Monday, August 26, 2013

The Archer's Tale - Part 1: The Origins of the Warbow

Englande were but a fling,
But for the crooked stick and the gray goose wing.”
-Old English adage

 The Anglo-Welsh warbow – along with the men who wielded it – will forever be remembered as one of those legendary contributions to the history of warfare that not only dominated its own era, but also significantly shaped the future as well.  Personally, I find the 667th anniversary of the Battle of Crécy – the warbow’s explosive debut onto the stage of European warfare – to be the most appropriate date to start my series on this incredible weapon and the men who masterfully employed it time and again on the field of battle.  Near the end, I also wish to explore how the warbow and the tactical revolution its use inspired permanently changed the nature of Western warfare and, ultimately, Western society.

15th Century depiction of the English victory at Crecy, 26 August 1346AD - note the English warbows on the right.
The origins of the warbow – as with any weapon of war prior to Western industrialization – are often shrouded in apocryphal clues that can be difficult to distinguish from fact or myth.  Warfare was a much more intimately personal affair in pre-modern times, and weapons were often manufactured by hand by either the wielder himself or by a craftsman under the wielder’s personal direction.  Evidence of the existence of the bow and arrow as tools for killing animals and fellow men stretches back into the farthest possible reaches of human history – stone arrowheads are often found and dated to eras far beyond when modern science claims humans were capable of effective tool creation.  One can only conclude that human ingenuity quickly surmised the lethal value of a small wooden projectile propelled by a piece of twine strung between the ends of a crooked stick, establishing an affinity for ranged weaponry in the human character – one that would eventually lead all the way to the ballistic missile of today.

Although bows were commonplace on the battlefield since the dawn of recorded human history, the Anglo-Welsh warbow was a unique variation of this prolific weapon system.  Most bows prior to the warbow were a type often known as the simple “self bow” – a plain rounded stave about 3-5 feet in length that shot broadhead arrows between 18 to 24 inches long.  While these bows could be extremely effective in the hands of experienced hunters or warriors, they generally were utilized as harassment weapons ie. weapons used in the preliminary stages of a battle in a purely supporting role to help break up ranks in an opposing force before the main effort of melee combat ensued.  Do not be mistaken, the self bow was highly regarded by Western warrior cultures and the value of skilled archers was prized by warlords during the era following the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  Viking chieftains often brought expert archers along in their raiding parties and archery contests were included amongst various other tests of martial prowess.  Even during the early Medieval period when heavy cavalry became the set-piece on the field, there was still a place for the archer.  Duke William of Normandy owed much of his victory at Hastings in 1066AD to the peasant archers that helped break up Harold’s Saxon shieldwall with their fire.  However, these were bows of very limited range and power and could not ever rise to the task of serving as the main effort against the armor and shields of an opposing force.

Norman archers depicted supporting William's charging knights at Hastings commemorated on the Bayeux Tapestry
Another predecessor of the warbow was the “composite bow” often found in the East.  Due to the lack of the sort of hardwood trees ideal for the crafting of self staves in Central Asia and the Middle East, the bow underwent a significant technical transformation.  Constructed using layers of wood, horn, and bone laminates fastened together with animal glue and twine lashings, the composite bow was then bent in a double curved – or “recurved” – shape and laid in the ground to set.  This “recurved” design allowed the composite bow to possess greater power in a much smaller frame, providing an ideally compact weapon for the primarily mounted raiding cultures found on the steppes of Central Asia.  The occasional westward incursions of these steppe peoples would introduce the composite bow to the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant, where it would be permanently adopted there and become a staple of Eastern weaponry.  However, even this bow still did not possess the power needed to overcome armored opposition by itself – the Turkish foes of the First Crusade often referred to their Frankish opponents as “the men of steel,” noting how ineffectual their arrow fire was against the heavy armor of Western knights.

