Myth of the Longbow

I woke up this morning and asked myself what is the greatest mischief I can get into today? Then it came to me. I could get a whole country pissed off at me. Now you have to admit that is ambitious. How am I going to piss off a whole country you ask? By attacking one of the great mythic shibboleths of the English people: the longbow. First let me say I have never met an Englishman that I didn’t like. I think they are delightful people. However, someone has to do this dastardly deed and it might as well be me.

Here is a passage from the book Battle. It was published in 2003 and was written by a major early modern military historian. What I mean to say is it reflects what is currently believed by many military historians today. I say this because I don’t want to be charged with creating ‘straw dogs’ or ‘straw men’ or ‘straw hippos’ or whatever straw being one is accused of when creating a false argument.

During the Hundred Year’s War, French chivalry fell victim at Crecy (1346) to new English tactics that took advantage of the peasant longbow in defensive positions that supported dismounted knights. A decade later the French responded at Poitiers (1356) not by confronting the problem [p 339] posed by English longbowmen but by mimicking the English knights and dismounting. It was as though they could only interpret their earlier defeat as being wrought by their social equals, the English knights. The result was that the longbowmen enjoyed even better targets. Sixty years later, at Agincourt (1415), the French repeated their aristocratic mistake. [p 340]

Look closely at how our historian describe the combatants. Peasants use longbows and knights don’t. Notice the social interpretation of the combatants. What the author is using here is an outworn stereotypic social order and placing it anachronistically over the fourteenth and fifteenth century military order. Were there peasants at this time? Of course. Were there knights? Again, of course. However, these two facts are almost irrelevant. There were knights among the men-at-arms in the English army but they were always a minority. At one point they only made up 5% of the army. One might say the term ‘knight’ was used in a more generic sense to represent the nobility even the lower nobility. Again, irrelevant. Mounted troops were not raised on the basis of their nobility.

Men-at-arms were raised on the basis of property. It didn’t matter if the property owner was noble or not. If he held the requisite amount of property, he was to be armed with the accoutrements of a man-at-arms. The raising of cavalry had little to do with knighthood.

At this time, many of the landowners in England were non-noble and were known as franklins (yeoman of a latter period). Investigations into several counties showed franklins were on the same financial level as squires. This meant men-at-arms would have been raised from franklin estates as from estates of the squirarchy. As such, men-at-arms were composed of both groups: non-nobles and minor nobles. To equate men-at-arms with knights is an error. To describe them as knights is to falsify reality.

To return to longbowmen, they were peasants only in the sense they were farmers. Specifically, they were property owning franklins. Franklins who owned property but not enough to warrant supplying a man-at-arms had to supply an archer on horseback. Franklins supplied both men-at-arms as well as archers. The only difference is the amount of property owned by a particular franklin. As a result archers and men-at-arms were as likely as not to came from the same property owning group. To superimpose a social order which had no relevance to the military reality is to fail to understand the military social realities of the times.

Our author has posited two ideas. Men-at-arms and bowmen represented two different cultures: knights and peasants. He goes on to assert the problem the French had is that they reacted to their social equals rather than the real danger: the archers. Here he presents the second idea: the longbow was the real danger on the late medieval battlefield.

As time went on, the French came to copy the English system of raising cavalry. Edward III, writing to Sir Thomas Lucy, wrote that when they had arrived at Crecy, the enemy appeared with 12,000 men-at-arms of which 8,000 were gentlemen, knights, and squires. This leaves 4,000 non-noble men-at-arms. Property not nobility became the determining factor. Therefore, it is logical to assume that French cavalry came from the same property owning groups as the English, French men-at-arms probably represented both noble property owners and non-noble property owners. This was hardly a group vastly different from those property owners who were the bowmen. To force a cultural perspective vastly different between archers and men-at-arms is not a functional approach to understanding the military realities of the Hundred Year’s War.

Let us now take up the issue of what our author thinks to be the real threat in these wars. Here we come to the beloved myth of the English longbow. The myth of the longbow rests upon the holy trinity. Not that Holy Trinity. It is the holy trinity of Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt.“ It must be said that the battle of Crecy was won in great measure to the longbow working in conjunction with dismounted men-at-arms. This was the classic infantry versus cavalry engagement. Poitiers was not.

