English longbow

The English longbow, also called the Welsh longbow, was a powerful type of medieval longbow (a tall bow for archery) about 2.0 m (6 ftin) long used by the English and Welsh both for hunting and as a weapon of war. English use of longbows was effective against the French during the Hundred Years' War, particularly at the Battle of Agincourt (1415).


There are various descriptions of the medieval longbow. There are no surviving longbows prior to the 15th century and more than 130 from the Renaissance period (see Surviving bows). Descriptions range in length from 1.2 to 2.11 m (4 ft 1 to 6 ft 11 in). They were made from imported yew in preference, although ash and other woods were also used. Estimates for the draw of these bows varies considerably. Estimates made on examples from the Mary Rose, typically had draw forces of 72–82 kgf (706–804 N, 160–180 lbf ). A modern longbow's draw is typically 27 kgf (60 lbf) or less, and there are no modern longbowmen capable of using 180 lbf bows accurately.

As to the bow length, there is no agreement. In continental Europe it was generally seen as any bow longer than 1.2 m (4 ft). The Royal Antiquaries Society of Great Britain says it is of 5 or 6 feet (1.5 or 1.83 m) in length[1]. Richard Bartelot, of the Royal Artillery Institution, said that the bow was of yew, 6 feet (1.83 m) long, with a 3 foot (914 mm) arrow[2]. Gaston Phoebus, in 1388, wrote that a longbow should be "of yew or boxwood, seventy inches [1.78 m] between the points of attachment for the cord"[3]. Historian Jim Bradbury said they were an average of about 5 feet and 8 inches (Bradbury, The Medieval Archer, 2002).

The range of the medieval weapon is unknown, with estimates from 165 to 228 m (180 to 249 yds). Modern longbows have a useful range up to 180 m (200 yd). A 150 lb Mary Rose replica longbow was able to shoot a 53.6 g (1.89 oz) arrow 328.0 m (360 yd) and a 95.9 g (3.3 oz) a distance of 249.9 m (272 yd).

It should be noted that the longbow had a long range and was accurate, but it was not both at the same time. Modern champion archers maintain that you cannot 'guarantee' a hit on an individual target at more than 80 yards with any bow whatsoever. Most of the longer range shooting mentioned in stories was not marksmanship, but rather thousands of archers throwing volleys of arrows at an entire army. As they are aiming at a large mass at a particular distance, they can extend their range substantially. In its day, it was considered amazingly accurate, and by the standards of the day, it was. Standards for accuracy have changed dramatically, in the modern age. By modern standards the bow cannot compare to a rifle, which can be used by a skilled marksman to hit individual targets at 600 or 800 yards. An archer could hit a person at 180 yards 'part of the time' and could always hit an army.

A Welsh or English military archer (Yeoman) during the 14th and 15th Century was expected to shoot at least ten "aimed shots" per minute. An experienced military longbowman was expected to shoot twenty aimed shots per minute. A typical military longbow archer would be provided with between 60 and 72 arrows at the time of battle, which would last the archer from three to six minutes at full rate of fire. Young boys were often employed to run additional arrows to longbow archers on in their positions on the battlefield.[4] "The longbow was the machine gun of the Middle Ages: accurate, deadly, possessed of a long range and rapid rate of fire, the flight of its missiles was likened to a storm."[5]. This rate of fire was much higher than that of crossbows or any other projectile weapon of the period, including firearms.

The construction of a longbow consists of seasoning the yew wood for 1 to 2 years, then slowly working the wood into shape, with the entire process taking up to 4 years. The bow stave is shaped into a D-section, from a half cross section of a tree or branch. The inner side of the bow stave consists of rounded heartwood and the outer of sapwood with a flat back. The heartwood resists compression and the outer sapwood performs better in tension. This combination forms a natural laminate similar in effect to the construction of a composite bow. Longbows will last a long time, if constructed in this way and are protected with a rub of "wax, resin and fine tallow".