So, where exactly then did the great warbow of Crécy, Agincourt, and Towton come from?  Although bow staves have been found in bogs and burial mounds in Scandinavia that bear some resemblance to the great warbows of the Hundred Years War, the first actual recorded sightings come from the misty mountains and valleys of Wales.  The Welsh people, originating from the remnants of the Romano-Britons who survived the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the repeated Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invaders that followed, took refuge in the remote and elevated terrain that mostly constitutes the region now known as Wales (derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for “stranger” – the native Welsh word for their homeland is far different: Cymru – pronounced “cum-rhi”).  Adapting to their environment of formidable mountains and narrow passes, the Welsh developed and perfected a style of warfare we would recognize today as guerilla tactics – small bands would harass and ambush invaders, inflict as many casualties as possible, then disappear before coming into significant contact.  Columns of heavily armored infantry and horsemen were at a tremendous disadvantage in the inhospitable terrain of Wales and the Welsh people successfully maintained their independence in this fashion against incursions by the Saxons, Vikings, Danes, and even the Norman kings of England.  Norman accounts from William I to Henry II often speak of Welsh archers and their ability to cut down even heavily armored Norman knights, no small feat compared to the other bows that existed at the time.  One account in particular seems to settle the question of the origin of the weapon that would later revolutionize English Medieval warfare.

Crude sketch of a Welsh archer circa 1200AD - the one foot is thought to be bare for better grip while shooting.
Giraldus Cambrensis (“Gerald of Wales”) was a Norman-Welsh half-breed born in the war-ravaged Welsh Marches during the reign of Henry II (1154-1189AD).  At an early age, he joined himself to the Church and became one of the foremost clerics in the region, personally accompanying the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1188AD to assist in preaching the Third Crusade throughout Wales.  During this journey, he recorded in vivid detail many of the curiosities he observed on this journey, including two particular confrontations between native Welsh archers and their Anglo-Norman foes.  The first occurred at the siege of Abergavenny Castle:
“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.”
A “hand” in Anglo-Norman England was a common unit of measurement generally corresponding to the width across an average adult palm – around four inches.  For arrows to completely penetrate solid oak over four inches thick requires a bow of immense power possessing at least 100lbs of draw weight.  The next account recorded an armed confrontation between some Norman knights belonging to a William de Braose and the ill fate they suffered at the hands of these Welsh archers and their incredible weapons:
“One of his men, in a fight against the Welsh, was wounded by an arrow that penetrated his thigh, the casing armor on both sides, the part of the saddle known as the “alva,” and mortally wounded the horse.  Another soldier was pinned to his saddle by an arrow through his hip and the covering armor; and when he turned his horse around, he got another arrow in his other hip; that fixed him in his saddle on both sides.”
To give the reader some perspective, allow me to elaborate.  The “casing armor” that Gerald refers to would have been the standard maille made of tiny interlocking rings of hardened steel and worn by all knights of the period.  It was this type of armor that put to shame the Turkish composite bows during the First Crusade.  For an arrow to penetrate not just one side, but both sides – to include the thick cotton gambeson all knights wore underneath their armor and the flesh of the thigh itself – and then to continue to penetrate a thick wooden saddle frame and strike deep enough into the horse’s flesh so as to mortally wound it denotes a bow of unmatched ballistic velocity.  Gerald confirms later in his chronicle that these bows were “simple wooden staves of wild elm” and there was no presence of bone or horn at all.  For a bow to possess the draw weight required for such penetration, it would have to be considerably longer and stouter than the average contemporary bow stave – at least six and half to seven feet long.  It would seem that, thanks to the incredibly detailed musings of a Welsh monk, we have found the predecessor (the early prototype, if you will) of the famed warbow.

Despite the Welsh bow’s incredible performance against Anglo-Norman incursions into its homeland, it still did not acquire much of a reputation outside of the Marches for quite some time.  Wales would continue to be an independent kingdom in constant conflict with the Anglo-Norman monarchy in London for another hundred years – keeping the men fighting for her and the weapons in their service closely confined to one geographical region.  Also, the Norman leadership in England still adhered mostly to the feudal styles of warfare prevalent on the Continent and spent the majority of their military efforts maintaining their possessions in Normandy, Aquitaine, and Gascony through the use of heavily armored knightly cavalry supported by levied infantry.  For ranged weaponry, the crossbow reigned supreme on the Continent – a weapon with unimpressive range, but considerable power and requiring minimal skill to use (making it ideal for quickly raising cheap levies).  The Welsh bow would not gain the notoriety it deserved until the advent of an English king who ironically was responsible for the final subjugation of the homeland it had defended for so long.

