When we think of medieval English warfare then we usually think of William the Conquerer and the Norman conquest, Richard the Lionheart, and the English Longbow.
But how effective was the English Longbow? What was its reach and how many arrows could a decent longbowman shoot per minute under the circumstances of a real battle?
An arrow that was shot from a longbow had a reach of up to 218 yds (=200 m) and was up to 99 m/h (160 km/h) fast. It could pierce chainmail that was made from 1,5 mm strong rings even when shot from a distance of 109 yds (100m). And while the arrows could only pierce the steel plates of plate armor when they hit with the right angle, the pure number of arrows that even a small group of longbowmen could shoot (probably 6 arrows per minute and man) made it likely that at least one found a gap in the armor. That made the longbow an effective weapon against both chainmail and plate armor.
Let`s find out more!
How effective were Longbows in the Middle Ages?
Just like today, warfare in the Middle Ages was always a race between weaponsmiths and armorers.
But until the late 13th century bows only played a minor role during a medieval field battle. Instead, the battle was usually decided by the infantry or the cavalry. Here you can find out more about how medieval battles worked.
Especially groups of mounted knights who charged in tight formations and with under-arm couched lances were a highly effective force on a medieval battlefield. But that subordinate role of bow and arrow in medieval warfare changed with the appearance of the Longbow in the late 13th century. That new type of bow was effective even when used against knights that were protected by their highly effective armor.
The level of effectiveness that the longbow offered even against heavily armored knights was proven at the battles of Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415). In both battles, English armies that mostly consisted of temporarily hired longbowmen were able to massacre the best part of the European knighthood.
Do you want to find out more about how much an English longbowman earned per day? Then I would like to recommend you my article here. And if you want to find out whether or not knights tried to kill each other in battle (and the surprising reasons why they might not have tried that hard) then you might want to check out my article here.
An arrow that was shot from a longbow had a reach of up to 218 yds (=200 m) and was up to 99 m/h (160 km/h) fast. Because of that, it could pierce chainmail even when shot from a distance of 109 yds (100m).
And while the arrows that were shot from a longbow could only pierce through the steel plates of a suit of plate armor when they hit with the right angle, the pure number of arrows that even a small group of longbowmen could shot (each longbowman could probably shoot 6 arrows per minute) made it likely that at least one found a gap in the plate armor.
So we can state that longbows were incredibly effective. And that effectiveness was mostly based on two factors.
Let`s take a look!
Why were longbows so effective? 2 reasons!
The effectiveness of English longbows basically boiled down to two reasons. One was the used material that allowed a high draw weight of, depending on which expert you ask, 90 to 160 pounds-force, and as a result a long reach. The other reason was the high frequency with which a good longbowman could shoot his arrows.
The material used for an English longbow
An English longbow was around 6,5 ft long and was made from the stem of a young yew tree. The older heartwood in the center of the stem offered the necessary toughness while the softer sapwood was important for the elasticity of the bow.
The bowstring of the Longbow was usually made from hemp, flax, or even silk and attached with horn nocks at the ends of the bowstave. By the way, silk was not only used for bowstrings during the Middle Ages but also for clothing. More on that and the import of silk in my article here.
That made a draw weight of 90-160 pounds-force possible which did offer a long reach. And that high reach combined with a high frequency was a deadly combination.
How many arrows could a longbowman shoot under battlefield conditions
The frequency with which a longbowman was able to shoot his arrows is highly debated. While some sources indicate that shooting up to 12 arrows per minute was possible, most historians estimate that 6 arrows per minute were a reasonable rate of fire that a longbowman could keep up under the conditions of a battle.
And even if we assume that each longbowman „only“ shot 6 arrows per minute and we combine that with the average length of a medieval battle, more on that here, then it becomes clear that massive amounts of arrows did not only have to be manufactured but also had to be transported to the battlefield.
That transport of large amounts of arrows, but also of food, building materials for siege equipment, tents, and all the other stuff that an army needed, made some well-organized logistics necessary. Here you can find out more about the logistics of medieval warfare and how a medieval army was supplied.
Just to give one more example for the rate of fire with which English longbowmen shot their arrows and how many arrows were needed for a battle.
The medieval chronicler Jean Froissart, an eye-witness of the English victory at the Battle of Crecy (1346) described a hail of arrows that was produced by 6,000 English longbowmen and that he described as similar to densely falling snowflakes. So if we assume that each of the 6,000 English longbowmen at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 shot 6 arrows per minute for only 4 minutes then that accumulated to 144,000 arrows that rained down on the French knights!
The result of that was that after the battle was over heralds had to be sent onto the battlefield to identify the countless fallen French knights. More on how knights told each other apart even when wearing armor and helmets that covered the entire body in my article here.
By the way, not every battle ended in such a bloodbath with countless dead knights. In another battle between a total of 900 English and French knights, only 3 were killed and it almost seemed like the knights tried their best to not kill each other. You can find out more about the 3 reasons for that in my article here.
The longbowmen – well trained temporary soldiers
However, the use of longbowmen had one disadvantage.
Since using a longbow needed a lot of exercises it was not possible to just levy men (who until then had made up the bulk of every medieval army, more on that here) and give them a longbow. Instead, men who knew how to use a longbow had to be hired and paid for the individual campaigns making these men temporary soldiers.
Here you can find out more about the surprisingly little pay of an English longbowman and what additional monetary benefits were added to that pay.
To always have a supply of suitable longbowmen on hand the English king Edward III passed a law in 1363 that ordered every able-bodied man to practice the use of the Longbow for at least one hour per week (on Sundays after church).
The need for years of training before a man would be able to master the art of using a longbow was one of the reasons why firearms replaced bows even though the early firearms were inferior when compared to a longbow. You can find out more about the other reasons for why firearms replaced bows in my article here.
So now we have looked at the Longbow. But one question remains. Where the English the only ones to use Longbows?
Who apart from the English used Longbows during the Middle Ages
The origins of the Longbow can be found in Northern- and Western England from where its use spread over all of England. But did other European powers also use the Longbow or was the use of that highly efficient weapon a predominantly English thing?
The Longbow played a major role in the English armies from the 14th to 16th century. But despite its effectiveness, the Longbow was only rarely used in France and not at all used in the Holy Roman Empire. There the crossbow was preferred.
However, both the crossbow as well as the longbow were eventually repressed by the early versions of firearms. You can find out more about the reasons for that in my article here.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
Malte Prietzel: Krieg im Mittelalter (Darmstadt 2006).