At Poitiers the English fought from an enclosed position difficult for cavalry to fight through. The French dismounted and attacked on foot. They were finally defeated by a small unit of mounted English men-at-arms who outflanked the French. There is the account of archers firing on a French mounted force but they had to be reposition because their firing was ineffective. Other than this event, there is no indication the longbows effected the battle at all. Then we have the classic attack by French cavalry at Agincourt to open the battle. Once the cavalry van was defeated there is no indication that longbow fire contributed at all in defeating the enemy. Some sources say the archers dropped their bows and arrows to join in the fray. Others say the archers had run out of arrows and then joined the fray. Either description highlights the ineffectiveness of the longbow. In the event that both bow and arrows were dropped, such a thing would only have happened because that archers saw the ineffectiveness of their fire. If the archers had run out of arrows, it would have been a clear indication that the archery fire was unable to influence the course of the foot battle.

Viewing all three battles a pattern clearly emerges. Bow fire is effective against mounted attacks but much less so against dismounted attacks. Our author’s comments that by slavishly following the example the English men-at-arms, the French, by dismounting, were failing to acknowledge the real threat of the longbow does not bear out. The longbow’s failure was in meeting the threat of the dismounted attack. When viewed in this manner, the longbow was not the uber weapon that modern English speaking historian make it out to be.

Then how did the myth of the longbow come to be. I believe this myth gained strength in the first half of the twentieth century. I think in part it was a reflection of historical influences by some Marxist thoughts melding with the early growth of the social sciences of this time. The idea arose that historical change was the product of conflict between the oppressed and their oppressors. It was easy to see the peasants as the oppressed and the knights as the oppressors. Historical change reflected the growth in power of the oppressed. Gradually it was the archers, as representative of the oppressed, that became the heroes. Thus the myth of the longbow was created.

17 Responses to Myth of the Longbow

  1. tracey says:

    hmmm. interesting theory. the agincourt aspect born out by a show I saw on tv using modern crowd control knowledge to show that the lie of the land, and the wet and boggy soil had more to do with disabling the french army than anything the english did in the battle.

    but still, the heart stopping romanticsm of the current belief – as depicted in Shakespears St Crispins Day speech – is one of those noble ideals that trying to emulate can only improve modern day manners.

  2. *applauds*

    I’m sick of lazy Marxist cliches about the middle ages, and of people assuming that the French must have been really stupid. None of the evidence supports the myth that the French always relied on mounted knights and the English always relied on longbows. As you said, both armies at Poitiers were mostly on foot, and both used small parties of mounted men-at-arms, but the Anglo-Gascon mounted men-at-arms were more effective because they were in the right place at the right time. Although Poitiers and Agincourt were both tactical successes for the English, at an operational level they’d got themselves into difficult situations which could easily have turned into disaster. And of course in the phases of the wars when the French were most successful they manage to regain control of territory without fighting major battles, but du Guesclin doesn’t seem to be as famous as Henry V or the Black Prince.

    Have you read any of Anne Curry’s work on the Hundred Years War? I’m guessing it might have influenced you, but if you haven’t come across it you’d definitely like it. Her Agincourt: A New History is excellent – her meticulous archival research has overturned quite a few myths. For example, the administrative records show that Henry V’s army was much bigger than is usually assumed (and this stems from the fact that all English soldiers were contracted and paid – although contracted companies tended to be based on noble households, there was no feudal service going on). She’s currently working on a project to collect more data on English and French soldiers.

  3. wapenshaw says:

    I got a hold of her Agincourt, Sources and Interpretations, and it was fascinating. As preparation for my study of 16th- and 17th-century battle, I went back and studied every late medieval battle account I could get my hands on, especially primary source accounts. I must have over 80 such accounts in my database. From that I generated some ideas of how battles at this were conducted. I looked for patterns. No one single account covers all aspects of battle. However, take a number of sources patterns soon appear.

    I’ve taken this general pattern of the conduct of battle and read Dr. Curry’s sources with this pattern in mind and came to some rather startling conclusions. I’ve written an article which I plan to submit to the Journal of Medieval Military History discussing these conclusions. It is not another narrative account of the battle (like we need one more of those). The approach I’ve taken is to focus on the military problems each side faced and to resolve these problems based on how battle was fought at this time and the sources Dr. Curry has so kindly provided us.

    It is my opinion that most military problems, regardless of the time period, are similar. What is different is the military tools and the cultural norms that a society uses in their attempt to solve these problems.

