Welsh was a Germanic bow

War travelers

The English archers

Legends about a "miracle weapon".

Among the most impressive events in military history in the Middle Ages are the victories that the English achieved with the help of their long archers against far superior French armies of knights. At the beginning of the Hundred Years War, the English King Edward III. when he invaded northern France in 1339, his army was reinforced with numerous knight mercenaries from the empire. But since the French avoided a decisive battle and the English did not succeed in capturing cities, extensive devastation was the only result of these campaigns. When recruiting the expensive knight mercenaries, however, Edward had taken so much financially that he had to do without them for the time being. When he invaded Normandy in 1346 to relieve his southern French possessions, he had recruited not only knights from England and Gascony but mainly archers who, in his opinion, had the advantage of being cheaper. Through extensive looting, which probably had to replace part of the pay, the English finally succeeded in attracting the French king's troops. But this had brought together such an imposing army that the English preferred to bring their booty to Flanders to safety.

As the pursuers drew closer, Edward chose a good defensive position on a hill near Crecy and awaited the attack. The French knights were so sure of victory that they did not try to use their Genoese crossbowmen sensibly, or even to position their own troops correctly: They attacked directly from the march, they are said to have tried 15 to 16 times and were regularly shot down by the archers. In the end, well over 1,000 dead knights and high nobles covered the battlefield, while the English had only negligible casualties. When the French army of knights suffered similarly devastating defeats at Poitiers in 1356 and finally at Azincourt in 1415, the Hundred Years War could not be won for England, but the world gained a legend.

Especially with modern history buffs, the longbow always inspires the imagination. This is where ideas about Robin Hood mix with half-truths and other anecdotes. One can then read that a longbow archer killed hundreds if not a thousand opponents in combat. Die-hard fans also believe that the arrows could penetrate chain mail and even plate armor. One of the most fatal and often popular stories was the son of Napoleon III. into the world when he discovered that an archer could shoot 12 times in one minute over a distance of more than 200 meters and only missed his target once. An English historian (of course) went from his enthusiasm to the assertion that the longbow could still have been decisive in the battle in the 18th century and that English archers at Waterloo caused a massacre among their opponents. In the corresponding publication by Osprey Verlag, the author even compares the longbow in penetration power and rate of fire with the Lee Enfield rifle from the beginning of the 20th century.

If one then comes to the question of why this miracle weapon was abandoned at some point, one can read that the technique of bow making may have been lost or the necessary recruits were lacking. Possibly the renunciation was also due to the ignorance of some military commanders, who did not want to see that a longbow was vastly superior to an arquebus, with which one mostly missed the target at an incredibly slow rate of fire. There are certainly always narrow-minded military commanders, but in the wars of the Renaissance pretty much everything that was available was tried out in terms of new tactics and weapons, and those who did not learn quickly enough usually disappeared very quickly from the scene.

Still, it is clear that the longbow was a very effective weapon in its day. It was also a typical mercenary weapon. The English archers were recruited as mercenaries, and after their spectacular successes in the battles of the Hundred Years War, other generals also tried to buy their services. So it is worth taking a closer look at the history of this weapon.

The basic problem with archers is that they require a great deal of training and experience. You cannot train them quickly, you can only recruit them where archery is firmly anchored in the culture. Sedentary peoples in particular had to recruit archers from their nomadic neighbors. The Nubian archers in the armies of the pharaohs are famous here. The Greeks employed Scythians and archers from Rhodes, where this art apparently had survived from earlier times, because the Romans also liked to fall back on these specialists, alongside those from their provinces in the Near East. Even among the Teutons, the bow seems to have hardly been used in battle. It is only reported from the Goths that they had archers in large numbers, but even with them the bow was a second-class weapon of the infantry.

In the Middle Ages the bow was mentioned again and again, for example it was even prescribed in the Carolingian capitularies, but it is only very seldom to read about its use in war. However, the Vikings seem to have liked to use it on their raids, and there may be a connection from here to its first significant use in the Middle Ages: the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Since the Norman knights were unable to penetrate the closed Anglo-Saxon army , they wore them down with the massive fire of their archers until they began to dissolve. Otherwise, however, it is only known of the Staufer Emperor Friedrich II that he used archers on a larger scale and with success. He recruited them from among the Saracens who were still resident in Sicily and who were settled in their own military colonies for this purpose.

It is interesting, however, that the bow never caught on as a weapon. Both the successors of Wilhems the Conqueror or Frederick II either completely dispensed with shooters or preferred to use crossbow shooters. The situation was quite different in the east, however, where Byzantium had learned to appreciate the weapons of its opponents in its disputes with the Turks and other horsemen. In Byzantium, therefore, Cumans, Patzinaks or Magyars were constantly recruited as mounted archers. During the crusades, the Europeans quickly learned that riflemen were urgently needed to keep the enemy cavalry at bay. The most famous crusader - Richard the Lionheart - came back from there as an avid supporter of the crossbow.

