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8-08-2015, 16:44

The Formidable English Longbow

h e bow was also employed throughout most of Europe in the Middle Ages. h e most common tactic was to begin a battle with one or two volleys of arrows from a few hundred archers, partly to soften up and also to rattle the nerves of an enemy. It has been established, for instance, that Duke William started his assault on the Saxon infantry at the Battle of Hastings with a big discharge of missiles from his bowmen. Nowhere else in Europe, however, did archers compare with those who developed in England in the three centuries following the encounter at Hastings. Not all English foot soldiers, called yeomen, were bowmen. But those infantrymen who came to use the longbow were by far the most numerous and most lethal. Despite its name, the longbow’s ef ectiveness was not based on its size, as it was not much longer than the average hunting bow. Also, the longbow could not i re arrows as far as the typical crossbow could. Two specii c factors made the longbow more deadly than the crossbow in the average land battle, one being the rapid rate of i re possible with a longbow. An average longbowman was able to load and i re four or i ve shafts in the same amount of time it took a crossbowman to let loose just one. A yeomen-archer could i re up to a dozen arrows a minute. h is speediness of i ring combined with the second major advantage of the longbow to make English archers among the i nest infantrymen of the late Middle Ages. h at other advantage consisted of the sheer numbers of longbowmen who fought in a typical battle. As Ayton says, “Massed archery by men able to unleash perhaps a dozen shafts per minute would produce an arrow storm, which at ranges of up to 200 yards [183 m] left men clad in mail and early plate armor, and particularly horses, vulnerable to injury, while causing confusion and loss of order in attacking formations.9 One potential danger for these bowmen was that they could be run down and killed by enemy cavalrymen who had managed to get through the initial arrow storm. To lessen this danger, in the early 1400s an English commander came up with a novel idea. Longbowmen were to carry three or four long wooden stakes, sharpened on both ends, into battle along with their bows. After letting loose a volley of arrows, an archer would drive one end of each stake into the ground in front of him, so that the other end pointed outward at an angle. Any oncoming horses would be impaled, or at least badly injured, by these spikes. Scholar Michael Prestwich points out that this clever defensive arrangement “made it possible for the archers to establish a new defensive position with great speed.” Moreover, these infantrymen could pack even more of a punch if necessary. “In addition to their bows and stakes,” Prestwich says, “they had axes, mallets, or swords at their belts.”10 With these backup weapons, they often held their own in the hand-to-hand i ghting that occurred if and when the enemy managed to penetrate the English lines.