    Tracy, There is an account of a longbowman, who had fought at Agincourt, approaching the Court for financial help as he had fallen on hard times. He got the boot. Evidently there were brothers and then there were step-brothers.

  4. And I don’t think Shakespeare mentioned longbows. He didn’t really have much to say about how the battle itself was fought, but that’s most likely down to the difficulty of staging battle scenes. He did make a big contribution to the myth of mounted French knights (“hark how our steeds for present service neigh” etc and the Dauphin’s weird horse fetish!), and class does seem to be a big part: most of the named characters in the French army are aristocrats, but they also have their amorphous mass of superfluous peasants swarming around them. Interesting that in Shakespeare’s view it’s the French who have the peasants, not the English.

  5. [...] before Empire, the roots of the Myth of the Longbow were growing. Myth-buster The Wapenshaw has a nicely shaped counter to the legend, in a lengthy [...]

  6. [...] The originally organized and well-written Military History Carnival has some fine reading, including this thought-provoking (or perhaps just provocative) post on the myth of the English longbow. [...]

  7. Jennifer Balogh says:

    I am a history major and I’ve heard a lot about what everyone is saying and I’ve read some of Anne Curry, but there is something I keep hearing and I wonder where this myth has originated from: that is, the myth of “pluck yew.” When during the battle of Agincourt the French were reported to have cut the middle fingers off of English archers so they could not “pluck yew,” and then at their victory, they waved their amputated fingers in the air and said, “See, we can still pluck yew. Pluck yew!” I can’t seem to believe this as the origin of the insult, but I seem to have a hard time finding the reason of where this even came from, if not from primary sources. If anyone could shed some light on this, please do!

  8. Ralph Hitchens says:

    I don’t know from myth, but one thing I’m fairly sure of is that Henry V was arguably the foremost soldier of his age. He learned his trade under Hotspur as a boy, and as a very young man conducted a successful campaign to suppress the Welsh Revolt before entering France. His post-Agincourt campaigns in France were well-conducted, and in an age in which intramural rivalry and backstabbing was common among the royalty and nobility, Henry’s authority over his brothers and key members of the nobility was unquestioned. The Army he took to Agincourt had, if I remember correctly, something like 5,000 archers (or men-at-arms with longbows) and a much smaller number of knights and men-at-arms equipped for hand-to-hand combat. So I have to believe that in Henry’s eyes, archery was a decisive combat element. It may have had effects that facilitated victory in other ways besides killing enemy knights and men-at-arms.

  9. wapenshaw says:

    To Gavin: The mounted French knights were no myth. Henry’s army was halted by the sight of the mounted French army ready to intercept him on the march. He had to dismount and prepare for the battle which would be fought on the next day. But as you point out, the mounted warriors only played a supportive role at the battle itself.

    As for Shakespeare, I think English society was far more hierarchically conscious in the late 16th and early 17 centuries that it was in the 14th century.

  10. wapenshaw says:

    First to Jennifer. The sources do mention the threat by the French to cut off the draw finger of the English bowmen. I don’t know if it is apocryphal but it is said that at the end of the battle the bowmen purposefully walked by the French survivors and showed them the finger they had threatened to cut off.

    Ralph, So I have to believe that in Henry’s eyes, archery was a decisive combat element. It may have had effects that facilitated victory in other ways besides killing enemy knights and men-at-arms.

    I would say Henry thought the longbow was an important element. But how do you determine the decisiveness of a combat element when there are only two elements: bowmen and men-at-arms? By the way, most late medieval armies were composed of bowmen and men-at-arms. The exceptions would be like the Flemish civic armies which were composed of shock infantry, bowmen, and men-at-arms. One could say that Henry was only following the military convention of his day with an army composed of bowmen and men-at-arms.

  11. Tour Marm says:

    Have you consulted Longbow: A Social Military History by Dr. Robert Hardy (yes, the actor who portrays Cornelius Fudge is an historian) or the Grat Warbow by Matthew Strickland?