Bow strings were made of hemp, flax or silk and attached to the wood with "horn nocks", which fit onto the end of the bow. Today strings may still be made the traditional way or a modern synthetic material (usually a string twisted of Dacron wire) can be used.


At least two Neolithic longbows have been found in Britain. One, made of yew and wrapped in leather, was found at Meare Heath, Somerset, in 1961. Although broken, it had an original length of 6 ft 3ins. It was identified as Neolithic by a combination of peat stratigraphy, pollen analysis and radiocarbon dating ca 2690 (±120) BC (Somerset Historic Environment Record), much to the consternation of some archaeologists at the time. A second was found in southern Scotland at Rotten Bottom. It was made of yew and dates to between 4040 and 3640 BC. A reconstructed bow had a draw force of about 23 kgf (230 N, 50 lbf) and a range of 50 to 55 metres. The famous Ötzi the Iceman, of the Chalcolithic period (Copper Age), found in the Ötztaler Alps, bore a bow very similar to the Rotten Bottom example, with a bowstring of nettle or flax fibre.

Weapons resembling a longbow have been discovered by archaeologists in Scandinavia, dating from the Mesolithic period, made of elm wood and found in the Holmegaard-bog in Denmark (although, during the medieval period, Scandinavians were characterized by the effective use of the shortbow). From the Neolithic onwards, yew was the preferred material. It was ideal as the inner heartwood would compress, while the outer sapwood would stretch, making a powerful natural spring.


Longbows at the Battle of Crécy
Longbows at the Battle of Crécy

During the Anglo-Norman invasions of Wales, Welsh bowmen took a heavy toll on the invaders, by using this extraordinary weapon of war. The English were quick to realise the impact that the longbow could produce on the battlefield. As soon as the Welsh campaign was successfully over, Welsh conscripts began to be incorporated into the English army. The lessons the English learned in Wales were later used with deadly effect by Welsh mercenaries on the battlefields of France and Scotland. Their skill was exercised under King Edward I of England (r. 1272–1307), who banned all sports but archery on Sundays, to make sure Englishmen practised with the longbow. As a result, the English during this period as a whole became very effective with the longbow. A variant (bow-staves) was used by 14th century mercenary troops of Sir John Hawkwood.

The longbow decided a number of medieval battles fought by the English, the most significant of which were the Battle of Crécy (1346) and the Battle of Agincourt (1415), during the Hundred Years' War. The longbow corps saw particularly heavy casualties at the Battle of Patay and this loss contributed to England's eventual defeat in that war. Longbowmen armies would aim at an area and fire a rain of arrows hitting indiscriminately at anyone in the area, a decidedly un-chivalrous but highly effective means of combat. Longbows remained in use until around the 16th century, when advances in firearms made gunpowder weapons a significant factor in warfare and such units as arquebusiers and grenadiers began appearing. Before the English Civil War, a pamphlet by William Neade entitled The Double-Armed Man advocated that soldiers be trained in both the longbow and pike; this advice was not followed in anything but a few town militias. The last recorded use of bows, in an English battle, seems to have been a skirmish at Bridgnorth, in October 1642, during the English Civil War[6]. Longbowmen remained a feature of the Royalist Army, but were not used by the Roundheads.

Although longbows were much faster and more accurate than any black powder weapons, longbowmen were always difficult to produce, because of the years of practice necessary before a war longbow could be used effectively (examples of longbows from the Mary Rose typically had draws greater than 65 kgf (143 lbf)). In an era in which warfare was usually seasonal and non-noble soldiers spent part of the year working at farms, the year-round training required for the effective use of the longbow was a challenge. A standing army was an expensive proposition to a medieval ruler. Mainland European armies seldom trained a significant longbow corps. Due to their specialized training, English longbowmen were sought as mercenaries in other European countries, most notably in the Italian city-states and in Spain.


