The Longbow: England’s Secret Weapon

Perhaps the most defining military invention of the Middle Ages, the longbow was a remarkably accurate and brutal weapon of war, used to devastating effect at Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt against the French. Dominant on Europe’s battlefields between around 1250 and 1450, this is the story of the English longbow.

Military History
14 May 2024

In the annals of medieval warfare, the English longbow stands as a symbol of power and precision, its arrows raining down upon foes with devastating accuracy at iconic clashes such as Agincourt and Crécy. This mighty weapon, crafted from yew and requiring years of training to master, transformed the tide of warfare and carved its place in history with the skilled hands of England’s finest archers.

These medieval marksmen made the long bow famous, and they were used throughout the Middle Ages until perhaps as late as the 1650s. Let’s take a trip back to the battlefields of the Hundred Years’ War and beyond to discover facts about the longbow, where it was used, and why it was such an astonishing weapon.

Six Thousand Years of the Longbow

Ötztal Alps, where the longbow was found (Credit: Westend61 via Getty Images)

While mention of the longbow conjures images of medieval archery, the tale of one of the most formidable weapons in the history of warfare goes back much further.

In 1991, Europe’s oldest natural human mummy, affectionately known as Ötzi after he was found in the Ötztal Alps bordering Austria and Italy, was found with a very long bow – over 1.8 metres long – which can be dated to around 3300 BC.

A slightly shorter yew bow, radiocarbon dated to between 4040 BC and 3640 BC, was found in a peat bog in the Scottish town of Tweedsmuir. A similar longbow was found in a bog in Somerset believed to be around 4,600 years old.

The Origins of the Medieval Longbow

Battle of Hastings, Norman Invasion, 1066 (Credit: Christine_Kohler via Getty Images)

The true origin of the longbow is steeped in mystery and conjecture, with evidence pointing to both Welsh and English contributions in its development. Historically, the longbow is often associated with the Welsh, who are credited with using a form of the weapon as early as the twelfth century.

The Welsh bows were renowned for their size and power, and they played a tactical role in the Welsh resistances against the English. Indeed during the Norman invasion of Wales soon after the conquest under William the Conqueror, it was said that the Welsh bowmen ‘took a heavy toll on the invaders.’ The English, recognising the effectiveness of the Welsh longbow, adopted and refined this technology over time, eventually making the English longbow a cornerstone of their military strategy by the fourteenth century.

A Remarkable Weapon of War

Modern example of a medieval longbow (Credit: Elena Pochesneva via Getty Images)

Constructed from a single piece of wood, typically yew for its combination of tensile and compressive strength, but sometimes ash, elm and other hardwoods, the longbow was a marvel of medieval engineering.

In 1388, French nobleman Gaston III, Count of Foix, wrote that the longbow should be made ‘of yew or boxwood, seventy inches (1.8 m) between the points of attachment for the cord’. However it seemed lengths varied between 1.5 metres and 2.1 metres depending on the height and strength of the user.

As with all military innovations, the design and efficiency of the longbow continued to evolve, particularly during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, culminating in the formidable medieval archery weapon known in the High Middle Ages for its incredible range (believed to be between 300 and 365 metres), astonishing accuracy, and lethal penetrating power.

It was said that in the heat of battle, the most experienced English medieval archers could fire ten or more arrows a minute, making the English longbow a very effective weapon indeed.

The English Longbow in Battle

Engraved illustration of the Battle of Agincourt, 1415 (Credit: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

It was during the Hundred Years’ War – a series of battles fought between the kingdoms of England and France which lasted 116 years between 1337 and 1453 – where the English longbow attained legendary status and was used to devastating effect by the finest medieval archers of the day.

The Battle of Crécy | 1346

At Crécy, between six and seven thousand English longbowmen, positioned on high ground, decimated 35,000 – 40,000 French cavalry with rapid volleys of arrows, exploiting the confusion and chaos among the French ranks, whose chain mail armour proved woefully ineffective against the high-velocity projectiles. This strategy shattered the traditional reliance on horse-mounted knights, leading to a significant English victory and establishing the longbow as a dominant force in warfare.

The Battle of Poitiers | 1356

A decade later, English archers led by Edward, Prince of Wales, again demonstrated their skill by inflicting heavy losses on French forces, successfully disrupting cavalry charges and overwhelming the enemy with disciplined volleys. This facilitated the capture of King John II of France who was held to ransom in the Tower of London. The effectiveness of the long bow in this battle underscored its role in shaping English tactics and maintaining military superiority.

The Battle of Agincourt | 1415

In one of the most famous victories in English military history, Agincourt solidified the fearsome reputation of the longbow. English archers, sheltered by stakes, unleashed a relentless hail of arrows that devastated the numerically superior French army, whose troops were further immobilised by muddy terrain. This overwhelming longbow assault broke French morale – it was reported that between 6,000 and 10,000 French soldiers were killed, with English dead in the low hundreds – and this led to a decisive English victory, reinforcing the weapon’s pivotal role in medieval warfare.

Medieval archers continued to use the English longbow during the Wars of the Roses (1455 – 1487) and it’s often cited that the Battle of Flodden in 1513 between the kingdoms of England and Scotland was the final battle on English or Scottish soil that used the longbow as the primary weapon. It may even have been used in small numbers at the Battle of Tullich in northern Scotland in 1654.

The End of the English Longbow

Longbow archers at the Battle of Towton, 1461 (Credit: duncan1890 via Getty Images)

With the advent of firearms and gunpowder-based weapons in Europe in the sixteenth century, the longbow gradually fell out of favour. These weapons, though initially less accurate and slower to reload than the longbow, required less training and physical strength to use effectively. This democratised warfare by enabling relatively untrained soldiers to inflict significant damage on the battlefield.

Additionally, to master the longbow required extensive and continuous training, often starting from a young age, to develop the necessary strength and skill to draw and accurately aim the bow. The time and effort needed to create proficient archers made it impractical compared to training musketeers, who could be trained in a fraction of the time. Advances in armour technology also offered better protection, further reducing the effectiveness of the once feared weapon.

Have any English Longbows Survived?

Henry VIII and the Mary Rose (Credit: andylid via Getty Images)

Despite their widespread use for almost four hundred years, very few English longbows have survived, and none from its dominant period of use between 1250 and 1450. Over 100 remain from the Renaissance period, and remarkably, over 130 longbows and 3,500 arrows survived from King Henry VIII’s – and perhaps England’s – most famous ship, the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545.

The Legacy of the Longbow

Longbowmen during the Hundred Years' War (Credit: via Getty Images)

The English longbow was a revolutionary tool which reshaped European warfare. Its strategic deployment during pivotal battles at Crécy, Poitiers, and Agincourt highlighted its unmatched power and influence on the battlefield. Although its reign was eventually ended by the rise of firearms and other evolving military technologies, the legacy of the longbow endures as an icon of military innovation and power.


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