longbow paper 2014 april 2015

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The English Longbow: History 302John Murray

Throughout European history there have been numerous wars of succession, invasions, conquests, and occupations. From the time of the fall of Rome until the Ottoman invasion of the 15th century, the longest lasting of these is surely the Hundred Years War. Due to a great deal of dynastic turmoil in France, as well as a Franco-Scot alliance during the Scottish War for Independence, the English staged an invasion of the continent. This ignited a series of conflicts that lasted from 1337 to 1453. Ultimately these conflicts did not win Edward III or any of his successors a seat on the French throne. It did, however, result in a number of battles, such as Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, these three in particular being decisive English victories. The Chronicles of Froissart, written in the 1370s, gives detail to these conflicts, and in each one, pays a major credit to a weapon which has reached exalted status in English history, the longbow. It is important to realize that the longbow itself is not entirely significant out of historical context. As a piece of engineering, it is relevant to the evolution of man, but it took three battles, Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt, to truly bring the weapon to light as the most efficient killing tool of its time. As a technological innovation, the bow wasnt new. Man had been making bows to hunt with since before he could write. The difference in the longbow came in its simplicity, its strength, and its employment en-masse . In Asia, the Mongols and Chinese were both building composite bows with horn, resin, and sinew. In Turkey the Janissaries had already begun transitioning to firearms by the mid-1400s. In Western Europe however, the bow was still the only reliable ranged weapon. During the 100 Years War, firearms were notoriously treacherous and tended to kill the engineers as often as they killed the enemy. In contrast, a good longbow enabled an archer to put arrows on target at great range with sufficient force to penetrate flesh, bone, armor, and horses.[footnoteRef:1][footnoteRef:2] Against an unarmored target a hit was almost guaranteed to be lethal. Through the course of the paper I hope to outline the technology behind the longbow, its integration into English armies, the training required to wield it, and its effects in battle which have made it a legend for centuries. [1: Clifford Rogers Efficacy of the English Longbow: A Reply to Kelly DeVries. War in History 5, no. 2 (1998): 238] [2: Hardy, Robert.Longbow: A Social and Military History, 36they penetrated nearly the space of a palm and following, describes a victim during the Welsh Wars that was pierced through his thigh, the casing armour on both sidesthe part of the saddle known as the alva, and mortally wounded the horse 36]

The principle that gave the compound bow its terrible power in such a small stave was an exaggerated pressure differential created by making sinew pull an extremely dense horn or bone stave into a compressed state. This concept was not foreign to the English, but composite bows use a laminate of several materials to accomplish this. The isle of Britain had a plentiful supply of a tree with the ideal characteristics for producing this type of power in a single, uninterrupted bow-stave. An expert bowyer would cut a single branch from a yew tree, and, in cutting it down, leave a stave of wood that was roughly half heartwood, half sapwood, with the heartwood making up the interior of the gentle, curving belly of the bow. This heartwood was dense and straight, and resisted compression, giving the bow immense kinetic potential, the thicker the belly, the heavier the draw and the more power put downrange. The sapwood, on the outer spine of the bow was lighter, springier, and less dense, this is what gave the bow its astonishing quickness upon the release. Combining these two, the springy sapwood squeezed the less yielding heartwood belly and contained it on a string of twisted hemp and hair, creating a barely contained explosion of power.[footnoteRef:3] What is amazing about this invention is that it was created without knowledge of mechanical engineering or physics. The longbow was refined through a long tradition of trial and error, it evolved, more than it was designed. [3: Hardy, Robert.Longbow: A Social and Military History, 31]

The longbow is a weapon of such legend, thanks to its role played in the 100 Years War, that quite a bit of mythology has sprung up around it, especially concerning its draw weights, effective range, and efficacy versus armored targets. Bows came in a variety of strengths in sizes, and although in fiction only men who have trained with the bow for years could even string one of these bows, many of the bows recovered from historic sites have had surprisingly manageable draw weights. Although there have been some bows, such as the Flodden Bow[footnoteRef:4], exhibited weights as high as 90 pounds, such as the barrels of staves found aboard the wreckage of the Mary Rose[footnoteRef:5]. Nevertheless, modern recurve bows of fifty to sixty pounds are used for deer hunting to this day, so the near mythological ninety-pound longbow found at Flodden was probably not only an exception to the norm, wielded by an uncannily strong archer, but it also shows that such a herculean weapon was not needed to inflict casualties enemy troops. [4: The Medieval English Longbow, Robert E. Kaiser, M.A. Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 23, 1980. Web accessed http://margo.student.utwente.nl/sagi/artikel/longbow/longbow.html, 4/26/15The estimated strength of the weapon is between 80 and 90 pounds.] [5: ibid]

