Added 18 May 1997, Revised 14 April 2001
Note: I do not use of the classic 'BC' and 'AD' system. I prefer to use 'BCE' (Before Common Era) and 'CE' (Common Era) respectively.
Perhaps the first order of business is to define the longbow. There are many different styles and materials used in making longbows, but there are a few constants. The longbow must, of course, be long. It is generally regarded that the bow must be as tall as the archer to be classified as true longbow, but any bow over 5.5-6 feet in length would also be called a longbow. The bow must also have straight ends (not recurved). The English longbow has additional requirements to be traditional. The bow must be wider at the arrow plate than any other spot on the top limb. Arrow rests are not allowed (though arrow plates are). The arrow is laid over the top of the forefinger for shooting.
It is not known when longbows were first made, but a rough estimate would be between 7500-20,000 years ago. Longbows were developed independently on every continent (with the exception of Antarctica, and possibly Australia). Asia, Africa, South America, North America and Europe all have versions of the longbow. Since the longbow reached its penultimate stage of use in Europe, and more particularly in England, the focus from here on out will be towards that end.
It is interesting that the English did have longbows until rather late stages of the European scene. The earliest known bow fragments probably originating from longbows were found in the area around Switzerland and Germany (Hardy, pp.17). These bow fragments date to the Stone Age. The purpose of these bows is not known for certain, whether they be for hunting or warfare. The bows were likely used primarily for hunting. With the invention of bronze weapons, the use of bows (including longbows) declined drastically. This decline occurred around 1500 BCE (Hardy, pp.19). The bow did not see a significant increase in use until 750 BCE (Hardy, pp.21). A major discovery occurred circa 300 CE in Scandinavia and northern Europe, when longbows began to be made with sapwood on the back of the bow, and heartwood for the belly of the bow (Hardy, pp.23). The sapwood has good tension qualities, and the heartwood has good compression qualities, yielding a stronger, more resilient bow.
As stated above, the longbow was used largely in northern Europe. Though there is evidence that longbows may have been in use in Southwest Scotland as early as 2000 BCE (Hood, pers. comm.) other sources indicate taht the longbow was introduced to the British Isles by the Vikings, who used it to trounce the Welsh circa 600 CE. But the Welsh learned an important lesson from their beating. They, in turn, took up the use of the longbow circa 633 CE (Hardy, pp.30). The Welsh were the first people on the British Isles to have and use longbows. The Welsh became experts in the use of the longbow, and used the longbow very effectively in battles against the invading English. The Welsh repelled Ralph, Earl of Hereford in 1055 using the longbow (Hardy, pp.30). There is a story about Welsh longbowmen penetrating a four inch thick, solid oak door with their arrows at the siege of Abergavenny Castle (Hardy, pp.36).
Like the Welsh, the English learned an important lesson by fighting against the longbow. That lesson being that the longbow is a formidable weapon when used correctly. With the eventual defeat of the Welsh, and 'alliance' of the English and Welsh, the English employed Welsh longbowmen in its own army. During this time, the English began a campaign to train their own longbowmen as well.
It can be arguably though firmly stated that it is the use of the longbow that allowed England to gain as much power in Europe as she did. While severely outnumbered by various enemies (and often being attacked by more than one enemy at time), the longbow proved so lethal a weapon that the English forces incurred few casualties. One hates to speak in the gory language of kill ratios, but the English (longbowmen) regularly killed hundreds (and possibly as high as a thousand or more) of foemen for each archer killed.
It should be stated that once the power of the English archer army was known (i.e. after the Battle of Crecy in 1346), English longbowmen had very good reasons for fighting hard. If an archer was captured and recognized as an archer, his draw fingers were cut off before he could be ransomed. (de Wailly, pp. 17)
English longbowmen were well acquainted with shooting hard in the bow though. For long periods of time, the English people were subject to numerous laws promoting the use of the longbow. There were often laws concerning the compulsory ownership of longbows for people in certain wage categories. Under the reign of King Henry II, everyone who earned 2-5 pounds per year had to be armed with bows (Assize of Arms, 1242 CE) (Wilkinson, pp.164). It was mandatory to practice in the bow on Sundays for many English citizens (Wilkinson, pp.164). Churches were required to maintain butts (targets) so that anyone could practice in the bow. There were even rules about the distance one must shoot at the butts from. Keep in mind that these laws were not intended for professional soldiers, for there were very few in those days. (Professional soldiers were mercenaries, not members of a standing army.) These laws were intended for the average citizen, who might be called upon at some point to fight for England. (This is the case for the whole spectrum of soldiery in the Middle Ages.)
