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The English longbow, also called the Welsh longbow, was a powerful type of medieval longbow (a tall bow for archery) about 6 ft 6 in (2.0 m) long used by the English, Scots and Welsh, both for hunting and as a weapon in medieval warfare. English use of longbows was effective against the French during the Hundred Years' War, particularly at the start of the war in the battles of Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), and most famously at the Battle of Agincourt (1415). They were less successful after this, with longbowmen taking casualties at the Battle of Verneuil (1424), and being completely routed at the Battle of Patay (1429) when charged before they had set up their defensive position.


More than 3,500 arrows and 137 whole longbows were recovered from the Mary Rose, a ship of Henry VIII's navy that sank at Portsmouth in 1545.


The earliest longbow known from England, found at Ashcott Heath, Somerset, is dated to 2665 BC, but there are no surviving longbows dated to the period when the longbow was dominant (c. 1250-1450 AD). This is probably because it was in the nature of bows to become weaker, break and be replaced, rather than be handed down through generations.  There are however more than 130 surviving bows from the Renaissance period.




Recognisable longbows dating as far back as the Mesolithic period have been found in many parts of Northern Europe. The medieval English use of a powerful longbow as a decisive weapon of war was more of a social than a technical development. It required in particular the training, recruitment, and maintenance of a large number of men, their supply with yew wood by means of foreign trade, and their incorporation with other troop types into an effective tactical system. The first recorded use of the term 'longbow', as distinct from simply 'bow', occurs in a Paston Letter of the fifteenth century.


Archery does not appear to have been especially significant in pre Norman Conquest Anglo-Saxon warfare and the first great English archery victory was the Battle of the Standard in 1138. During the Anglo-Norman invasions of Wales, Welsh bowmen took a heavy toll on the invaders, using short, rough elm bows technically distinct from classic English yew longbows. As soon as the Welsh campaign was successfully over, Welsh conscripts began to be incorporated into English armies. The lessons the English learned in Wales were later used with deadly effect by Welsh mercenaries on the battlefields of France and Scotland. Their skill was exercised under King Edward I of England (r. 1272–1307), who banned all sports but archery at the butts on Sundays, to make sure Englishmen practised with the longbow. As a result, the English during this period as a whole became very effective with the longbow.


The longbow decided many medieval battles fought by the English, the most significant of which were the Battle of Crécy (1346) and the Battle of Agincourt (1415), during the Hundred Years' War and followed earlier successes, notably at the Battle of Halidon Hill (1333) during the Scottish wars. The longbow corps saw particularly heavy casualties at the Battle of Patay and this loss contributed to England's eventual defeat in that war. Longbows remained in use until around the 16th century, when advances in firearms made gunpowder weapons a significant factor in warfare and such units as arquebusiers and grenadiers began appearing. Before the English Civil War, a pamphlt by William Neade entitled The Double-Armed Man advocated that soldiers be trained in both the longbow and pike; this advice was not followed in anything but a few town militias. The last recorded use of bows in an English battle seems to have been a skirmish at Bridgnorth, in October 1642, during the Civil War. Longbowmen remained a feature of the Royalist Army, but were not used by the Roundheads. By the 19th Century skilled longbow men had all but vanished. The Duke of Wellington even asked for a corps of longbows to provide a force producing more rapid fire than guns could. It would have been particularly devastating against the then unarmoured targets in his Napoleonic campaigns, but he was told that no such skilled men existed in England any more.


The longbow was also used against the English by their Welsh neighbours. The Welsh used the longbow mostly in a different manner than the English. In many early period English campaigns, the Welsh used the longbow in ambushes, often at point blank range that allowed their missiles to penetrate the English Knights' armour and generally do a lot of damage.[citation needed] One famous Welsh longbow victory was on 22 June 1402 when Owain Glyndwr fought a battle against the English at Bryn Glas. He strategically placed his longbowmen on top of a high hill, so that his longbowmen had a better range than the English longbowmen, who were overwhelmed down on the low ground. The result was a conclusive victory for the Welsh.


