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Home > Books > Badminton > Chapter VII: Military Archery in the Middle Ages
Chapter VII
Military Archery in the Middle Ages
By Viscount Dillon
Part 1 of 2

There does not appear to be any definite information obtainable as to when archery was first introduced to England. Ascham[1] says Sir Thomas Eliot, Kt., told him

that he had read and perused over many olde monuments of Englande, and in seking for that purpose (to ascertain this point) he marked this of shootynge in an excedyng olde cronicle, the which had no name, that what time as the Saxons came first into this realme in Kyng Vortigers dayes, when they had bene here a whyle and at last began to faull out with the Brittons, they troubled and subdewed the Brittons wyth nothynge so much as with their bowe and shafte, whiche wepon beynge straunge, and not sene here before, was wonderfull terrible unto them, and this beginninge I can thynke verie well to be true.[2]

This would fix the date of the introduction at about 449, and from the fact that we use the Saxon words boga and arewa it is quite possible that this was the case. It is evident from a casket, in the British Museum (fig. 89), representing a man defending his house, which, from the Saxon runes on it, is ascribed by Mr. Stephens[3] to the eighth century, that archery was practiced in England in about 750.

89. Top of a casket in whalebone in the British Museum. Eigth century.
89. Top of a casket in whalebone in the British Museum. Eigth century.
(From Litchfield's 'Illus. Hist. of Furniture')

Some have supposed that the long-bow was introduced into England by the Conqueror, but the appearance of archers among the English in the Bayeux tapestry shows that bows and arrows were familiar to them before this date. It is clear that the employment in war of archery weapons must have followed close on their use in the chase. According to Wace, all the Norman foot troops carried bows; but these, especially archers were in many cases clad in the armour then in use, - such as leather or quilted linen coats. Mounted archers are also seen in the Bayeux tapestry,which in so many respects confirms the graphic account of Wace.

At the battle of Hastings the archers in William's army commenced the attack by showers of arrows, but the battle soon became one in which hard blows were the more numerous, and perhaps Harold's death by an arrow has given undue prominence to this arm. After Hastings we find archers again at Galeran and other combats opening the action and crippling the enemy's horse, and besides these mounted archers; probably both classes the English subjects of the Norman kings then fighting against the King of France. Next, on English ground, the English archers at Northallerton in 1138 gave the Scotch a foretaste of the future pre-eminence of the bow.

90. Martyrdom of St. Edmund.
90. Martyrdom of St. Edmund.
(Royal. MS. 2, B vi. f. 10. thirteenth century)

The Welsh archers of the eleventh century were also famous for the powerful elm bows with which Giraldus Cambrensis tells us they inflicted severe wounds, at short distances even penetrating an oak gate four fingers in thickness. Of the appearance of the Welsh archers in the next century we may judge from the curious caricature on the margin of two contemporary volumes of MS. now in the Public Record Office, where we see one of these warriors, with but one foot covered, discharging, from what appears to be a very short, stout bow, a short barbed arrow.

In 1138, at the Battle of the Standard, according to Roger de Hoveden, King Stephen's archers by their thick clouds of arrows contributed in a large degree to the success of the king. As in later times it has been the pride of light troops to be first in and last out of a fight, so in older times we find their prototypes the archers striking the first blow, and finishing the work of the more heavily armed bodies.

In Richard Coeur de Lion's time, both in his wars abroad and also in the struggles with his brother John, the English archer appears as a most powerful factor in every fight. Henry I. had already encouraged archery by treating the accidental killing of anyone during the practice of this exercise as no crime.

According to Fitzstephen the practice of archery was no less one of the amusements of town lads than of the countryman, and was encouraged by statute. In battle array, though we generally find the archers placed on the flanks, they were sometimes mingled with the horsemen, as in Edward I.'s wars in Wales and Scotland. When a knight was bound to bring with him into the field so many mounted men and so many archers, it is probable that the two classes were often mixed up, but the most of the archers would of course be used as in Edward III.'s wars in large masses. The archer brought with him his bow and arrows, and perhaps an iron headpiece, though as early as, 1284 we find an archer from Shropshire attending in the Welsh wars with a terpolus or caltrop. It was not till Henry V.'s time that the archer's stake appears as an item in the general equipment of this class of soldier.

When we come to the Scotch wars of the first Edward we find at Falkirk, 1298, the Scottish archers were ridden down by the English cavalry, whilst the English archers broke up the massive squares of Scottish pikes and allowed their cavalry to complete the overthrow of the Northern troops. As in later times, however, improved tactics soon lessened the danger which the archers were able to cause, and Edward II., with his archers taken in flank, and his cavalry entangled in the ditches and obstacles prepared by Bruce, sustained the crushing defeat of Bannockburn, 1314.

With the appearance of Edward 111. on the scene the bow again rises to its former importance. At Halidon Hill, in 1333, the English archers, judiciously posted, avenged the defeats of the previous reign and gave promise of their future worth in the French wars.