  12. Mark Tustian says:

    I’ve never heard of this book you’re quoting from called “Battle” but I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s probably not a book purely dedicated to the longbow or medieval warfare. The reason I say this is that there’s almost a “history” behind the “history of the longbow” and it’s amazing how much of what was once fact has been debunked or re-written but still pops up in modern books due to laziness or habit. You mention the “holy trinity” of Crécy, Poitiers and Agincourt but these are the “Idiots Guide” to longbow battles. Take a look at the Battle of Neville’ Cross, Battle of La Roche-Derrien & Battle of Sluys for instance. These are the less well travelled tourist spots on the journey towards the ascendancy of the longbow.

    I’ve been involved in shooting the longbow for only two years and I was amazed at the amount of continued debate about all aspects of the weapon among enthusiasts, bowyers, historians and archers. So little was recorded at the time that getting the “true” picture is like nailing jelly to the wall. The biggest “myth” isn’t the one you’re trying to bust but the actual draw weight of the medieval longbow used for battle, paticularly with respect to whether it could penetrate plate armour.

    But firstly I think that if you were to view the massed archery techniques that the English armies employed during the Hundred Years War as a form of indirect artillery (which it was), it might make it clear as to why archery alone would not win a battle, but this type of archery in conjunction with dismounted men-at-arms would. World War I highlighted the fact that artillery fire alone could not win a battle. But it could affect it, and back in the 14th century the type of artillery offered by the longbow would not be felt on a battlefield for 400 hundred years after its demise.

    This is important to remember because it was most effective against a cavalry charge due to the vulnerability of the horses. Even if an archer never even shot an arrow the presence of a group of longbow men would’ve been noted by the enemy and their tactics altered accordingly. This is perhaps an aspect that’s lacking from your conclusion particularly with respect to your comments about the Battle of Poitiers where first the French cavalry attacked the archers and the archers had to reposition before destroying the cavalry. With an intact French cavalry, a traditional unit that had been effective on the battlefield from the time of Charlemagne, who could say which way the Battle of Poitiers could have taken?

    Secondly, as far a social status is concerned it’s perhaps clear by surviving contracts of indenture that a man’s pay was determined by his role within the army. A man-at-arms would earn more than a mounted archer. A mounted archer would earn more than a foot archer and it was certainly what kit they could bring to the field that initially determined this pay. I doubt whether it’s beyond the whit of anymone to realise that if you could afford it and really had the skills you could sign up as a man-at-arms (and certainly the Free Companies in the latter half of the 14th century seem to indicate such professional archers could and did become men-at-arms). As a “peasant” born man-at-arms you could even earn knighthood. But if you were an average yeoman (or franklin), why would you? The costs born by a man-at-arms are high when you factor in his armour, weapons, his horses (note the plural for horses!) but you should also include the time and money spent on training. An archer has significantly lower start up equipment costs and has already put in the practice time afforded to him, by law, on Sundays at the archery butts, since he was seven years old. His fellow villager with delusions of granduer doesn’t get the same amount of time to practice being a man-at-arms should he choose to. He has livestock and fields to tend. This is perhaps why those truly eligible persons for service deferred by paying the set costs to get a man-at-arms to do the job they wouldn’t. It perhaps was not just the startup equipment costs but the time needed to train. It’s also interesting to note that a significant number of criminals served in the army in return for pardons (on all strata’s, archers & men-at-arms) – a class of English society that’s missing altogether from your quote (read Terry Jones’ “Medieval Lives” for a great theory on why medieval England needed outlaws to function).

    Finally, we come down to the only thing that matters. During the period we now call the Hundred Years War, as has been well documented, a vast amount of resources and time was put into training and equipping longbow archers. If they were not considered effective in battle their use would have been discontinued long before the introduction fire arms. This is perhaps among all the “myth busters” the ultimate myth to bust. I doubt whether busting it would piss off many modern Englishmen though as they’re more interested in soccer (King Edward III was perhaps showing extreme foresight by trying to ban soccer in 1363 so that Englishmen would spend their time ironically at the archery butts.)

    No doubt tomorrow someone will unearth a scrap of paper, parchment or some other historical throw back proving my theories all wrong. Untill then …

  13. Nelson Wang says:

    yes i agree

  14. Rich Knapton says:

    I apologize for letting this blog go so long. Maybe I don’t have the right disposition for maintaining a blog. However I will try to do better in the future. Now to continue my discussion of the myth of the longbowmen. When we turn to the smaller battles of the Hundred Years War the lack of dominance by the longbow is readily seen. Take the battle of Mauron, 1352. The French attacked the English archers on horseback. They broke the archers who fled. Another battalion of French attacked the English on foot. However, it was the English men-at-arms which won the battle. They finally beat off the French. The thing to notice here is that the bowmen could not stand up to a cavalry attack.