Although longbows were much faster and more accurate than any black powder weapons, longbowmen were always difficult to produce, because of the years of practice necessary before a war longbow could be used effectively (examples of longbows from the Mary Rose typically had draws greater than 637 N (143 lbf)). In an era in which warfare was usually seasonal and non-noble soldiers spent part of the year working at farms, the year-round training required for the effective use of the longbow was a challenge. A standing army was an expensive proposition to a medieval ruler. Mainland European armies seldom trained a significant longbow corps. Due to their specialized training, English longbowmen were sought as mercenaries in other European countries, most notably in the Italian city-states and in Spain. The White Company, containing men-at-arms and longbowmen and commanded by Sir John Hawkwood, is the best known English Free Company of the 14th century. The powerful Hungarian king, Louis the Great, is an example of someone who used longbowmen in his Italian campaigns.


The trade of yew wood to England for longbows was such that it depleted the stocks of yew over a huge area. The first documented import of yew bowstaves to England was in 1294. In 1350 there was a serious shortage, and Henry IV of England ordered his royal bowyer to enter private land and cut yew and other woods. In 1470 compulsory practice was renewed, and hazel, ash, and laburnum were specifically allowed for practice bows. Supplies still proved insufficient, until by the Statute of Westminster in 1472, every ship coming to an English port had to bring four bowstaves for every tun. Richard III of England increased this to ten for every tun. This stimulated a vast network of extraction and supply, which formed part of royal monopolies in southern Germany and Austria. In 1483, the price of bowstaves rose from two to eight pounds per hundred, and in 1510 the Venetians obtained sixteen pounds per hundred. In 1507 the Holy Roman Emperor asked the Duke of Bavaria to stop cutting yew, but the trade was profitable, and in 1532 the royal monopoly was granted for the usual quantity "if there are that many". In 1562, the Bavarian government sent a long plea to the Holy Roman Emperor asking him to stop the cutting of yew, and outlining the damage done to the forests by its selective extraction, which broke the canopy and allowed wind to destroy neighbouring trees. In 1568, despite a request from Saxony, no royal monopoly was granted because there was no yew to cut, and the next year Bavaria and Austria similarly failed to produce enough yew to justify a royal monopoly. Forestry records in this area in the 1600s do not mention yew, and it seems that no mature trees were to be had. The English tried to obtain supplies from the Baltic, but at this period bows were being replaced by guns in any case.


English longbows have been in continuous production and use for sport and for hunting to the present day, but since 1642 they have been a minority interest, and very few have had the high draw weights of the medieval weapons. Other differences include the use of a stiffened, effectively nonbending, centre section, rather than a continuous bend. Jack Churchill is the only soldier credited with a longbow kill during World War II.


They were made from yew in preference, although ash, elm and other woods were also used. Giraldus Cambrensis speaking of the bows used by the men of Gwent says: "They are made neither of horn, ash nor yew, but of elm; ugly unfinished-looking weapons, but astonishingly stiff, large and strong, and egually capable of use for long or short shooting." The traditional construction of a longbow consists of drying the yew wood for 1 to 2 years, then slowly working the wood into shape, with the entire process taking up to four years. (This can be done far more quickly by working the wood down when wet, as a thinner piece of wood will dry much faster.) The bow stave is shaped into a D-section. The outer "back" of sapwood, approximately flat, follows the natural growth rings; modern bowyers often thin the sapwood, while in the Mary Rose bows the back of the bow was the natural surface of the wood, only the bark being removed. The inner side ("belly") of the bow stave consists of rounded heartwood. The heartwood resists compression and the outer sapwood performs better in tension. This combination in a single piece of wood (a self bow) forms a natural "laminate", somewhat similar in effect to the construction of a composite bow. Longbows will last a long time if protected with a water-resistant coating, traditionally of "wax, resin and fine tallow".


