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.