These rules were quite necessary from a military standpoint. The longbow requires a great deal of practice in order to remain proficient in its use. The ability to loose arrows accurately with a long cast is easily lost without constant practice. The strength of England relied heavily upon the sense that the longbow was their weapon, as a point of national pride. Practice helped instill that sense of pride.
Throughout the high period of the English archer army, it was a national effort not only to supply good archers for campaigns, but also to supply the archers with the equipment they required. In 1359, the Tower of London received 20,000 bows, 850,000 arrows, and 50,000 bowstrings from counties (Hardy, pp.84). In May and June of 1360 alone, the Tower of London received 10,000 bows and 500,000 arrows (Hardy, pp.84). English trade agreements with other countries (such as Spain) often required the shipment of yew staves and other important archery supplies for the production of longbows.
The national effort proved highly useful. Prince Louis Napoleon said 'a first rate English archer who, in a single minute, was unable to draw and discharge his bow 12 times with a range of 240 yards and who in these 12 shots once missed his man, was very lightly esteemed." It is impossible to say whether this is an anecdotal statement or not, but there is surely some truth to it.
At any rate, the skill of the English archer army certainly took the French by surprise at the Battle of Crecy in 1346. Crecy was the unveiling of the English longbowmen to continental Europe. There were perhaps intimations of the power of the English archer army, but any suspicions or doubts were allayed at Crecy. In this, the first major test of the English longbowmen (including the Welsh longbowmen in the English army), the English inflicted great losses on the French.
It didn't take long for the English longbowmen to get a second chance to prove themselves. Two months after the Battle of Crecy, longbowmen were crucial in the defeat of the Scottish invasion army lead by King David Bruce. The English had been fighting against the Scots for some time, and indeed the longbow had proved pivotal in a battle against the Scots more than 200 years before Crecy. But now the French and the Scottish were working together to defeat the English. In the face of battles on numerous fronts, from large forces, the English were able to do better than just hold their own.
During the battles against the Scottish, and in the battles of the 100 Years War against the French, the English were able to further modify their tactics to increase their effectiveness. The French were hard pressed to exploit the weaknesses of archer armies (and there are certainly weaknesses to be exploited). The French were so bound to tradition and chivalry, that they were unable to adapt to warfare against the English archer army. There was apparently an attempt by the French to counter the English longbowmen with their own longbowmen though. Some 10 or so years after Crecy, (after another major French defeat at Poitiers) Jean Juvenal des Ursins wrote, "In short time the French archers became so expert in the use of the bow, that they could shoot with a surer aim than the English. Indeed, if these archers had formed a close confederacy among themselves they might have become more powerful than the Princes and nobles of France. It was fear of just such an outcome that made the French king suppress the archer army." (Hardy, pp.98) The Scots were better able to adapt to the English archer army, and even employed their own longbowmen against the English.
In the high period of the longbow, there was only one group of people who were able to consistently defeat the English longbowmen. Using highly flexed composite bows, and shooting from horseback, the Saracens encountered during the Crusades were able to trounce the English archer army. The Saracen archers were far to quick and mobile for the English archer army.
Of course, the longbow did eventually see a decline of the longbow. By the end of the 16 th. century, the number of archers employed by the English was greatly reduced. This reduction was due in part to improvements in armour and the development of black powder weapons. In addition, hundreds of years of war eventually wearied the English spirit.
This decline was not the absolute end of the longbow, but it did signal the end of the military longbow. (Actually, that is not entirely true, there is an extant Scottish longbow regiment. I do not know if this regiment would ever see battle in a modern warfare though.)
de Wailly, Henri, Crecy 1346: Anatomy of a Battle. Copyright 1987, Blanford Press. ISBN: 0713719303.
Hardy, Robert, Longbow: A Social and Military History, copyright 1992, Robert Hardy. ISBN: 1 85260 412 3
Hardy, Robert, Longbow: A Social and Military History, copyright 1992, Robert Hardy. ISBN: 1 85260 412 3