Longbows were difficult to master because the force required to draw the bow was very high by modern standards. Although the draw weight of a typical English longbow is disputed, it was at least 36 kgf (360 N, 80 lbf) and possibly more than 65 kgf (650 N, 143 lbf). Considerable practice was required to produce the swift and effective combat fire required. Skeletons of longbow archers are recognizably deformed, with enlarged left arms and often bone spurs on left wrists, left shoulders and right fingers.

To penetrate chain mail armour, many war arrows had 'chisel' (or 'bodkin') heads and were quite massive. Bodkin arrows have tips like elongated pyramids, which result in a very sharp and very narrow point. With their bodkin points these massive war arrows probably weighed around 65 to 100 grams (1000 to 1500 grains, grain being a unit of measure often used for arrows and bullets). This is 2 or 3 times the weight of the wooden or aluminum arrows that are used today and 4 to 5 times the weight of modern carbon fiber arrows or pre 20th century 'flight arrows', used in distance shooting contests. In peacetime, in some regions, carrying chisel points was a hanging offence, because it was thought to threaten noblemen or they were taken as evidence that one was a highwayman. Specialist war-arrows were designed to tackle the problem of different types of armour. For example, arrows with thin and sharply slanted heads were used to pierce chainmail suits, breaking one ring and consequently 'popping' a huge hole in the armour as the force of the impact knocked the other rings out of place. Many war-arrows had heads that were only attached with a small blob of wax, so that if they were to be removed conventionally only the shaft would come out, leaving the head lodged in the victim which would almost certainly cause an infected wound. The effects of a longbow are illustrated by this 12th century account by Gerald of Wales:

...in the war against the Welsh, one of the men of arms was struck by an arrow shot at him by a Welshman. It went right through his thigh, high up, where it was protected inside and outside the leg by his iron cuirasses, and then through the skirt of his leather tunic; next it penetrated that part of the saddle which is called the alva or seat; and finally it lodged in his horse, driving so deep that it killed the animal. (Itinerarium Cambriae, (1191))

On the battlefield, English archers stabbed their arrows upright into the ground at their feet, reducing the time it took to notch, draw and loose (as drawing from a quiver is slower). An additional effect of this practice was that the point of an arrow would be more likely to cause infection. Bowmen relieved themselves on the same ground, but this is unlikely to have any additional effect.

Cloth-yard shafts (used in longbows, their length being 31" or one yard of cloth) recovered from the Mary Rose show that some arrowheads were attached using a copper-based glue. As copper is lethal when introduced into the bloodstream, this can be considered as some of the earliest evidence (deliberate or otherwise) of biochemical warfare.

The only way to remove such an arrow cleanly would be to tie a piece of cloth, soaked in boiling water or another sterilising substance, to the end of it and push it through the victim's wound and out of the other side — this was incredibly painful. There were specialised tools used in the medieval period to extract arrows if in places where bone prevented the arrow being pushed through.

Prince Hal (later Henry V) was wounded in the face by an arrow at the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403). The royal physician John Bradmore had a tool made, which consisted of a pair of smooth tongs. Once carefully inserted into the rear of the arrowhead wound, the tongs screwed apart till they gripped its walls and allowed the head to be extracted from the wound. Prior to the extraction, the hole made by the arrow shaft had been widened by inserting larger and larger dowels of wood down the entry wound. The dowels were soaked in honey, which contains natural antibiotics. The wound was dressed with a poultice of barley and honey mixed in turpentine. After 20 days the wound was free of infection.

Hunting arrows generally had what is called a 'broad-headed' arrowhead, although other specialist hunting arrow types did exist. Broad-head arrows leave wide cuts when they pierce flesh, which results in rapid blood loss. A well-placed arrow that struck a deer through both lungs or the heart would kill it in minutes. An arrow with a head shaped like a crescent moon was used to knock birds and other small animals out of trees so that both the animal and the arrow could be retrieved with relative ease, when a normal arrow would have pinned itself and the animal to the tree, making recovery difficult. At one time it was thought that the crescent headed arrow was used at sea to cut ropes on enemy ships but the fact that an arrow rotates in flight would mean that cutting a rope at distance — requiring the crescent arrow to remain exactly horizontal — would be nigh-on impossible.