It is also important to take note of the age in which the longbow grew into its prime. The battles of Crecy and Agincourt show examples during the 100 Years War of how a tool that kills at a distance, but these were not the first innovations in killing that brought a terrifying efficiency to the fray. In studying medieval warfare, one will often find that battles consisted of footmen, soldiers without status or the money to afford a horse, locked in melee with other, similarly equipped footmen. Kings relied on what was called the Fyrd, a drafted light infantry corps, to make up the bulk of their armies, that is, until the Middle Ages, the golden age of Chevaliers. Knights were the richest warriors on the battlefield, from noble families, with the money to buy whatever equipment they needed. In the 14th and 15th century, knights wore plate armor, rode massive armored horses, called Destriers, into combat, and sported some of the finest steel weapons in Europe. They also brought an ethos to the battlefield, chivalry. Knights conducted various displays of bravery, issuing challenges and fighting duels before battle was joined, acting as champions of their armies. Once these displays were over, however, the knights still had a role to play, in what became one of the earliest forms of Shock Combat[footnoteRef:6]. However, it must be understood that although the knight looked splendid, and could inflict terrible casualties, even the King of England knew that armored horse alone would not destroy the enemy. By the 15th century, it was also clear that Cavalry was helpless against well-ordered archers[footnoteRef:7] this is shown by the numbers of troops brought to France in 1337 from England by Edward III, They were in number a four thousand men of arms and ten thousand archers, beside Irishmen and Welshmen that followed the host afoot.[footnoteRef:8]. With Edwards ranged troops having double the strength of his mounted knights, it is clear he knew the importance of the archer for the invasion of France, especially after his having tested their efficacy at Halidon Hill and Dupplin Moor, during the Scottish War of Independence. These battles gave Edward the evidence and inspiration that lead to the use of mass archers on the continent. [6: TACTICS, STRATEGY, AND BATTLEFIELD FORMATION DURING THE HUNDRED YEARS WAR: THE ROLE OF THE LONGBOW IN THE INFANTRY REVOLUTION, John Mortimer, A Thesis Submitted to the School of Graduate Studies, University of Pennsylvania, p35] [7: Hardy, Robert.Longbow: A Social and Military History, 31-32] [8: The Chronicles of Froissart Froissart, Jean; translated by John Bourchier, Lord Berners, http://legacy.fordham.edu/Halsall/basis/froissart-full.asp, web accessed 3/15/15]

As romantic as it seems, the concept of the noble combat of knights on horseback, the glorious charge, and the quick rout of the enemy, is purely that, romance and glamour. In reality a battle was hardly so clean. If the initial charge of cavalry failed to break the enemys line, the battle would almost certainly be protracted. An archers role in battle was multi-faceted. When facing the French, the aforementioned cavalry charge was the chief concern. With as many as five thousand archers guarding the flanks of the English at Agincourt. Archers needed to be able to inflict heavy casualties, or at least to be able to harass the enemy sufficiently that attacking their less mobile formations would be considered too risky. In a recent paper from the U.S. Military Academy by Clifford Rogers, titled Efficacy of the English Longbow: A Reply to Kelly Devries, it is revealed that there is currently an argument among some scholars regarding the ability of the weapon to win battles. Some, such as Devries, argue that most of the accounts we currently possess of the longbow are sensational, trumped up stories by the victors, and that archers could not have caused the losses of life attributed to them by historians[footnoteRef:9]. However, primary sources such as the Chronicles of Jean Froissart attest, albeit briefly, to the deadliness of the longbow. At the beginning of the battle, the French deployed Genoese mercenaries to harass the English front with crossbows, and after several volleys