The longbow dominated medieval warfare. Medieval England not only saw the use of longbows in battle but of several types of bows – the short bow, the composite bow and the long bow. In the Hundred Years War, the long bow was used by the English to a devastating effect. The long bow was also effective in naval battles. At the Battle of Sluys in 1340, English archers poured a devastating longbow attack on tightly packed French ships that suffered serious losses. At the land Battle of Poitiers in 1356, the long bow was responsible for the deaths of 2,000 French mounted knights – the elite of the French army. In 1346 at the Battle of Crecy, English archers devastated the French who lost 11 princes, 1,200 knights and 30,000 common soldiers. The English lost just 100 men. In this particular battle, 20,000 English soldiers defeated 60,000 French soldiers. This single battle is taken as proof of how just effective the longbow was as a weapon.
The kings of England encouraged the use of the long bow by sponsoring tournaments with good prizes for the successful archers. All other sports were banned on a Sunday except for archery. This meant that at any particular time, England would have a large pool of experienced archers ready to be called up for war. Each English shire had to provide the king with a certain number of trained archers per year – this was enforced by law. Many lords also made archery practice compulsory. Those who failed to attend were fined which was encouragement enough to attend.
It is thought that the first long bow came from Wales and spread in use to England. Edward I had witnessed its use when he conquered Wales in the 1280’s. The long bow was about six feet long and made from a yew tree. However, a shortage of yew trees meant that ash, elm or wych elm were also used.
The arrows for this weapon were three feet long with broad tips when used against infantry when their armour needed to be pierced and narrow tips to pierce the plate armour used by knights. Arrows were made out of ash, oak or birch.
An experienced archer could shoot an arrow every five seconds. Many skilled archers could produce a devastating attack as the French found out in the Hundred Years War. The short bow, as its title suggest, was between three to four feet long with a medium range and less power than the long bow.
How powerful was a long bow?
One story told in medieval times was that an arrow fired from a long bow could penetrate four inches into oak. Recent tests have shown that this anecdote is true when the arrow is fired close up. From 200 metres, a longbow arrow penetrated over one inch of solid oak – more than sufficient power to penetrate the armour worn by soldiers. Plate armour gave more protection but could still be penetrated from 100 metres. The maximum range of a long bow was 400 metres but at this distance, it was far less effective.