The English War Bow was the weapon used to great effect by the armies of the English Plantagenet and Tudor kings. In the hands of English and Welsh archers it came to dominate the European battlefield for most of the late medieval age and defined some of the greatest achievements in England’s military history. It was in 1181 that Henry II ordered in his assize of arms that every freeman should equip himself with arms – which meant the bow for those of limited income – and so the warbow would remain a prominent feature of the English armoury for the next 400 years. The war bow was a weapon of the common man and not one of Lords, Earls, Barons and would prove its worth unseating many a good French noble and destroy his armies at the battles of Crecy, Poiters, Agincourt and Vernuil.
The English Warbow itself was a simple affair. A stave of yew wood, ideally imported from the Italian Alps or Spain (but not English Yew; it being too full of moisture) would be tapered from its middle to its ends in a slight oval, D, or galleon section. It would then be ‘tillered’, gradually bent one inch at a time, teaching the wood to bend. When fully drawn the bow looks like the segment of a circle – it is said to ‘come compass’. The finished bow would stand over six feet high, sometimes as much as seven, and would have its tips protected by a sheath of horn, known as a nock.
Yew has natural properties which favour it amongst all others as a bow wood. The wood of any tree is composed of the dead inner heart wood and the thin layer of over laying living sap wood which lies beneath the bark. In seasoned yew the heart wood resists compression whilst the sap wood resists being held under tension and a war bow is constructed to take full advantage of these properties. The inner side of the bow, the belly, is comprised of heart wood, while the back, away from the archer, is sap wood. When a war bow is drawn, the belly of the bow is being compressed by the enormous force required to pull the bow whilst the back of the bow, the sap wood, is put under tension as it is stretched out of shape. Both the sap wood and heartwood are storing tremendous amounts of energy and when the archer releases the string the bow springs forward releasing that stored energy in a fraction of a second, pushing the arrow with tremendous force towards the target.
The power of these medieval War bows was breathtaking. Detailed analysis of the War bows recovered from the Tudor warship Mary Rose, which sank in battle in 1545 with an almost complete inventory including hundreds of bows and thousands of arrows, show the draw weights ranging from 80lbs to 180lbs with the most prolific being in the 140lb range. The draw weight is defined as the amount of force, expressed as a weight, which needs to be applied to the string in order to bend the strung bow to its full extent. When speaking of war bows the full draw length is usually taken to be 32”, which does not mean that the archer will draw it to that length; it may vary by a few inches. As a comparison a modern target longbow of the type promoted by the British Longbow Society will have a draw weight in the region of 35lbs to 60lbs measured at 28” draw. These Victorian style bows are also different in their profile, cross-section and tillering. It is important to distinguish between the two – an English War bow is a Longbow, but a longbow is rarely a war bow!Performance.
The English War bow was used in conjunction with the English war arrow. Weighing something in the region of a quarter of a pound and tipped with hardened steel, armour piercing heads, these arrows could be shot over long distances. In recent years archers with bows like those on the Mary Rose have shot such arrows at distances in excess of 270 yards. It is a sobering thought that the longest marks set out in the Finsbury fields in the 1500’s were approaching 400 yards!
Much debate has been made in the past about the penetrative abilities of the war bow when shot at armour available at the time. Recent tests have shown that the English War bow is indeed capable of penetrating amour of the type commonly worn by soldiers on the battlefields of the late medieval period. Most munitions grade armour available to the common men at arms would have been of limited worth when subject to the kind of arrow storm experienced at Agincourt. There were those on the late medieval field who would have been confident in amour’s abilities, however. By the end of the late 1400’s the finest armourers of Europe, most notably in Milan and Germany, where producing armour of such high quality that the wearer would be invulnerable to a hail of arrows whether shot by bow or windlass crossbow. Few, however, could have afforded such protection. Such finely made harness, with it’s high degree of protection, were only available to the pocket of the high born aristocracy, the common soldier would have to make do with armour he could afford giving him far less protection on the field.
The importance placed upon the bow by the English Kings is easily seen from the ratio of men at arms (heavy infantry) and archers. Typical ratios were in the region of 3:1 in favour of archers, but could be as high as 5:1 (as at Agincourt). The bow favours defensive actions and English tactics throughout the hundred year’s war reflected this. Under Edward III a simple but effective battle formation was developed, one which depended on a strong static defensive line instead of a strategy dependent on the old Norman concept of the mounted cavalry charge. Archers would typically be placed on the wings of the army. Their flanks would be protected by natural features such as woods and their front line by man-made pits designed to break horses’ legs, and later defensive stakes. The men-at-arms would be placed in between the flank archers and would halt the enemy onslaught from the front, whilst the archers poured in thousands of arrows from the flanks. This tactic could have horrific consequences, as evidenced at Agincourt. On that day in 1415 a small dysentery-riddled English army defeated an army at least 5 times its size. Popular belief has it that the French lost 10,000 ‘men of note’ that day, although recent work by Anne Curry shows this to be highly unlikely given the possible numbers of men on the field. However, history does recall the total French losses were high, running into the thousands. The English losses were counted as a few hundred. That is a stark testament to, amongst other things, the power of the English War Bow.