The Crooked Stick
In modern images of ‘Robin Hood’, the outlaw cannot be separated from his so-called ‘longbow’. But the terms ‘longbow’ nor ‘longbowman’ were never in contemporary use (the term is first used in the Paston letters of the fifteenth century) and there has been an erroneous belief that the bow used in the Hundred Years War was some revolutionary new development which assured the English victories at Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415). As Robert Hardy explains in his excellent book, ‘Longbow’:
A longbow is only a bow that is long rather than short.
Although details are partly obscure and controversial, it is now almost certain that the bow, used throughout the Hundred Years War, had been used in basically the same form, from the time of the Celtic tribes in Britain up to the time of the Anglo-Saxons and the Norman Conquest.
A Saxon riddle gives us an insight into the use of an early bow:
“Wob’s my name, if you work it out;
I’m a fair creature fashioned for battle.
When I bend, and shoot a deadly shaft
From my stomach, I desire only to send
That poison as far away as possible.
When my lord, who devised this torment for me,
Releases my limbs, I become longer
And bent upon slaughter, spit out
That deadly poison I swallowed before.
No man’s parted easily from the object
I describe; if he’s struck by what flies
From my stomach, he pays for its poison
With his strength-speedy atonement for his life.
I’ll serve no master when unstrung, only when
I’m cunningly notched. Now guess my name.”
The Vikings and Saxons had a general disregard for the bow as a weapon of war though, preferring the axe or spear. But the bow was often used for hunting and in small skirmishes. The Viking bow was made from yew, ash or elm and appears in many of their sagas and poems. In the Viking tale Brennu-Njals it describes how Gunnar was able to kill ten men before his bow string was cut by his attackers.
The reason there are very few references to ‘bows’ in surviving Saxon records might be because a single word describes both a throwing spear and arrows. But in the Saxon song about the battle of Maldon in 991 there is the line ‘bogan waeron bysige,’ ‘bows were busy’. Hole House in Branscombe Devon is said to have been built by Simon de Holcombe a Saxon bowman who fought at the Battle of Hastings. But at the time of the Norman Conquest, it seems that very few archers were employed in Anglo-Saxon military service-although William the Conqueror took Norman bowman to England in 1066 and they seem to have been more effective. Nine archers can be seen in the lower border of the Bayeux Tapestry with large bows and Henry of Huntingdon and the Bayeux Tapestry hold that the Saxon king Harold was killed when shot in the eye by a Norman arrow.
Richard the Lionheart preferred the use of the crossbow during his Crusade in the Holy Land, although the weapon had incurred the wrath of the Pope who issued an edict forbidding the weapon, describing it as ‘hateful to God.’ But Richard I continued to favour its use in his army and when he was shot by a cross bow bolt during the siege of Challus in 1199, many believed it to be God’s vengeance on him for ‘wicked use of the evil instrument.’
Henry II did not mention ‘bows’ in his Assize of Arms in 1181, but evidence suggests that he did use them in his armies. It might well be that the authorities hesitated to recommend the keeping of a bow in every poor freeman's cottage because of the very strong temptation to employ it for poaching!
But the English continued to use the standard bow and while continental armies continued to adopt the crossbow in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the English bowman achieved several successes, notably at the Battle of the Standard in 1138. It was here that King Stephen’s English knights fought on foot and aided by a large body of archers made havoc of the charging Scottish line.
During Henry II’s Irish campaigns many Anglo-Norman archers were used, led by the legendry Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke (b.c.1130-d.1176) and his Welsh bowman. Like his father, Richard was given the nickname ‘Strongbow’ (first recorded in Tintern Abbey in 1223) because of his legendry strength and ability with a bow. He quite possibly learnt this skill from the tenants of his earldom.
In the chronicles of Ralph, Earl of Hereford (d.1257) there is a description of the Saxon horseman being ambushed by Welsh archers that shot so accurately and strongly that ‘the English people fled’ and in the traditional but controversial history of the bow, it holds that sometime during the thirteenth century in South Wales (another school of thought suggest that the ‘longbow’ was Scandinavian in origin) the English encountered a longer version of the bow (about the same size as the archer). With its string drawn to the ear instead of the chest, it gave the archer the ability to fire armour piercing arrows over a distance of about 200 meters.
During the siege of Abergavenny Castle in 1182 the chronicler Gerald of Wales repeatedly describes the men of Monmouth as being more skilled in archery than any other Welshman. He describes how Welsh arrows had penetrated an oak door:
“Two soldiers ran over a bridge to take refuge in one of the castle towers. Welsh archers, shooting from behind them, drove their arrows into the oak door of the tower with such force that the arrowheads penetrated the wood of the door which was nearly a hand thick; and the arrows were preserved in that door as a memento.”
But even before his first Welsh war in 1277 Edward had picked a special force of 100 archers, unmixed with spearmen from his own lands in Macclesfield. They served from the first day of the war, which broke out later in that year, to the very last at the then extraordinary wage of 3d per day, when the rate for mounted lances was 1s and for infantrymen 2d a day. Longshank’s handpicked bowman with two other archer battalions from Gwent and Crickhowell were the start of a significant change in English strategy and tactics.
Edward I undoubtedly discovered, during the Welsh wars, the virtues of archery in attack to break up a defensive infantry formation and also its power in defence when based on array of dismounted knights and men at arms.
In the Pipe Rolls of 1277/8 a detailed budget exists showing payments by King Edward I to crossbowman, archers and spearman between July 18th and November 10th of £4,762. Other payments to archers-not including gifts– amounted to about £400.
At the battle of Orewin Bridge, near Builth in 1282, when Prince Llewelyn was surprised and killed; King Edward’s army had advanced against them with archers interposed with cavalry. The arrows inflicted such a heavy loss on the Welsh troops that it caused them to loosen their cohesion and the English cavalry were able to ride them down. The Earl of Warwick later used similar tactics during the battle at Maes Maydog near Conway in 1295, when the archers ‘intermingled with the horse.’ Amongst his army, the Earl of Warwick had used mainly English bowman.
But, it was the English victory against William Wallace at Falkirk in 1298, that is often used a benchmark in the evolution of archers in battle. It was here that King Edward’s 10,000 bowman (made up mainly of Welsh, a ratio of three archers to one mounted man-at arms) took a dreadful toll on the closely packed Scottish infantry. As the gaps in the ranks increased from the ceaseless hail of arrows, Longshank’s cavalry were able to crash their way through the crumbling ranks of Scottish pikemen. No English commander could fail to be impressed or to see the tactical lesson that had been set out before him.
So it seems certain that King Edward I had learned the military importance of the bow. This simple piece of mechanism finally became a recognised military arm of great importance to England. Cavalry was helpless against well-trained archers. Edward in his Statute of Winchester (1285) insisted that ‘all persons with an income of less than a 100 pence in land were to possess a bow and arrows and practice on Sundays and Holidays.’ Attitudes towards the humble bow had changed. It had become an ‘invincible’ weapon’ in the hands of a skilled archer and gradually gave rise to a new class of bowman-the yeoman archer and what the French ruefully called his ‘crooked stick.’
© Clement of the Glen 2008