Although bowmen were still deadly at close range, they were light skirmishers unsuited to prolonged hand-to-hand combat and were understandably vulnerable to a committed attack by cavalry. Consequently they were often deployed behind physical barricades, such as stakes and poles driven into the ground. A longbow corps was vulnerable to ambush until its defensive barricade was complete. This practice discouraged offensive battle tactics because the longbow was most effective when an opposing army charged.

A common battle formation:

  • Light Infantry (such as swordsmen) in the centre forward, in rank formation.
  • Heavy Infantry (often armed with poleaxes or pole weapons with bill hooks being the preferred English weapon) in the centre middle, in rank or square formation.
  • Traditional Archers and Crossbowmen in the centre back, in rank formation.
  • Cavalry either on the flanks (to protect against attacks), or deployed in the centre to counter any breakthroughs and such.
  • Longbowmen were usually on the side, in an enfilade formation, rather like this: \ ___ /, with the middle being occupied by melee troops.

A skillful general would alternate flights of arrows with cavalry charges, sometimes alternating flank attacks to induce shock and fear in the enemy. The arrows were used in volleys and not aimed at specific targets, until the enemy was quite close; the psychological effect on the enemy of the famous 'cloud of arrows' produced by such a volley is not to be underestimated.

Surviving bows

More than 3,500 arrows and 137 whole longbows were recovered from the Mary Rose, a ship of Henry VIII's navy that was sunk at Portsmouth in 1545. It is an important source for the history of the longbow, as the bows, archery implements and the skeletons of archers have been preserved. The bows range in length from 1.87 to 2.11 m (6 ft 1 in to 6 ft 11 in) with an average length of 1.98 m (6 ft 6 in).[7].

The longbows on the Mary Rose were in excellent finished condition. There were enough bows to test some to destruction which resulted in draw forces of 45 kgf (450 N, 100 lbf) on average. However, analysis of the wood indicated that they had degraded significantly in the seawater and mud, which had weakened their draw forces. Replicas were made and when tested had draw forces of 68 to 90 kgf (680 to 900 N, 150 to 200 lbf) [8].

In 1980, Robert E. Kaiser published a paper[9], prior to the recovery of the Mary Rose, stating that there were five known surviving longbows:

  • The first bow comes from the Battle of Hedgeley Moor in 1464, during the War of the Roses. A family who lived at the castle since the battle had preserved it to modern times. It is 1.66 m (65.5 in) and a 27 kgf (270 N, 60 lbf) draw force [10].
  • The second dates to the Battle of Flodden ("a landmark in the history of archery, as the last battle on English soil to be fought with the longbow as the principal weapon..."[11]) in 1513. It hung in the rafters at the headquarters of the Royal Scottish Archers in Edinburgh, Scotland[12]. It has a draw force of 36 to 41 kgf (360 to 410 N, 80 to 90 lbf).
  • The third and fourth were recovered in 1836 by John Deane from the Mary Rose. Both weapons are in the Tower of London Armoury and Horace Ford writing in 1887 estimated them to have a draw force of 28 to 32 kgf (280 to 320 N, 65 to 70 lbf)[13]. A modern replica made in the early 1970s of these bows has a draw force of 46 kgf (460 N, 102 lbf)[14].
  • The fifth surviving longbow comes from the armoury of the church in the village of Mendlesham in Suffolk, England and is believed to date either from the period of Henry VIII or Queen Elizabeth I. The Mendlesham Bow is broken but has an estimated length of 1.73 to 1.75 m (68 to 69 inches) and draw force of 35 kgf (350 N, 80 lbf)[15].