Bow strings were (and still are) made of hemp, flax, or silk and attached to the wood via horn "nocks" that fit onto the end of the bow. Modern synthetic materials (often Dacron), are now commonly used for strings.

Draw weights

Estimates for the draw of these bows varies considerably. The original draw forces of examples from the Mary Rose were typically estimated at 667–712 N (150–160 lbf) at a 76.2-cm (30-inch) draw length. The range of draw weights was from 445 N to 823 N (100 to 185 lbf).  The 30 inch draw length was used because that is the length allowed by the arrows commonly found on the Mary Rose.


A modern longbow's draw is typically 265 N (60 lbf) or less and by modern convention measured at 71 cm (28 inches). Historically, hunting bows usually had draw weights of 222-266 N (50–60 lbf), which is enough for all but the very largest game and which most reasonably fit adults can manage with practice. Today, there are few modern longbowmen capable of using 800N (180 lbf) bows accurately.


A longbow must be long enough to allow its user to draw the string to a point on the face or body, and the length therefore varies with the user. In continental Europe it was generally seen as any bow longer than 1.2 m (4 ft). The Society of Antiquaries says it is of 5 or 6 feet (1.5-1.83 m) in length.[8] Richard Bartelot, of the Royal Artillery Institution, said that the bow was of yew, 6 feet (1.83 m) long, with a 3 foot (914 mm) arrow.[9] Gaston Phoebus, in 1388, wrote that a longbow should be "of yew or boxwood, seventy inches [1.78 m] between the points of attachment for the cord". Historian Jim Bradbury said they were an average of about 5 feet and 8 inches.


The range of the medieval weapon is unknown, with estimates from 165 to 228 m (180 to 249 yds). Modern longbows have a useful range up to 180 m (200 yd). A 667N(150 lbf) Mary Rose replica longbow was able to shoot a 53.6 g (1.9 oz) arrow 328 m (360 yd) and a 95.9 g (3.3 oz) a distance of 249.9 m (272 yd). A flight arrow of a professional archer of Edward III's time would reach 400yds. It is also well known that no practice range was allowed to be less than 220yds by order of Henry VIII.


The longbow had a long range and high accuracy, but not both at the same time. Most of the longer range shooting mentioned in stories was not marksmanship, but rather thousands of archers launching volleys of arrows at an entire army. Longbowmen armies would aim at an area and shoot a rain of arrows hitting indiscriminately at anyone in the area, a decidedly un-chivalrous but highly effective means of combat. An archer could hit a person at 165 m (180 yards) "part of the time" and could always hit an army.[citation needed]

At the siege of Abergavenny in 1182 the Welsh arrows penetrated an oak door four inches thick. They were allowed to remain there as a curiosity, and Gerald (Giraldus Cambrensis) himself saw them six years later in 1188 when he passed the castle, with the iron points just showing on the inner side of the door. A knight of William de Braose was hit by one which went through the skirt of his hauberk, his mail hose, his thigh, and then through the leather and wood of his saddle into his horse; when he swerved round, another arrow pinned him the same way by the other leg.

Shooting rate

A typical military longbow archer would be provided with between 60 and 72 arrows at the time of battle. Most archers would not loose arrows at maximum rate, as it would exhaust even the most experienced man. "With the heaviest bows (a modern warbow archer) does not like to try for more than six a minute".  Not only are the arms and shoulder muscles tired from the exertion, but the fingers holding the bowstring become strained; therefore, actual rates of shooting in combat would vary considerably. Ranged volleys at the beginning of the battle would differ markedly from the closer, aimed shots as the battle progressed and the enemy neared. Arrows were not unlimited, so archers and their commanders took every effort to ration their use to the situation at hand.


Nonetheless, resupply during battle was available. Young boys were often employed to run additional arrows to longbow archers while in their positions on the battlefield. "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 missiles was likened to a storm." This rate was much higher than that of its Western European projectile rival on the battlefield, the crossbow. It was also much higher than the standard early firearms (although the lower training requirements and greater penetration of firearms eventually led to the longbow falling into disuse).