Longbow – History

Whilst we concentrate on Recurve, we also have a love of the traditional English Longbow…… or perhaps the modern English Longbow.

The English longbow was a powerful medieval weapon of significant power, being a tall bow about 6 ft (1.8 m) long used by the English and Welsh and particularly effective against the French during the Hundred Years’ War. It was decisive at the battles of Sluys (1340), Crécy (1346), and Poitiers (1356) but made its reputation at the Battle of Agincourt (1415), resulting in a change of French tactics for the Battle of Verneuil (1424) and the Battle of Patay (1429) when the French charged before the English had time to set up their defensive position and the English bowmen. 

The earliest longbow is dated to 2665 BC  but no longbows survive from the period between 1250 and 1450 when the longbow was dominant, probably becayse ow making techniques had not yet developed enough and rather then being handed down through generations, those early bows broke.  More than 130 bows survive from the later Renaissance period and 137 whole longbows (together with 3,500 arrows) were recovered from Henry VIII’s Mary Rose which sank at Portsmouth in 1545.

A longbow must be long enough to allow its user to draw the string to a point on the face or body, and the length therefore varies with the user, and whilst continental Europe longbows are any bow longer than 1.2 m (3.9 ft), the Society of Antiquaries of England has always maintained a length of at least 5 feet (1.5 metres… or five large adult men’s feet). In 1388, Gaston III, Count of Foix, stated that an English longbow could only be made of yew or boxwood and must be at least seventy inches [1.8 m] between the points of attachment for the cord, but the modern estimates that bows could be as short as 5’8″ (1.7m) were dispelled with the excavation of the Mary Rose as all the 130+ bows were found to be between 6 ft 2 inches (1.87m) to 6 ft 11 inches (2.11 m) with an average length of 1.98 m (6 ft 6 in).

Similarly expert estimates for the draw of the English Longbows varied considerably before the recovery of the Mary Rose, (showing the fallacy of so-called experts) as  estimates of 90–110 pounds-force (400–490 newtons) (Count M. Mildmay Stayner, Recorder of the British Long Bow Society) and 80–90 lbf (360–400 N)(W.F. Paterson, Chairman of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries) were blown out of the water with the Mary Rose, trumped by archery enthusiast and actor, Robert Hardy, who believed that the average draw was 150–160 lbf (670–710 N) at a 30-inch (76.2 cm) draw length. The Mary Rose bows established that the average draw length was 30 inches and ranged from low powered youth bows of 100 lbf (400N) to adult bows of 185 lbf (820 N). (Compare that with a modern longbow’s draw of 60 lbf (270 N) or less, and a draw length of just 28 inches (71.1 cm)

It is also notable that the medieval “draw” of a bow was different to that depicted in Hollywood and see today. Whist the French held the bow and drew from the bow with the string hand, an English medieval archer held the bow anchored with the right hand and bent the wood (“the Englishman keeping his right at rest upon the nerve, presses the whole weight of his body into the horns of his bow, thereby “bending the bow,” Gilpin 1791)

The preferred material to make the longbow was yew, ash or elm as well as  other woods, but mostly yew. In the Mary Rose bows, the back of the bow was the natural surface of the wood, only the bark being removed, rather than using sapwood as is used today, and the inner side (“belly”) of the bow stave consisted of rounded heartwood thus creating the effect of a modern laminate, but occurring naturally. It also seems that by the year 1600, the use of yew had been so extensive that most of Europe had been denuded of mature yew trees, but by this time warfare was experimenting with guns.

Only one significant group of arrows, found at the wreck of the Mary Rose, has survived, with over 3500 arrows found, mainly made of poplar (although some were ash, beech and hazel) and these varied from 24″ (61cm) youth arrows to 33 inch (83cm) large adult arrows and an average length of 30 inches (76cm). Most arrowheads were short iron bodkin points or barbed (but Mary Rose conditions meant that none survived).