The English Longbow

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The longbow was one of the most devastating weapons in medieval Europe. It was a weapon that could launch projectiles hundreds of yards and pierce the heaviest of armor. It was the battlefield trump card to heavy armored cavalry.

No country adopted and mastered the longbow quite like the English. One reason why they found the military success they did was due to a complete societal commitment to the longbow. 

Learn more about why the longbow was so powerful, and how an entire country was transformed by it on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

A longbow is, at a fundamental level, a just really long bow. Most definitions will define a longbow as anything greater than four feet long, but most medieval bows in England averaged 5 feet, 8 inches. Most modern definitions would say a longbow is any bow over 4 feet long where the string doesn’t touch the limb. 

Longbows were around at least as early as the year 3000 BC. Otzi the Iceman who was found in a melted glacier had a longbow on him.  As far as our story is concerned, they appeared as early as the year 1000 BCE in Wales. 

Legend has it that after a battle with the Welsh, an English king noticed that one of his knights was injured. He had been shot with an arrow that went through his chainmail, through his leg, through the other side of his chainmail, through the leather of his saddle, through the wood in the saddle, and injured the horse. 

England had to get some of those. 

It is here where I have to explain the differences between a longbow and the other ranged medieval weapon of the time, the crossbow. 

Both crossbows and longbows were similar in terms of the power of their projectiles. The difference was in how easy they were to use and the rate of fire. A crossbow was very easy to use and shoot. Someone with very little training could learn to fire a crossbow. The energy in a crossbow is stored in its limbs and the string is locked in place just waiting for someone to pull the trigger.

In fact, the crossbow was feared because it was so easy to use. The pope even encouraged banning crossbows because it allowed a peasant to take down a fully armored knight, which would totally destabilize the medieval social order. 

The problem with a crossbow is that you couldn’t fire that fast. Most crossbows required your whole body to cock it including your feet, or more commonly a crank that pulled back the string. A trained, experienced crossbowman could fire 2 or 3 bolts per minute.

The energy in a longbow is all contained by the archer. A longbow required strength and years of practice. However, if you are a skilled archer, you can fire 10-12 arrows per minute, with far greater accuracy. That means one longbowman was worth 4 to 6 crossbowmen just by firing rate alone. 

Most countries in continental Europe put their efforts into the cheaper, less efficient crossbows. It was a function of economics and the fact that because borders changed so often, the last thing a king wanted to do was train skill arches who might later be used against him. 

England, however, was on an island. They weren’t under threat of having its subjects used against them, so they embarked on a plan of training their populace in archery. 

Henry, I exempted anyone of murder who killed someone practicing archery.

In the Assize of Arms of 1252, King Henry III ordered all men between the ages of 15 and 60 to keep arms, including longbow.

Edward I really was the one who really brought forward the power of the English longbow.

At the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, he defeated the Scottish with the help of the longbow, as was dramatized in the movie Braveheart.

He later banned the participation of any sport other than archery on Sundays and holidays. 

Successive Kings of England kept up the longbow tradition. 

In the 100 Years War with France in the 14th and 15th centuries, the longbow became the weapon that tilted the balance of power.

In 1346 at the Battle of Crécy, the English, led by the Black Prince, overwhelmingly defeated the French with a smaller force through the use of longbows. The French lost eleven princes, 1,200 knights, and 12,000 soldiers. The English lost a few hundred men. 

In 1356 at the Battle of Poitiers 10,000 outnumbered English in full retreat, led again by the Black Prince, defeated a force of 20,000 to 60,000 French, again with the power of the longbow. In fact, they captured the French king and held him in the Tower of London for a ransom 3,000,000 gold crowns.

In 1363, Edward III issued a decree requiring all men to practice archery on Sundays and holidays. 

The high point of the longbow was in 1415 at the Battle of Agincourt made famous by William Shakespeare’s Henry V. On 25th October, St Crispin’s day, 6,000 English defeated 25,000 French in crappy weather, pouring rain, and a whole of arrows.  

While many different types of wood can be used to make a longbow, the best wood is from the yew tree. At its peak, England was importing so much yew wood that much of Europe became deforested of yew trees. The king of Poland had to protect the land so all of their yew wasn’t lost. 

Today, archeologists can tell if someone was a bowman because of their skeletal structure. Bowman spent so many years practicing archery and developing their skills that the bones in their right arm are larger to handle the larger muscle mass. You can also notice a slight difference between the height of the left and right shoulders. Skeletal remains of an English bowman can be found at the Richard III museum which shows these traits.

Because England was the only country that trained longbowmen to this extent, English bowmen were often found as mercenaries in European wars. An experienced bowman was a path to a solid middle-class existence for many Englishmen. 

There are some specifics about longbows that have evaded researchers. While we have some 3,000-year-old longbows, there isn’t a single longbow from the middle ages which has survived. No one was really sure what the draw weight was of a longbow. 

The draw weight is the amount of force needed to pull back the string. To put it in perspective, a bow used in Olympic archery competitions is usually about 50 pounds, which is around the weight of most hunting bows.

Experts thought that longbows were around 80 pounds. 

The Mary Rose, an English ship that sunk in 1545 was raised from the sea in 1982. The ship carried 250 longbows, of which 172 have been recovered, along with several thousand arrows. The draw weight of the Mary Rose’s longbows was on average 150-160 pounds, which is really high. Most archers today would have a very difficult time pulling such a bow. This explains why the skeletons of English bowmen had modified arm bones.

Longbows had their day in the sun, but they were eventually rendered obsolete with gunpowder and firearms. By the end of the 100 Years War, which saw the high point of longbow usage, the weapon had been countered by the French firing field artillery. The weapon which countered heavy armored cavalry was itself countered by cannons.

The last major use of longbows was during the English Civil War in 1642 when a local militia managed to fight back a group of unarmored musketeers.

I’ll close by noting two things:

First, is that according to legal experts, the medieval laws requiring archery practice for every male in England were never technically revoked. On June 11, 2010, the Reverend Mary Edwards called all the members in her parish in Wiltshire to mandatory archery practice under the terms of the law by King Edward III.  People who showed up were treated to a BBQ and a bar. It was debated if a parish vicar had the power to enforce the law if in fact, it is still on the books.

The second thing is that the last confirmed use of a longbow in battle occurred in WWII, by an English soldier in France of all places. Lieutenant Colonel “Mad Jack” Churchill, an eccentric soldier who went into battle with a claymore, bagpipes and a longbow, actually used his bow to slay a German Officer near Calis in 1940.

I guarantee you the German officer did not see that coming.