Scottish kings didn’t look upon the game much more favourably. In 1424 James I decreed that “na man play at the Fute-ball”.

Competitive marksmanship with archery turned the bow into the successful tactical weapon it would ultimately become by increasing the skill of bowmen. Combat success with the bow encouraged more practice and competitions as kings and military planners realized its potential if skilled marksmanship was developed. Through force of law, the heads of state demanded a populace trained in its use.

This article is a compilation of other articles about the history of the longbow. References and articles used:

The longbow, measuring around the height of a man, made its first major appearance towards the end of the Middle Ages. Although generally attributed to the Welsh, longbows have been around at least since Neolithic times. The Welsh appear to have been the first to develop the tactical use of the longbow into the deadliest weapon of its day. During the Anglo-Norman invasion of Wales, it is said that the ‘Welsh bowmen took a heavy toll on the invaders’. With the conquest of Wales complete, Welsh conscripts were incorporated into the English army for Edward’s campaigns further north into Scotland.

Although King Edward I, ‘The Hammer of the Celts’, is normally regarded as the man responsible for adding the might of the longbow to the English armory of the day, the actual evidence for this is vague, although he did ban all sports but archery on Sundays, to make sure Englishmen practiced with the longbow. It is however during Edward III’s reign when more documented evidence confirms the important role that the longbow has played in both English and Welsh history.

Edward III’s reign was of course dominated by the Hundred Years War which actually lasted from 1337-1453. It was perhaps due this continual state of war that so many historical records survive which raise the longbow to legendary status; first at Crécy and Poitiers, and then at Agincourt.

Archery competition was not just merely another medieval sport popular in the middle ages. Lower class men were required to practice and compete in archery by law. The first Medieval Archery Law was passed in 1252 when all Englishmen between the age of 15 to 60 years old were ordered, by law, to equip themselves with a bow and arrows.

The nascent bourgeoisie of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance amused itself with archery matches, some of which were arranged months in advance and staged with considerable fanfare. When town met town in a challenge of skill, the companies of crossbowmen and longbowmen marched behind the symbols of St. George, St. Sebastian, and other patrons of the sport.

Skilled bowsmen would travel from miles away to attend a tournament that boasted high winnings and extreme fanfare. While archery contests pitted man against man, towns would sometimes compete as teams against other towns to grab bragging rights. Many of these types of tournaments catered to nobles, knights, and royalty, but some games were played by peasants.

Feudalism can be well described as a Pyramid of Power. It was possible for everyone to move higher up the ranks of the pyramid and this is what everyone aspired to do. A peasant who excelled in a medieval sport such as archery could win a purse at a sporting contest, gain an important reputation and increased value by his lord, and his position in life would improve.

The areas designated for archery training were called the butts. This is similar to the pits used on Known Distance ranges for High Power, Across The Course, Fullbore, Long Range, and similar competitions held today. US Marines still call them the butts.

The power of the longbow in the hands of bowmen that routinely practiced and participated in competition shooting was so great that at the Battle of Crecy, in 1346, the French army was decimated. It is estimated that nearly 2,000 French knights and soldiers were killed by the longbow arrows. The English lost just 50 men. This explains why Archery Laws were passed and why training at the Butts was so important and included as one of the most important medieval sports of the era.

Battle of Crécy

After landing with some 12,000 men, including 7,000 archers and taking Caen in Normandy, Edward III moved northwards. Edward’s forces were continually tracked by a much larger French army, until they finally arrived at Crécy in 1346 with a force of 8,000.

The English took a defensive position in three divisions on ground that sloped downwards, with the archers on the flanks. One of these divisions was commanded by Edward’s sixteen year old son Edward the Black Prince. The French first sent out the mercenary Genoese crossbowmen, numbering between 6,000 and 12,000 men. With a firing rate of three – five volleys per minute they were however no match for the English and Welsh longbow men who could fire ten – twelve arrows in the same amount of time. It is also reported that rain had adversely affected the bowstrings of the crossbows.

Philip VI, after commenting on the uselessness of his archers, sent forward his cavalry who charged through and over his own crossbowmen. The English and Welsh archers and men-at-arms held them off not just once, but 16 times in total. During one of these attacks Edward’s son The Black Prince came under direct attack, but his father refused to send help, claiming he needed to ‘win his spurs’.

After nightfall Philip VI, himself wounded, ordered the retreat. According to one estimate French casualties included eleven princes, 1,200 knights and 12,000 soldiers killed. Edward III is said have lost a few hundred men.

Battle of Poitiers

Details concerning the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 are in fact quite vague, however it appears that some 10,000 English and Welsh troops, this time led by Edward, Prince of Wales, also known as the Black Prince, were retreating after a long campaign in France with a French army of somewhere between 20,000 – 60,000 men in close pursuit. The two armies were separated by a large hedge when the French found a gap and attempted to break through. Realizing battle was about to commence The Black Prince ordered his men to form their usual battle positions with his archers on the flanks.

The French, who had developed a small cavalry unit specifically to attack the English and Welsh archers, were not only brought to an abrupt stop by the number of arrows that showered down upon them, they were by all accounts routed. The next attack came from the Germans who had allied themselves with the French and were leading the second cavalry attack. This was also stopped and it is said that so intense was the attack by the English and Welsh archers that at one point some ran out of arrows and had to run forward and collect arrows embedded in people lying on the ground.