    Four years later at Constance (1356) The French crossbowmen had their pavises this time and they wore their armor. So protected, the longbow fire was quite ineffective. They simply waited for the longbows to run out of arrows then they returned the fire. The longbowmen quickly hid behind their men at arms. With the French crossbowmen supporting the French dismounted attack, the English were defeated this time.

    Nogent 1359, the French made their initial attack on horseback but had to fall back. Then, on foot, the French attacked the English bowmen. The French were so well armored and with them holding their shields a loft that English arrows could not hurt them. The French broke the archers position and when the archers broke and ran the French mounted men-at-arms rode the archers down and slaughtered the, Once more the English men-at-arms could not hold and were defeated.

    The chroniclers who wrote about the battle of Auray clearly pointed out the English bowmen were quite ineffective. The French men-at-arms were too well armored and shielded. The French were finally defeated but they were defeated through a combination of English men-at-arms and Breton cavalry.

    The longbow was a mature technology even when it appeared first on the battlefield. It could not keep up with the armor improvements. By 1415, at Agincourt, the armor of the French was so well developed they no longer needed their shields. What Constance showed was when crossbowmen were properly armored and had their pavises, the English longbowmen were no match for them.

    Luckily for the English, the French raised their military forces a bit differently than did the English. The English military contracts specified how many men-at-arms and archers were to be raised. Thus, English forces were always composed of both arms. The French, on the other hand, contracted with men-at-arms separately from crossbowmen. There were a number of occasions in which French men-at-arms had to fight without crossbowmen simply because there was not enough money with which to raise units of crossbowmen.

    The French men-at-arms were quick to improve their armor and make tactical changes. They adapted their attack tactics to include dismounted attacks and to carry their shields over their heads much in the manner of the Roman tortoise. The one thing the French couldn’t match was the steadiness of the English man-at-arms. When the English won, they won because of their men-at-arms not their longbowmen.

    Some comments have been made about Robert Hardy. Here is my problem with Mr. Hardy:

    “It had been hard to train him to his best; it proved impossible to keep him to it; but as his best there was no man in the world to beat him, no matter the odds against him; and his breed lasted long beyond the longbow; he used the musket and the rifle; he endured in 1915 the same, and worse, than his forefathers suffered in 1415. There has been a fashion lately to deride, not his kind, but his service to his nation as an exploitation by his rulers of his servitude and simplicity. Neither he nor his nation has ever taken kindly to servitude, and often his simplicity turns out to have been reticence, which once dropped when overt action has to be taken, is found by his enemies to have concealed both dogged and dashing courage, subtlety together with intransigence, and a total refusal to yield to pressures from outside his nation or from within it that are not acceptable to his not quickly formed but formidably defended attitudes. He will never entirely perish because, for all the sloth and the cantankerous emulation that lie side by side in his nature, he shares with the best of mankind, courage, clear sight and honesty. [p 56]”

    “When two such armies met again ten years later at Poitiers there were almost no crossbows on the French side. They were remembered as useless. [p 75]”

    His jingoism with regards the longbow and lack of historical foundation just irritates me. As a historian, I can’t take him serious.


  15. Bob Metcalfe says:

    Middle finger salute is much older, maybe Roman. Myth is they promised to cut two fingers. hence British two “fingers” salute. You can shoot arrows with fingers missing however.

  16. Mulia says:

    I am intrigued by why myth came to be as myth in the first place too. It’s quite hard for me to imagine that Henry V’s campaign against France was successful mostly because of longbowmen, but it’s also not surprising that in the clips I watched in youtube regarding the battle of Agincourt, even as the longbowmen were quite ineffective in their armor penetration, their use of cloth rather than steel armor became their unlikely advantage against the French, who were also mostly slaughtering themselves in their marching against the English. Suppose, in a time when mass media and coverage was not at hand, the facts flew back to England: Henry V brought an army mostly composed of longbowmen, and came back victorious against the French, who numbered 4 to 5 times more than their own number. You wouldn’t be surprised why the myth remained, especially with the successes contributed by the longbowmen in Edward III’s campaign, albeit not every battle is won by the mere force of longbows.

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