Reigning Arrows: The Welsh Longbow

It is raining as the French and English turn to face each other on the field of Agincourt, Poitier, Patay and Crecy, yet as each droplet hits its mark, the victim drops, fatally wounded to the ground. This is the carnage caused by beautifully carved Welsh creation, the longbow.

Believed to have originated from the depths of the mountainsides within the area of Gwynedd in 663 AD due to here being the first ever record of it being used against the King of Northumbria’s son Offrid. A battle between the Welsh and the Mercians in the 7th century began the importance and relevancy of the longbow to various countries military history and certainly won battles what historians could call landmarks in English history now. This date marks the appearance of the bow around five centuries before the wooden wonder’s grand entrance into English history as being the saviour of several battles during civil wars, and the more commonly known Hundred Years War. Archery skills being used in battle is nothing new with records pre-dating the Welsh longbow by a good thousand years. It is thought to be a branch off from the use of spears dating from before the Neolithic era as a bow is capable of launching its weapon a much greater distance. The bow and arrow’s history is long and bloody as being the culprit of several thousand deaths since its creation and provokes fear from its deadly accuracy if placed within the right archer’s hands.

The strength of the longbow comes from its height as the average length is around 6ft tall (this being taller than the average man for the Medieval era), achieving a wider draw of the arrow after notching before the release at a possible speed of 70mph. Made from elm/yew/oak or birch wood because of the durability there is a slight curve to accommodate the hardy but flexible bend when preparing the arrow for release. The string was typically made from either silk or hemp. The trade of yew wood during the height of the longbows popularity during the Middle Ages meant a dwindling of this particular tree resorting to lesser trees to enable production. The average time for a bow of this calibre to be created can be put to around 20 hours from amateur historians attempting to make replicas, yet a skilled Medieval craftsman would carve this in a matter of hours possibly out of necessity due to demand. It is necessary for a long life-span that the bow is created from a single piece of wood. Glue was available long before the time of the longbows but this would have prevented the bows use in humid or particularly damp environments such as England and Wales.

The most well-known use of the longbow as stated was during the ill-named Hundred Years War during which the English massacred the French army and a vast amount of the nobility. During the battles of Crecy, Poitier and Agincourt the longbow became notorious and famed by the English army headed by the Angevin kings before being used against them in Patay in 1429. Before this war the only other date recorded on the longbow is the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 between English and Scotland. As it had been invented by the Welsh they were being conscripted into the English army in their hundreds to fill the archery ranks who were usually stationed near the front of the battle formation. English archers are not as well identified even though English men were then on trained in archery tactics using the longbow. Unlike some levels within the military except the mercenary class archery was never discriminative. Because of the long-standing victories caused by the longbow it was necessary to have a wide range of people capable of handling the weapon with ease therefore all society levels from peasantry to Imperial were encouraged to be proficient in this activity.

From beyond the 16th century the longbow only lasted through midway of the 17th century, while they were being phased out by the increasing number of firearms replacing medieval military weaponry. The last recorded use of the longbow itself was at the Battle of Bridgnorth in 1642 within the English Civil War. There is on the other hand a small record stating the longbow being in use as late as World War Two as it was part of the weaponry of choice for the Commandos, whether it was used in action is unclear. Its legacy lives on not just through recorded means but also through folktale and literature as being a hard-wearing and accurate weapon particularly at long-range. The most infamous of people famed for using this is Robin Hood and all Kings of England are trained in longbow archery. The longbow is also the base of ‘Song of the Arrow’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his poem The White Company. Also the longbow is the elite militia choice for the British in the PC game Age of Empires II, and when used in huge numbers a fortress can be impenetrable from personal experience. There have been hoards of longbows and arrows found on the Mary Rose warship built by Henry VIII that sank in 1545, which describes the vitality the longbow had both in sport and war as this ship was preparing for sail during Henry’s last war with France.

Naturally the longbow was not only reserved to the uses of the English, Welsh and French there are documents stating Spanish longbow archers and Italian regiments which were still deployed beyond the 17th century. It is possible to buy and make longbows and is a regular sighting in mock battles by historical re-enactors however real ones are advised to be used with caution as even the draw of the arrow can injure someone if done incorrectly. If anyone is interested in finding out more just search longbows in amazon for a range of books from the academic material to light reading varieties.

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