When the idea of archery in military history comes up to most English speakers, the English long bow and its performance in the 100 Year’s War comes to mind. Let’s do a quick review of the details, even though most everyone who has studied medieval history is aware of the details.
The Hundred Year’s War lasted for approximately 115 years, running from the years 1337 through 1458. The cause of the war was the English Throne contesting the succession to the French throne of the House of Valos. Edward III would lead an army into France, and would campaign there off and on through out the rest of the years of his life. One of the changes Edward III had done to the English army was to add the Welsh longbow men to the English army.
To many students of history the long bow is well known. Its impressive power, often with a pull weight of over 50 kilograms, and range was something new to many medieval battles. It would prove to be critical in 3 of the most famous battles of the Hundred Year’s War. While over 55 major battles were fought during the century long conflict, the battles of Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt earned the Welsh longbow its incredible history.
The Battle of Crecy was fought in 1346. Edward III divided his outnumbered army into 3 wings and took the high ground against a pursuing French army. With each wing having longbow men on the flanks and infantry at the center they received a French charge and devastated the French forces.
The Battle of Poitiers was a repeat of similar circumstances in 1356, when Edward the Black Prince deployed an army with longbow men on the flanks and dismounted English knights to fortify the English infantry in the center. A fatigued pursuing French army attempted to press home a cavalry charge into the English center, costing them dearly. The French then followed up with an infantry charge. In each case the French were devastated by the volley fire from the longbow.
The Battle of Agincourt was fought in 1415, following much the same pattern as the previous two mentioned battles. Henry V lead an English army to stand its ground behind embedded stakes as a pursuing French army attempted to press home an attack. Bad weather, and the volley fire from the English archer’s wielding longbows, devastated the French nobility.
The war would last forty more years, with the English never performing quite the same effect. Historians have debated the reasons for centuries. It could be that the plague cut down the number of longbow archers available to the English kings. The development of plate and chainmail combinations in the later decades of the war might have nullified part of the longbow’s deadly effect.
There is also the idea that the French got much wiser in how they conducted battles against the English. Dr. Archer Jones, in his work The Art of War in the Western World, proposed that the English tactical doctrine of using heavy infantry and dismounted knights to withstand French charges, while archers devastated with volley fire, lacked a key offensive component to force the French into battle.
Regardless of which factor was the critical one to the loss of effectiveness, the Welsh longbow would go down in history as one of the most effective usage of archery in warfare. With a bit of irony, historians would come to call the longbow, a weapon developed by the Welsh, the English longbow, from its effective use as a weapon of war by English kings.