When considering the prominent part taken by the English archers in the great war with France, it will be advantageous to note the position they occupied in the field on some of the more important occasions. At Edward's great naval victory, known as the Battle of Sluys, in 1340, we find the archers placed on ships alternating with others containing men-at-arms, while other vessels on each flank of the line were filled with archers. l he enemy, who had large numbers of crossbowmen in their vessels, were also much more numerous than the carried on at close quarters and ended, as we know, in the destruction of the French fleet. The 'Christopher,' which had been previously captured by the French and filled with crossbowmen fell into the hands of the English, who, replacing these with archers, engaged with the Genoese on the other vessels. No doubt the tactics of Edward in gaining the advantage due to the sun and wind materially assisted in securing the victory for the English, but the rapidity of the bow told no less on sea than on land.

In August 1346, at the battle of Blanche Tache, we find the English archers quelling the crossbowmen and enabling their own men-at-arms to cross the river under the protection afforded by the rapid discharge of their arrows. A few days later at Créçy, the archers had an opportunity of showing their value in a pitched battle. The mounted archers here fought on foot, their horses, as also those of the cavalry, being placed in the rear of the army. The bowmen, seated on the ground with their bows by them, awaited the advance of the French, who sent forward the Genoese crossbowmen with shouts. After the third time they commenced to discharge their quarrels' but were at once answered by the English, who, rising to their feet, poured out a pitiless storm of arrows which soon effected the rout of their enemies. Now it was the turn of the French cavalry, while riding down their unlucky allies, to feel the terrible showers of arrows. The result we all know. The archers in this fight, no doubt, were the cause of the very heavy loss of life among the French, and whether there were cannon at Créçy or no, to the archers was due the successful termination of the battle.

At Calais during the next few months the archers kept the port closed and rendered the siege effective by shutting off all hope of assistance or supplies by sea.

Ten years later at Poictiers the archers again contributed in a large degree to the success of the day, but on this occasion we find them making field intrenchments, and so adding materially to their value. The archers covered the front with parties on each flank to command the entrance to the defile in which the Black Prince placed his dismounted men-at-arms. But besides these footmen, the mounted archers acted with other cavalry in a flanking movement directed against the troops of the Duke of Normandy. It must not be forgotten that the selection of ground for the English position was, both at Créçy and Poictiers, admirably adapted for giving to the national arm the fullest scope, and considerably enhanced the fighting value of these light troops, who in the open, and with their flanks unprotected, would have had small chance with the heavy cavalry of the French, even with their rapid and accurate discharges of arrows.

At Nogent, again, in 1359, the ground chosen by the English was favourable to them, and but for the arrival of a fresh body of French, who, protected with large shields, broke through the exhausted archers and forced them to fly, the day would have terminated as usual; but the defeat of the archers led to the rout of the rest of the English force.

In 1364, at Auray, the archers found the French so well armed, and provided with shields, that they cast aside their bows, and, rushing on the French, took from them their axes, with which they defeated them. At Navarrete the English archers at first suffered somewhat from the slings of their Spanish foes, but the bow soon asserted itself as the superior weapon.

91. Martyrdom of St. Sebastian.
91. Martyrdom of St. Sebastian.
(Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 28785, f. 169 0. About 1450)

The sheriffs of several counties were directed in the 15th of Edward III. to supply 500 white bows and sheaves of arrows for the king's service, and in the following year similar supplies are commanded, but from Gloucestershire 500 painted bows in addition are called for. Many such orders are to be found in the various reigns, and from one issued in 1369 by the sheriff of Norfolk in consequence of a writ requiring him to supply arrows, we learn how they were provided. It directs the fletchers of Norwich to inquire where dry and seasoned wood is to be found seize it, as well as the wings of geese, and bring both to Norwich, so that the arrows may be made. The last part of this order has led to a curious error; the word 'alas aucarum' (wings of geese) have been transcribed 'alas ancarum,' which Swinden[4] translates as the 'flukes of anchors,' a mistake followed by Grose, who states it as a curious fact.

As regards the use of the long-bow in battles on English ground, in 1402, at Hamildon Hill, the English archers settled the affair, the prodigious loss the Scotch sustained being entirely due to the English archers. Henry[5] tells us that at this battle the Earl of Douglas, who commanded the Scotch army, enraged at seeing his men falling thick around him in consequence of the shower of arrows, and trusting to the goodness of his armour (which had taken three years to make), rushed forward with about eighty other lords and gentlemen in complete armour, and attacked the English archers sword in hand. I he English arrows were so sharp and strong, and discharged with so much force, that no armour could repel them, and the Earl of Douglas, having received five arrow wounds, was taken prisoner, a fate which also befell those of his companions who were not slain.

The next year, at Shrewsbury, Prince Henry was wounded in the face with an arrow, while his rival Hotspur mat his death from a similar cause.

In the Wars of the Roses archers were, of course, used on both sides. At St. Albans, in 1455, Henry VI. and many of his nobles were wounded by the archers. At Towton, in 1461, Lord Falconbridge made the Yorkist archers fall back immediately on discharging their arrows, so that the Northern men replying emptied their quivers, but to no effect; according to Hall, they fell forty yards short, and Falconbridge then advancing his men, picked up and used marry of these, whilst the splinters of some proved obstacles to their owners.

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