap wood; the bow's "cross-section approximated more closely to a rectangle with the corners rounded, than the reputed traditional 'D'-form" found in the other four artifacts. Second, the longitudinal taper of the bow limb is not straight but whip ended. This would better distribute the stress as the bow is drawn and force it to bend in an elipse instead of an arc.29

Like the two previous artifacts, the Hedgeley Moor Bow is also something of a mystery. It is reputed to have been used at the Battle of Hedgeley Moor (1464), during the War of the Roses. The weapon was presented to Alnwick Castle by John Wilkinson, whose family lived on the Castle estate from the time of the battle.
"It is 65.5 inches inches in length, 3.5 inches at its greatest girth, with greatest width of 1.5 inches. The wood is probably yew..."30

There are no nocks, but the ends have been notched to take a string. "At mid-point where the handle is, there are two deep cuts which look remakably of the shape of a bodkin head (sic) would make if it were overdrawn." Draw weight is estimated at 50 pounds.29

The remaining two Renaissance longbows, like the Mendlesham artifact, come from the reign of Henry VIII. Unlike the Flodden and Hedgeley Moor Bows, we are sure of the age and use of these artifacts. They were recovered in 1836 by John Deane from H.M.S. Mary Rose.32 The Mary Rose, flag ship of the British fleet, sank off Portsmouth while engaging an invading French squadron on Sunday, 19th July, 1545.33

These two bows are on display in the Armouries in the Tower of London. Inventory records show that they are made of yew wood, "of rounded section, tapered at tips to take the nocks, now missing".34 The largest of the bows is 75 inches long.The smaller stave is 72.75 inches long. Both bows are 4.5 inches at "greatest girth" and weigh 1 pound, 10 ounces.35 They are symmetrical weapons, utilising the same 'D'-shape as the Floddern Bow.

Both weapons are unfinished looking, but as pointed out previously, this is a characteristic of yew wood. Ford, in his study of the Mary Rose bows, notes that they are self bows, made from "foreign yew" and had an estimated draw weight of 65 to 70 pounds.36

The variation in length between the Mary Rose, the Flodden, and the Mendlesham bows; as opposed to the Hedgeley Moor artifact, lies in the fact that the individual archer had his personal bow made to measure. The Mary Rose weapons were arsenal issues meant to suit the tallest men in service. Shorter men would cut their weapons down to suit their height and arm length. This point is supported by Roger Ascham's treatise on Archery, Toxophilus, published in 1545.

During the Middle Ages, the yeoman archer was illiterate, while the scholars of the day, by virtue of their noble birth, had little knowledge of archery. Ascham was both a scholar and an ardent archer. As tutor to Elizabeth I, he had considerable influence on the royal family and was favoured by Henry VIII for his writing on this subject. Commenting on the selection and adjustment of a longbow, Ascham writes: "Take your bow in to the field, shote in hym, synke hym wyth deade heauye shaftes...whe(n) you haue thus shot in hym, and perceyued good shootynge woode in hym, you must have hym agayne to a good cunnynge, and trustie woorkeman, whyche shall cut hym shorter, and pyke him and dresse hym fytter."37

All five weapons are remarkably similar and may be said to be typical longbows. They are approximately six feet tall, made of the sap and centrewood of the yew tree, are rough looking, and stiff weapons pulling between 65 and 90 pounds. Given this draw weight, a maximum effective range of approximately 200 yards with a heavy war missile is not unreasonable, especially considering the performance of the present day Scottish Archers.

The making of logbows changed little from the Medieval period until the turn of the twentieth century. They still were wooden self bows utilising the centre and sapwood of the stave. The best bows continued to be made of yew wood; and all bows were made by hand thus, each was unique.

According to Ford, yew was the only wood for a self bow, and the best yew came from Spain and Italy. The foreign wood is "straigther, finer in grain, freer from pins, stiffer and denser in quality, and requires less bulk in proportion to the strength of the bow".38 Stayner adds that the best wood is grown in the poor soil of the mountains; this produced the desired light grained wood.39 Ascham described the best yew for bow staves as coloured:
"...lyke virgin wax or golde, having a fine longe grayne, even from the one ende of the bowe, to the other... the short grayne are for a most part very brittle."40

Staves were cut only in winter, when the sap was down.41 Stayner notes that the yew wood trade was tied to the wine trade. To insure an adequate supply of bows, "at one time, all wine imports (from Southern France) had to have longbow staves in the cargo as well."42

Why was yew such a superior wood for bow making? The natural properties of yew are much like a modern thermostat: by skillfully cutting and shaping the stave in a 'D'-section, a layer of sapwood was left along the flattened back of the bow.

"When a bow is drawn, the inside face of the arc undergoes compression while the outer surface is stretched. The heartwood of yew is able to withstand compression and its sapwood is elastic by nature, and both tend to return to their original straightness when the bow is loosed."43

Bows were not made all at once. Cut down in winter, they were roughed out and left to cure for a year or two. After the bow was "seasoned", it was worked in slow stages into the finished product. Often these steps occurred at intervals of a year for three or four years.44

Once the bow was made, it would provide long service with minimum maintanance. Smythe tells us that archers of the Hundred Years War used to rub a mixture of "wax, resin, and fine tallow" into the bow to protect it from "all weather of heat, frost, and wet".45 Ascham says that the archers also had bow cases, not of leather, but of canvas or wool to protect their bows from the elements.46

Bow strings were of two materials: in the sixteenth century, strings were made of "good hempe...(but, earlier, strings were made of)...fine Flaxe or Sylk".47 A waterproof glue was used to preserve the Renaissance bow string and it was reinforced by a whipping of fine thread.48 The strings were attached to nocks made of bone or horn.49

The English Medieval war arrow, like the longbow, is a controversial subject. Known as the clothyard shaft, it was efficient, cheap, capable of being mass-produced, and "made in greater numbers than any other type of arrow in history".50 But few sources agree to its length: estimates range from 27 to 36 inches.51

A close examination of the sources tend to point to approximately 27 inches as the correct figure. The clothyard was not a standard yard.The term comes from the reign of Edward III, when he introduced Flemish weavers into England. The weavers brought their own system of measurement with them. Known as the "clothyard ", "clothier's yard", "ell", or "Flemish yard", it was 27 4/10 inches long.52 The late John E. Morris, the acknowledged authority on the military organisation and tactics of Edward I, supports this conclusion by noting that a draw length of 36 inches from a 65 pound or strong bow is biomechanically impossible.53

The final and most conclusive argument for a war arrow length of a "Flemish yard" is the sole surviving Medieval war arrow. The artifact, now in the Library of Westminster Abbey, was found in one of the turrets of the Chapter House in 1878. The exact age of the arrow is unknown; but, due to the construction of the war head, it was probably made during the second half of the Hundred Years War. Dr. Howard M. Nixon, Abbey Librarian, notes the head belogns to type 16 in the London Museum Catalogue:
"This is a typical medieval war head, with small barbs to prevent the arrow from being easily withdrawn. It seems likely that the wood is either ash or birch."54

This type of war head was devised to negate the protection offered by the combination mail and plate armour, which came into wide use after the Battle of Poitiers (1356). (Froissart tells us that the archers of the Black Prince shot (broadhead) "bearded" arrows).55 The Chapter House Arrow is 30.5 inches long. The diameter of the shaft varies from 1.07 centimeters at the war head to a maximum of 1.14 centimeters at a distance of 30.5 centimeters from head. The diameter reduces to 0.756 centimeters at the nock. The total weight is 1.5 ounces.56 This arrow is a 27 inch shaft (approximately) mounted to a 4 inch or 5 inch socketed war head.


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