Over 6ft in length, the longbow was capable of killing a man at over 200 yards. The best bows were made of yew, cut with the heartwood on the inner side. This compressed when the bow was drawn, while the sapwood on the other side stretched. The combination provided immense power. The biggest bows had a draw-weight of up to 150lbs or more, twice that of a modern hunting-bow. The bow needed to be drawn right back to the ear to obtain full power.
It required great physical strength to shoot and archers required years of training and practice.
The longbow had a great advantage over the more powerful crossbow: the rate at which the archer could shoot. In a minute, a skilled man could shoot half a dozen arrows, while a crossbowman could do little more than discharge a single quarrel.
The gravitational pull as an arrow shot with a high trajectory fell towards its target meant that it remained extremely effective even at long range. Specialised arrowheads were used. A narrow bodkin head could penetrate armour; a broader bladed head was capable of inflicting appalling wounds.
Historians argue as to whether the longbow developed from an earlier shortbow, which would be drawn to the chest, not the ear.
The argument partly hinges on whether there was a qualitative difference between a bow 4ft in length and one 6ft. No contemporary written sources justify any such distinction, and longbows were not an innovation of the 14th century. However, it was not until that period that the longbow really came into its own in warfare, not as a result of technical innovation, but because it was then that it was used on a massive scale. Under Edward III, the English government, for the first time, supplied armies with longbows and arrows in vast quantities from the central depot in the Tower of London. Massed English archers caused havoc in the battles of the Hundred Years War. They were particularly effective against cavalry; horses were maddened and became uncontrollable as arrows found their targets.
No English longbows survive from the Middle Ages, but the 16th century wreck of the Mary Rose yielded a large number of bows, 6ft to 7ft long, which are almost certainly little different from those used earlier. Strikingly, one had a knobbly appearance, from the knots in the timber, just like the bows in some 14th century illustrations.
An enactment of Henry I in 1100 stated: ‘If anyone in practising with arrows or darts should by accident slay another, it would not be visited against him as a crime’. Sad news indeed for the families of the Abbot of Lagny, who was accidentally shot in the eye in 1163, and the un-named woman shot by men practising with the bow in 1209.
In the reign of King Stephen, Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, was* shot in the head at Burwell Castle in Cambridgeshire and died a week later. And what was the punishment for the man behind the bow? To be described as a ‘very low-class archer’…