In any case, the crossbow seems to have benefited from the Crusades, which had a higher penetrating power than the bow and which, above all, was much easier to learn to use. The crossbow became a typical weapon of the townspeople and seafarers and therefore one could always recruit enough shooters in Catalonia, the Italian port cities or on the Lower Rhine. The archers, on the other hand, have long lacked a correspondingly productive reservoir of recruiting. That only changed when the English became acquainted with the version of the longbow that was widespread there during the conquest of Wales (1278-1284). It should be noted here that in modern texts one can sometimes read of the importance of English archers during the Crusades. This is complete nonsense, however, as the English didn't really learn how to use the longbow effectively until the Crusades were as good as over.

The Welsh were considered savage barbarians and had successfully defended themselves against Angels and Normans. With the result that the population had not yet forgotten how to use their traditional weapons - as in the mountains of Switzerland or Aragons - relatively untouched by feudalism. They often used the bow in hunting but also in numerous local feuds, where it was one of the most important weapons due to the poverty of the country. Over time, the Welsh people had learned to work the bow out of yew trunks in such a way that the combination of hard heartwood and elastic sapwood achieved a similar effect to the reflex bow made of different materials.

When the English King Edward I decided to incorporate a large new province into his empire, he suddenly found himself involved in an insidious guerrilla war. The terrain was often difficult to access and heavily forested and therefore poorly suited for the use of heavy cavalry. Above all, the Welsh did not even think of facing the much better equipped English for a great battle. They limited themselves to raids and quickly retreated into the mountains and forest in the face of superior forces. And in this type of fight they used their longbows most effectively.

After the first setbacks, Edward I began to recruit Welshmen himself. At first, however, he seems to have appreciated their local knowledge and their low wages, because many crossbowmen were still used, who also received more wages than the Welsh people. Over the years, however, the English learned to use the combination of knights and archers to advantage during numerous battles and sieges. This tactic turned out to be so advantageous that people in England soon began making longbows and practicing their use. After the complete subjugation of Wales, the land itself became the most abundant source of undemanding skilled archers.

Edward soon made use of it when he began subjugating Scotland in 1292. During their uprising, the Scots had learned to successfully defend themselves against knights in closed pits and in 1297 they even managed a great victory under William Wallace when they were able to surprise the English army at the crossing of the Stirling. A year later, however, the Scottish philistines were so long shot down by Edwards Welsh at Falkirk that they had nothing to counter the attack of the knights. When it comes to the successes of the longbow in the Welsh and Scottish Wars, however, one should note that Scots and Welshmen had only a few fully armored fighters, some certainly had mail shirts, but the great majority only protected themselves with their shields. The military historian Hans Delbrück summed up the problem as follows: Richard the Lionheart favored the crossbow and his successor Edward the longbow was probably due to the fact that the first one fought against knights, the other against poorly armored infantry.

Still, the longbow had proven to be an effective weapon. Much more important, however, was the experience the English had gained in these long and difficult wars in the use of combined arms. Even so, Edward III supported himself. At the beginning of the Hundred Years War, as I said, mainly on soldier knights and only resorted to archers when he could no longer pay the expensive knights. After the great victories at Crecy and Poitiers, of course, that changed and archers were in demand for generations across the market. Still, the longbow was not a silver bullet. It is believed that his arrows were able to penetrate mail shirts at the beginning of the 14th century. But here, too, there were certainly great differences in quality. It goes without saying that z. For example, a count who appeared on a campaign with 100 horsemen had very good armor himself, while some of his knightly armored servants had to be content with much older and inferior models. On a contemporary picture of the Battle of Mühldorf (1322) these different armaments can be seen very clearly, especially the widespread conical helmets (barbutes) that left the face free.

If, as with Crecy, only a few hundred knights attacked a position of 6,000 archers, who are said to have fired 12 times a minute and almost always hit, how could these knights break into the English position several times when arrows were so deadly? In the Battle of Poitiers in 1356 the French attacked mainly on foot, but sent two groups of mounted men, 200-250 men each, under Clermont and Audrehem. The English were well holed up behind a hedge that was impenetrable for horses and had about 2,000 archers. Nevertheless, some knights under Clermont managed to get to the hedge, where they were then cut down by the English men-at-arms in the narrow path that only a maximum of five riders could pass at the same time. The other group passed the English left wing. A contemporary English chronicle reports: "The French horsemen were so well protected by iron plates and leather valances that the arrows broke or ricocheted off into the air, from where they fell again on friends and enemies." The archers could only fight the riders effectively when the horses offered them the relatively unprotected flanks as a target. The battle ultimately had to be decided in a tough fight on the hedge and an English counter-attack on horseback.

