Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Archer's Tale - Part 2: The Warbow comes of Age

All of Christendom watched closely as a new prince ascended the throne of England in 1327AD.  Tall, well-built, and handsome, he cut the perfect figure for a charismatic leader and ideal Medieval king.  In the fifty years of his reign, Edward III would more than prove his extraordinary ability to lead his country through one of the largest wars ever fought in the Medieval period – a war he actively initiated.  As the son of Isabella de Capet (the daughter of Philip IV “the Fair”), he possessed a direct claim to the Capetian throne of France.  However, when all three of Philip’s sons died in relatively quick succession, the French Estates cut out Isabella’s right of inheritance – invoking the ancient (but dubious) “Salic Law” which stated no female line could inherit – and instead granted her cousin, Philip de Valois, the French crown in 1328AD.  Tensions began to mount immediately between the two kings, but Edward held his peace until, in 1337AD, Philip seized the last remnants of English Aquitaine and Ponthieu.  In response, Edward would lay claim to the French throne and vowed to take it by force.  He rapidly forged alliances with the city-states of Flanders and the German Emperors, impressing even the French with his geopolitical savvy and charisma.  But Edward would need far more than just a political advantage in order to seize his claim – he would need a new tactical advantage if he hoped to best the French and their superb armored cavalry on the battlefield.  This advantage would reveal itself far away from France on a rocky hillside in Scotland.

When Edward inherited the throne, the English realm was once again in troubled times.  The weakness of his hapless father had all but destroyed the gains of his grandfather, the famed Longshanks.  Not only had the Crown all but lost its old Angevin lands on the Continent, but Scotland – under the charismatic leadership of Robert Bruce – had inflicted humiliating defeats on England and boldly rebuffed any attempt at English dominance.  Scottish raids in the Northern shires were commonplace, some even coming as far south as Yorkshire.  While the situation with France stewed for the time being, the young Edward III turned his efforts northwards to deal with his troublesome neighbor once and for all.  The great Bruce had died leaving a four-year old child in his stead, initiating another furious succession crisis in Scotland.  Edward threw his support behind the ever-dependable Balliol claimants.  In 1332AD, Edward Balliol gained the support of a prominent northern baron named Henry de Beaumont, who arrived in the lowlands with an English army courtesy of the King.  This army was unlike any English army seen before in Scotland.  It was almost entirely dismounted and around three-quarters of its men wielded a new weapon – the Anglo-Welsh warbow.  The last fourth were English knights and men-at-arms, marching on foot instead of on the great warhorses that had fared so poorly against Scottish pikes.  Upon receiving word of two Scottish armies coming to meet him, de Beaumont skillfully prevented his small force from being surrounded and set up in a defensive position on a hill near Dupplin Moor.

Dupplin Moor, Scotland
As the two Scottish armies realized they had been outmaneuvered by the smaller force of invaders, they joined, forming an enormous single force that outnumbered the English by five to one.  de Beaumont deployed his Englishmen in a novel formation - dismounted infantry in the center with archers out on the flanks.  By doing this, the warbows could provide wide intersecting fields of fire and any approaching enemy would be caught in crossfire.  This would suit the wielders of the great bows perfectly.  Despite the chaos after his reign, the military reforms of Edward I had borne excellent fruit – England now possessed entire shires full of men trained from youth in the ways of the Welsh weapon.  The bow itself had undergone some technical improvements as well.  Before making its way outside the mountains and valleys of Wales, the warbow had mostly been crafted from a single stave of heartwood, typically elm or some other native hardwood tree.  English boyers began creating bowstaves of double laminates – two types of woods fused together – of English Yew heartwood and sapwood.  Also, the staves were smoothed and shaped into a D-shaped cross-section, with the rounded surface on the outward edge and the flat surface on the inward.  This newer design gave the dreaded weapon even greater torsion and velocity, achieving average draw-weights of 120 to 140 lbs.  Its missile was just as deadly.  Called a “cloth arrow” for being the length of the old English “cloth yard” (the same as our yard today), it was tipped with an arrowhead called a “bodkin” – a long tapering point that could penetrate even the finest of armors at close range and was lethal against maille. In the hands of professional English citizen-soldiery, this weapon was about to forever change the face of Medieval warfare on this lonely hill in Scotland.

