Come rain or shine this weekend (and it’s looking like a mix of both) you can join in with our Indoor Archery event and take aim to see how many points you can score.
As it’s all about archery this weekend we asked Joe from our Visitor Services team to look back on one of the most famous types of soldier and weapons in English history – the longbowman and his bow:
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about longbows and their users and just as many interesting bits of trivia that our visitors might not know! Here’s a few facts about longbowmen to whet your appetite in time for the weekend…
English longbows were powerful. You may have already assumed that but it’s hard to emphasise just how powerful they were. If you have ever had a go at archery before, you’ll be familiar with Olympic bows. They tend to have a reasonable “poundage” of about 50lbs, meaning it requires 50lbs of force to draw the bow. This is also reduced by modern technologies and mechanisms that make them easier to draw. In addition, modern bows have sights and rests to make aiming much easier.
No such luck with medieval longbows! Every aspect of using an English longbow was manual – your knuckle was used to rest your arrow as you drew it back and aiming was done largely through muscle memory and practice. Couple this with draw weights of anywhere between 100 and 200lbs and you can see why the longbow was such a devastating weapon!
The skeletons of English archers were deformed from years of archery! The high poundage of war bows, coupled with years of training in their use from a young age, led to skeletons having over-developed shoulder and arm bones to compensate for the growth of muscle around those areas.
Below is an image of a reconstruction of the skeleton of an English longbowman. Notice how the arms are slightly bowed, the shoulders unusually hunched and that the right shoulder, the drawing arm, sits higher than the left.
The ‘English’ Longbow
The English longbow is legendary. It is known as the weapon that brought France to its knees and saw English domination of the medieval battlefield, a weapon that is quintessentially English… Except it isn’t! The ‘English’ longbow was in fact a weapon of Welsh origins.
It was first encountered by the English during William the Conqueror’s invasion of Wales in the 11th Century and impressed the Normans so much with its effectiveness that they adopted it for themselves. In fact, throughout much of what is considered the golden age of the longbow, a large proportion of longbowmen deployed in English armies were Welsh, the Welsh still being considered the best longbowmen in the land!
The Professional Archer
To this day there is a prevailing idea of the longbowman being a peasant soldier; a man forced by law to train in archery all the time and plucked from his farm to fight on foreign soil.
This has led to many of our ideas of the cream of the French nobility felled by a rabble of barely trained peasants. The truth is more complicated. Whilst it is true that a royal edict demanded that able bodied men above the age of 14 practice archery for two hours a week, the truth is that most archers in service to the king were professional soldiers.
The majority of the peasantry wouldn’t have been skilled enough with the minimal amount of training decreed by law (a law that was rarely enforced) and probably wouldn’t have even been able to afford bows powerful enough to use as war bows.
In reality, most archers were professional soldiers from what could be seen as a sort of early middle class and were paid a wage on par with a trained tradesman, such as a stonemason. They certainly weren’t nobles and there were definitely peasants amongst their ranks but to say that all English longbowmen were peasants is somewhat misleading.
One of the most popular images in Hollywood when it comes to archery is of the fire arrow. We’ve all seen the moment in a pitched battle when the archers light the end of their arrows to rain fiery death upon their enemies. This is very much “Hollywood” as it didn’t really happen.
Fire arrows definitely existed, in fact the siege of Oran in 1404 saw extensive use of flaming arrows loosed from low poundage bows to ignite houses. But that was basically their only use, as a siege weapon.
Against infantry, fire arrows would have been woefully ineffective as most medieval armour wasn’t highly flammable, the fire cage arrow had very poor penetration due to its shape and it simply couldn’t be loosed at high speeds from powerful bows without extinguishing the flames before reaching their target.
So, if you see archers in films using fire arrows against anything other than a building, it’s probably fantasy!
Below is a replica of a medieval fire cage arrow head. Cloth would be wrapped through the cage and ignited.
William the Conquerors chief bowman was one of my decendents. Stovin is the family name. Is it possible you have any more information regarding this. The decendents eventually settled at Tetley House on the outskirts of Crowle, a George Stovin was sent to Lincoln Castle and tortured to death. I can’t find any more information other than this in a newspaper article. I would be grateful for any help.
Sorry we would be unable to help with this – we don’t have access to that level of detail I’m afraid.
I’ve been playing AC Valhalla and will not look at archers the same. Thanks!
John G, thats exactly how I ended up on this page too!
Look at us learning, Valhalla has made history fun! Haha
Why is the left arm of the archer longer than the right? You would think that the pull
arm would be longer
I asked one of the team about this and they said that that archers would train from childhood and this training would affect the growth of trainee archers as they grew up. The pull arm is shorter due to the amount of stress and pressure it is put through during training: it basically strengthens and compresses the bones as they grow.
A longer pull-arm would be a disadvantage as it would give you a negative mechanical advantage over a shorter pull-arm. Try lifting something heavy with your arm fully extended, vs using half of your arms length. In which example can you use least energy?
I have a project that I’m researching… I was wondering if you could enlighten me on the expected standard proficiency of an English longbowman in the Elizebethan period. By this I mean the size of arrow groupings at 30 yards specifically.
Thank you for your time and consideration!
This is a bit outside our area of expertise I’m afraid, perhaps Royal Armouries could help you with the answer to this? royalarmouries.org
Were Bowhands / Archery Gloves used in traditional practice or are they a later addition?