The historian Jonathan Sumption, whom we consider the best specialist in this field, concludes: "The longbow, which was the key to most English victories in the fourteenth century, played a comparatively small role. The prince's archers were very effective against the initial attack of the French cavalry and in the final stages of the battle when the French were driven down the hill by Audley and the Captal de Buch. But they proved far less effective against the men on foot than against horses. "

With regard to the Battle of Auray in 1364, Sumption becomes even clearer: "The English archers, although well represented, contributed almost nothing to the outcome of the battle. Arrows had never been as effective against men on foot as they were against horsemen, whose horses were unarmored and easily frightened And the French were getting better at fighting on foot and better at protecting themselves. Du Guesclin pushed his heavily armored men forward in close ranks under a roof of high shields. After Froissart, the archers threw their bows at them had achieved nothing, they went away and plunged into the fray. "

The archers' crucial importance was tactical. In a well-run unit, they forced the enemy to forego his most important weapon: the thrust of the heavy cavalry. But even when dismounted, the now heavily armored knights lost much of their mobility - some even died of heat stroke unharmed in their armor. When it came to hand-to-hand combat, much was expected of the archers there too. They used swords, knives, and battle hammers to tackle their clumsy opponents instead of shooting them down at close range, which would have been a minor issue with a Lee Enfield rifle. One can therefore assume that a knight was relatively well protected against arrows and, especially with the newer plate armor, had to be safely aimed at the horses or a weak point had to be hit from a very short distance. Significantly, good armor was tested for bullet resistance with a winch crossbow. However, one can imagine that some arrows might only penetrate a few centimeters into the shell and then get stuck. Such a thing makes for extremely painful wounds.

There are several reports that archers were executed for fleeing hand-to-hand combat. So you don't do them justice if you think they could have shot their opponents like hares. Shooting was only part of their job, then they had to stand by their side as light infantry. Only under good leadership and certainly with luck did they gain the self-confidence that infantrymen always needed at this time, if they even wanted to dare to face the gentlemen on horseback.

The archers owe their success to a large extent to the arrogance of the French nobility, who preferred to pounce on their opponents without tactics or discipline. The battles at Nájera (1367) Aljubarrota (1385) showed that the Castilians were no better. The bloody defeat of Nicopolis during the crusade of 1396 was due to the same stupid arrogance, and is now often compared from a tactical point of view with the English victories of the Hundred Years War.Even if the nobility found it very difficult to understand, the conduct of war had meanwhile reached a level of complexity that required a practiced interaction of different branches of arms. After the French had finally learned their lesson, they managed to lure the English archers from their safe position near Formigny in 1450 with only 2 field guns and then to ride them down. The French are said to have lost only 200-300 men, although they faced almost 3,000 archers.

When France and England made a temporary peace in 1360, large groups of unemployed mercenaries moved to Italy, taking many of the tried and tested archers with them. In Italy, however, they no longer encountered the ignorant feudal riding of France, but rather other professional mercenary companies and so the English were first defeated by the company "Vom Stern". The Italian chronicler Filippo Villani praises the English, above all, for the heavy armor they brought with them from France and which, to the horror of their less well-armed opponents, constantly polished up - hence their name "White Company". On the other hand, he writes of the "famous" archers in their retinue: "It has been learned that they were better at making night raids and stealing than they were for claiming the field; they succeeded more through the cowardice of our people than their own bravery.

Charles the Bold also recruited thousands of English archers for his wars. Nevertheless, his armies were simply overrun by Swiss infantry at Grandson and Murten in 1476 and at Nancy in 1477. And nobody would argue that a Swiss foot servant was better armored than a knight. However, he was more agile and much more disciplined on foot. In the last battle of the Wars of the Roses near Stoke in 1487, 2,000 Swiss and mercenaries would have achieved almost the same against an overwhelming superiority. Nevertheless, people in England basked in the glamor of great victories for a long time. But when Henry VIII wanted to build on his old successes and invaded France in 1544, he found that he could not do much with his world-famous archers alone. Landsknechte, Spaniards and mercenaries from all over the world had to be recruited. His daughter Elisabeth I then drew the conclusions and excluded the arch from the draft by decree. Nevertheless, there was still a literary controversy in England in 1590 about the advantages and disadvantages of the bow and arquebus, with the defender of the arquebus arguing that it could be that the horses are more frightened by arrows, but the men are more frightened by bullets.

© Frank Westenfelder


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