Archery was prevalent in the Middle Ages. And the archers back then had insane skills. There are reports that a skilled longbowman could fire 10 to 12 arrows per minute, for 3 to 5 minutes straight. Can you believe that?
It took a lot of training to achieve this level of expertise though.
One of the most powerful weapons at the time was the English War Bow. It defined some of the greatest achievements in England’s military history.
What was so unique about the English longbow? Was it as effective as some people say?
You will find the answers to these and all of your other questions here.
A Closer Look at the English War Bow
1. The Construction
As you can imagine, this longbow wasn’t fancy. It was different from the recurve and compound bows you see today.
The stave was made of yew wood, ideally imported from the Italian Alps or Spain. English yew was too full of moisture and was not suitable. The stave would be tapered from its middle to its ends in a slight oval, D, or galleon section.
It would then be 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’.
Why yew wood?
Yew has natural properties that make it superior to other wood types when it comes to making bows. All wood types feature the dead inner heartwood and the living outermost part (sapwood).
In seasoned yew, the heartwood resists compression while the sapwood resists being held under tension. A longbow is constructed to take full advantage of these properties.
The inner side of the bow, the belly, consists of heartwood. The back, the side away from the archer, is sapwood.
When you draw the bow, the belly is being compressed by the enormous force required to pull the weapon. The back of the bow, on the other hand, is put under tension as it is stretched out of shape.
Both the sapwood and heartwood store tremendous amounts of energy in this process. When the archer releases the string, the bow springs forward releasing that stored energy in a fraction of a second. The arrow is, in turn, pushed with a ton of force towards the target.
2. The Length
The length of the English longbow mainly depended on the user. Experts believe it was 5 or 6 feet long, with many of them leaning towards 6 feet.
The longbows found on the Mary Rose range from 6’1 to about 6’11, with the average being 6’6.
3. The Draw Weight and Draw Length
These medieval warbows possessed impressive power. The weapons recovered from the Mary Rose show that the longbows had draw weights ranging from 80 to 180 pounds. Most of them are in the 140-pound range.
The draw length is estimated at 30 to 32 inches.
For comparison, a modern target longbow will have a draw weight ranging from 35 to 60 pounds. These Victorian style longbows are different in their profile, cross-section, and tillering.
It is important to distinguish between the two. An English Warbow is a longbow, but a longbow is rarely a war bow.
Arrow Used with the English War Bow
The English Warbow was used with the English war arrow.
The arrows weighed about 0.75 pounds. They were tipped with hardened steel and armor-piercing heads.
The English war arrow could be shot over long distances. In recent years, archers with longbows like those on the Mary Rose have shot such arrows at distances over 270 yards. It is a sobering thought that the longest marks set out in the Finsbury fields in the 1500s were approaching 400 yards!
What Made the English Longbow Lethal?
The English longbow was a deadly weapon. But what exactly made it so dangerous?
The war arrow weighed about 0.75 pounds and had a hardened steel arrowhead. Imagine an arrow like this being shot from a 140-pound bow with a range of roughly 350 yards. You don’t want to be on the receiving end of that, right?
Now consider the crazy skills of the archer. You have many expert archers, each shooting an average of 10 war arrows per minute.
It would be raining arrows on the enemy’s side. And every one of those arrows has the potential to cause serious damage.
Add to this the fact that there was no shortage of skilled archers in medieval England.
At one point, every male child above the age of 7 had to own a bow and arrows. Additionally, they had to learn to shoot. This was a statute.
In the 12th century, you would be absolved of any guilt if you accidentally killed someone while honing your longbow skills.
Several other laws by English monarchs encouraged and emphasized the practice of archery.
So the English warbow was extremely powerful and the archers themselves were no joke either. That is a lethal combination.
Was the English Longbow as Effective as People Claim?
Some people have referred to the English bow as the “machine gun of the medieval era.” They say it could penetrate cloth and leather armor, iron plate armor, and probably some steel plate armors.
Others believe that the effectiveness of the English longbow is a little bit exaggerated.
It is an interesting debate.
Recent tests have shown that the English War bow is indeed capable of penetrating armor. But mainly the type worn by soldiers on the battlefields in the late medieval period.
Most of the armor that was available to the ordinary man wasn’t that tough. It would have been almost worthless in an arrow storm, like the one in Agincourt.
By the end of the late 1400s, the finest armorers started producing high-quality armor. This was mainly in Milan and Germany.
The armor was so good that the wearer would be invulnerable to a hail of arrows. It wouldn’t matter whether they were shot by bow or windlass crossbow.
Armor like this, however, was not affordable.
It was only available to the high-born aristocracy. The common soldier had to make do with what he could afford. So he had far less protection on the field.
The English Longbow is an important piece of England’s military history. The weapon possessed serious power. In the hands of a skilled archer, it was a deadly weapon. It could penetrate most armor types of that time. However, it took a lot of training, not to mention strength, to unleash the full potential of the warbow.