Statue of Edward I of England - looking every bit the warrior and leader he was in life.
When Edward I, known by his sobriquet of “Longshanks” due to his pronounced height, assumed the throne, England was in dire straits.  Due to the ineptitude of his luckless grandfather, John I, virtually all of the continental possessions of the Angevin Empire had been lost to France.  At home, the realm itself was in turmoil.  English barons, frustrated by years of feckless leadership, high taxation, and failures abroad, had revolted against the throne repeatedly and, though none of the revolts actually threatened the Plantagenent dynasty, they did force both John I and Henry III to give away significant royal rights in favor of Magna Carta and the newly created Parliament.  In the meantime, Welsh kings still ferociously asserted their independence in the Marches and the border was constantly under threat from England’s insufferable neighbor to the north, Scotland.  Edward I – freshly returned from crusading in North Africa and the Levant where he won renown and respect throughout all of Christendom for his brave and capable leadership – would rise to the challenge with a vigor and determination that would rescue the Realm and make him one of England’s greatest leaders.  Wales would be subjugated once and for all in a long but brilliant campaign of castle-building that would put more castles per square mile in Wales than in any other region in the world.  At the end, the last Welsh king, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, alone and cut off from all support in his own country, would die fighting in the snow surrounded by English swords in the winter of 1282AD.  Edward I would bestow the title of “Prince of Wales” to his infant son and heir – a royal tradition that would continue to the present day.  Edward also became intimately familiar with the unique weapon wielded by his Welsh foes and, no doubt, witnessed its incredible power in action.  Whatever he saw, he remembered it.

With Wales tamed and England reunited under his capable rule, Edward turned his attention to the north.  Scotland had long been a troublesome neighbor, but the succession crisis that pitted the rebellious Bruce family against the English-dependent Balliols threatened to demolish the fragile peace between the two realms.  The situation came to a head when an English army under John de Warenne was soundly defeated in 1297AD at Stirling Bridge by the famed Scottish outlaw, Sir William Wallace.  Edward gathered one of the largest armies in his career and headed north.  Among the men raised for his campaign were Welsh archers and their impressive “longbows.”  After the typical several months of maneuvering, Edward finally cornered Wallace at Falkirk.  The Scots deployed in their traditional formations of pikemen, called schiltrons, developed to cope with their disadvantage against the Anglo-Norman heavy cavalry.  Edward knew that deploying his cavalry against the thick hedges of pikes would be a repeat of Stirling, so he deployed the Welsh archers first.  The immobile schiltrons were helpless against the relentless arrow fire.  As casualties mounted, the Scottish formations disintegrated and Edward’s cavalry were sent in to finish the job.  Organized Scottish resistance fell apart after Falkirk and Edward returned to England with Scotland under his heel.  Edward never forgot the impact of the Welsh bow at Falkirk and used every opportunity to introduce the unique skill set to his own countrymen.  Soon, there were communities of English archers training with the longbow in Nottinghamshire (often thought to have served as the inspiration for the “Robin Hoode” mythos) and Derbyshire.  Edward invested much of the last years of his life to the promotion of the Welsh weapon into English society – and for good reason.  With England’s French possessions gone, only the wealthiest of English nobles had access to the sort of horse breeds needed by heavily armored knights.  English armies were becoming increasingly dismounted and would need a new weapon to retake the initiative on the field.  Also, because of the political and social reforms instituted by Magna Carta, the English military system was now remarkably different from the continental feudal systems that had existed prior.  Before, the nobility responded to the king’s call for troops and raised an appropriate number of levies (willing or not), armed them, and sent them to the king for him to use at his pleasure.  The new system was more volunteer in nature and the majority of fighting men in England were free landowners.  Several laws were instituted by Parliament at the King’s behest that mandated certain armaments and training regimens for all subjects – essentially, a nation-in-arms state was created in which English armies would be comprised of self-trained free-men volunteers.  The warbow would fit perfectly into this new system.  Edward Longshanks would die before seeing his reforms bear fruit and it appeared that his feckless son would entirely forget the keys to his father’s success and nearly undo his incredible gains.  But, finally, the true potential of the warbow would be realized under Edward’s grandson, another Edward – the third of that name – who would utilize this weapon as the key set-piece in perhaps the largest war of the Medieval world and preside over one of the most militarily successful eras in English history.

Stay tuned …

Works Referenced:
Giraldus Cambrensis, Itinerarium Kambriae, 1191.
Robert Hardy, Longbow - 5th Edition, Haynes Publishing, 2012.
David Nicolle, The Normans, Osprey Publishing, 1987.
Hugh D. H. Soar, The Crooked Stick and Secrets of the English Warbow, Westholme Publishing, 2009 and 2010 respectively.

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