Following a final volley of his archers’ fire, the Black Prince ordered the advance. The French broke and were pursued to Poitiers where the French King was captured. He was transported to London and held to ransom in the Tower of London for 3,000,000 gold crowns.

Battle of Agincourt

A 28-year-old King Henry V set sail from Southampton on 11th August 1415 with a fleet of around 300 ships to claim his birthright of the Duchy of Normandy and so revive English fortunes in France. Landing at Harfleur in northern France, they besieged the town.

The siege lasted five weeks, much longer than expected, and Henry lost around 2,000 of his men to dysentery. Henry took the decision to leave a garrison at Harfleur and take the remainder of his army back home via the French port of Calais almost 100 miles away to the north. Just two minor problems lay in their way – a very, very large and angry French army and the River Somme. Outnumbered, sick and short of supplies Henry’s army struggled but eventually managed to cross the Somme.

It was on the road north, near the village of Agincourt, that the French were finally able to stop Henry’s march. Some 25,000 Frenchmen faced Henry’s 6000. As if things couldn’t get worse it started to pour with rain.

On 25th October, St Crispin’s day, the two sides prepared for battle. The French though weren’t to be rushed and at 8.00am, laughing and joking, they ate breakfast. The English, cold and wet from the driving rain, ate whatever they had left in their depleted rations.

Following an initial stalemate, Henry decided he had nothing to lose and forced the French into battle and advanced. The English and Welsh archers moved to within 300 meters of the enemy and began to fire. This sparked the French into action and the first wave of French cavalry charged, the rain-soaked ground severely hindering their progress. The storm of arrows raining down upon them caused the French to become unnerved and they retreated into the way of the now advancing main army. With forces moving in every direction, the French were soon in total disarray. The field quickly turned into a quagmire, churned up by the feet of thousands of heavily-armored men and horses. The English and Welsh archers, some ten ranks deep, rained tens of thousands of arrows down onto the mud trapped French and what followed was a bloodbath. The battle itself lasted just half an hour and between 6,000 and 10,000 French were killed whilst the English suffered losses in the hundreds.

After three hundred years the dominance of the longbow in weaponry was coming to an end and giving way to the age of muskets and guns. The last major battle involving the longbow took place in 1644 at Tippermuir in Perthshire, Scotland during the English Civil War.
At the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, an English army of 6000 soldiers led by Henry V, defeated a French army of 36,000.

One crucial element in this victory was the longbow. Henry deployed some 5000 longbowmen, whereas the French used mainly crossbows, which have a much shorter range. Largely because of this, the French lost as many as 10,000 soldiers to England’s 112.

But despite the clear utility of the longbow as a weapon of war, it soon became obsolete as firearms evolved. Within 200 years of Agincourt, it had fallen out of military use almost entirely.

And yet in China, weaponry evolved in an entirely different way. Here, firearms were used much earlier. In 1232, the Mongol army used firearms as armour piercing weapons during the siege of Pien in China (now known as Khai-Fun Fu). And firearms may have been in use much earlier. One picture dating from the C10th shows a demon wielding a gun of sorts.

And yet Chinese armies still used bows some 800 years later. How come?

Timo Nieminen, a physicist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, describes the evolution of the Asian composite war bow, a device he describes as “the best bow available before the advent of modern materials and the modern compound bow”. In the process, he throws some light on this question, explaining why the bow was much harder to make obsolete in China.

Nevertheless, both East and Western designs were much more accurate than early firearms, particularly over longer distances. They had a much higher rate of fire. And they required fewer materials and logistics to manufacture and supply. Surely any military commander would have preferred them over firearms.

Well, yes. Except for one big disadvantage: bows require a high degree of skill to use proficiently.

Nieminen points out that while Chinese armies had a huge pool of skilled archers to pick from, European armies did not. The Europeans therefore trained their soldiers to use firearms, which could be done relatively quickly.

And for that reason, firearms quickly eclipsed the bow in Europe. “Economic and social factors, especially the training of musketeers as opposed to archers, were more important factors influencing the replacement of the bow by the gun than pure military “effectiveness”,” says Nieminen.

Timeline of the Longbow

  • ~ 50,000 BCE – Arrowheads found in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco
  • ~ 3,000 BCE – Longbow first appears in Europe
  • ~ 2,690 BCE – Evidence of longbow being used in Somerset, England
  • 950 CE – Historical evidence of crossbows in France
  • 1066 CE – Battle of Hastings
  • 1100’s – Henry I introduces law to absolve any archer if he kills another whilst practicing or competing with longbows
  • 1252 CE – Archery Law passed lawfully ordering all Englishmen between the age of 15 to 60 years old to equip themselves with a bow and arrows.
  • 1300’s – Edward I bans all sports other than archery on Sundays
  • 1340 CE – Start of The One Hundred Years War
  • 1346 CE – Crécy
  • 1356 CE – Poitiers
  • 1363 CE – All Englishmen ordered to practice archery on Sunday and holidays
  • 1414 CE – Agincourt
  • 1453 CE – English archers killed by cannon and lances attacking French artillery position at Castillon, the last battle of The One Hundred Years War
  • 1472 CE – English ships ordered to import wood needed to make bows
  • 1508 CE – To increase use of longbows, crossbows are banned in England
  • 1644 CE – Tippermuir, Last battle involving the longbow
  • 17th Century CE – Muskets become more popular than the long bow.