Social importance

The importance of the longbow in medieval English culture can be seen in the legends of Robin Hood, who was increasingly depicted as a master archer and in the "Song of the Bow," a poem from The White Company[16] by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The longbow was the weapon of choice for rebels during the Peasants' Revolt. From the time that the yeoman class of England became proficient with the longbow, the nobility in England had to be careful not to push them into open rebellion. This was a check on power of the nobility of England, which did not exist on the European continent.

There is a village in Wales called Pont-y-Bodkin ("The Bodkin Bridge"). It lies in the valley below an ancient Welsh palace (Plas-ym-Mhowys = Palace in Powys). From the probable site of the barracks to the bridge is about 700 m, although the bridge is about 100 m lower in elevation. The village predates Christianity, which means that it was renamed in honour of its main product or how far a champion Archer could reach from the palace's barracks.

Popular myth

It has long been told that the "two-fingers salute" or "V sign" derives from the gestures of Welsh archers, who used the English longbow, fighting alongside the English at the Battle of Agincourt, during the Hundred Years' War. The myth claims that the French cut off two fingers on the right hand of captured archers and that the gesture was a sign of defiance by those who were not mutilated.

This is, however, almost certainly untrue, as the first definitive known reference to the "V-sign" is in the works of Rabelais, the French satirist of the 1500s. This suggests, ironically, a French origin. For more information, please see that entry on its mythic origins.


  1. ^ "The Berkhamsted Bow", Antiquaries Journal 11 (London), p. 423
  2. ^ Major Richard G. Bartelot, Assistant Historical Secretary, Royal Artillery Institution, Old Military Academy, Woolwich, England. Letter, 16 February 1976
  3. ^ C.J. Longman and H. Walrond, Archery (New York: Fiederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1967), p. 132
  4. ^ The statistics on rates of shot are taken from Juliet Barker's Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England (2006), ISBN 0-316-01503-2
  5. ^ Robert E. Kaiser, "The Medieval English Longbow", Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 23, 1980
  6. ^ Did bowmen repell Earl of Derby before Bridgenorth 1642? In "The Garrisons of Shropshire during the Civil War" there is reference to a letter written by a John Norton, dated October 5, 1642 from Bridgnorth describing the incident.
  7. ^ Mary Rose: The Ship - Armament - Page 6 of 10 - Bows The web site of The Mary Rose Trust.
  8. ^ "Longbow", by Robert Hardy
  9. ^ Robert E. Kaiser, "The Medieval English Longbow", Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 23, 1980
  10. ^ Henry Gordon and Alf Webb, "The Hedgeley Moor Bow at Alnwick Castle", Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries 15 (1972), pp. 8–9
  11. ^ E.G. Heath, The Grey Goose Wing, p. 134
  12. ^ Robert E. Kaiser, "The Medieval English Longbow", Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 23, 1980
  13. ^ Horace Ford, "The Theory and Practice of Archery" (London: Longman Green and Co., 1887), page 3.
  14. ^ Alexander McKee, King Henry VIII's Mary Rose (New York: Stein and Day, 1974), p. 103
  15. ^ W.F. Paterson, Chairman, Society of Archer-Antiquaries. Letters, 5 May 1976.
  16. ^ Project Gutenberg e-text of The White Company


  • The Medieval English Longbow, Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, volume 23, 1980.
  • "Longbow: A Social and Military History" by Robert Hardy, Pub Patrick Stephens,1992, ISBN 1-85260-412-3
  • "The Great Warbow: From Hastings to the Mary Rose", by Dr. Matthew Strickland and Robert Hardy, Pub Sutton,2005, ISBN 0-7509-3167-1
  • "The Crooked Stick: A History of the Longbow (Weapons in History S.)" by Hugh David Hewitt Soar, Pub Westholme U.S, 2004, ISBN 1-59416-002-3
    • Review by Bernard Cornwell in the Times.
  • "The Replacement of the Longbow by Firearms in the English Army," by Thomas Esper (Technology and Culture, Vol. VI, No. 3, 1965).

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