The combined Scottish army, poorly led by a collection of competing tribal nobles and comprised mostly of the customary massed formations of pikemen, lumbered towards the smaller English force.  Before they were even remotely close to the English lines (the great warbows had maximum effective ranges of over 300 yards) the archers opened fire.  These were not organized volleys, but rather a continuous stream of arrow-fire that ripped apart the advancing Scots.  The fire was so relentless, that Scottish formations crushed inwards on each other in their attempt to find cover.  The English chronicler John Capgrave described the carnage:

“In this battle...more were slain by the Scots themselves than by the English. For rushing forward on each other, each crushed his neighbour, and for every one fallen there fell a second, and then a third fell, and those who were behind pressing forward and hastening to the fight, the whole army became a heap of the slain.”

1332AD - The end of Scotland's winning streak
In short, the Scottish army was annihilated in one of Scotland’s worst defeats since the days of Edward Longshanks.  Atop the English-held hill, only 33 Englishmen would not return home.  Word of de Beaumont’s astonishing victory reached Edward III who took a keen interest in the strategies and tactics employed, realizing that he had found his key to victory against the masses of heavily armored knightly cavalry on the Continent.  The Scots would be utterly humiliated by the longbow again just a year later, this time by a punitive expedition led by Edward himself who, at the battle of Halidon Hill, would perfect the same strategy employed by de Beaumont.  Forever after, Scotland was tamed and Edward could now unleash his ambitions – and archers – towards France.

The Coat-of-Arms revealed by Edward III at the outset of the war - combining the English Royal Lions with the French Royal Lilies
Although the great war with France that would later be known to history as the Hundred Years War officially began in 1337AD with the French seizure of Aquitaine and Edward’s defiant claim to the French throne, no pitched battles would be fought until nearly 10 years later.  During the interim, Edward built up his forces, crafted political coalitions with Flemish and German leaders, secured financial backing from the great Italian banking families, and dispatched English lords and volunteer armies to support allies in France in proxy warfare against Philip.  The largest of these proxy wars was the War of Breton Succession, which pitted the pro-English House of de Montfort against the pro-French House of Blois for control of Brittany – a region traditionally hostile to the kings in Paris.  The vast majority of these expeditionary English armies were comprised of archers whose warbows decidedly tipped the balance of power towards the de Montforts.  Finally, the time came for the King himself to take the war to France in earnest.

On July 12, 1346AD, Edward and his army of about 10,000 – the largest English army to land in France up to that point – waded ashore at Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue in Normandy.  Almost immediately, Edward ravaged his way across the lands in Normandy and seized the historic Norman capital of Caen.  Philip was finally goaded into action and assembled an enormous army of French nobles, knights, and infantry.  In a brilliant show of maneuver, Edward managed to remain one step ahead of his French pursuers and led them on a wild chase out of Normandy and across the Somme River.  Finally, the English King found a place where he would make his stand.  Outside the small town of Crécy-en-Ponthieu, there stood a hill with a long gradual slope and wide open fields before it.  On one side, it was flanked by dense woods and, on the other, a small but deep stream.  The only approach to a force atop the hill would be the wide upward slope to its front – but it also meant that there would be no escape for a defending army should things go ill.  This reminded Edward only too much of the hills that had proven so critical to English victories in Scotland.  Again, over three-quarters of his 10,000-man army were longbowmen (both Welsh and English) and the tactical priority was given to them.  He deployed his men in the same fashion as in Scotland – dismounted knights and men-at-arms in the center with archers on the flanks in unique wedge-shaped formations that allowed them even wider fields of fire.  With his men in place, Edward awaited his French foes.

The Battle - 1346AD
Philip’s army was one of the grandest ever assembled in France.  He meant to crush this pretender to his throne once and for all.  All the cream of the French nobility was present - each bringing hundreds of minor knights and men-at-arms with them in the feudal tradition and all of them mounted on the enormous destriers (war horses) that had dominated Continental battlefields.  Accompanying these were thousands of levied commoner infantry and mercenary Genoese crossbowmen.  All tallied, King Philip’s army numbered around 20,000 – 25,000 men, handily outnumbering the English invaders.  However, the enormous army was plagued by its size, lack of maneuverability, and poor command and control that made its advance towards Edward painfully slow.  When it finally reached him on August 26th, Edward’s men were rested and ready.  Instead of waiting, Philip immediately deployed his Genoese against the English lines.  The crossbow had long been the ranged weapon of choice on the Continent due to its armor-piercing ability and ease of use (it took virtually no training whatsoever to use the crossbow, making it ideal for peasant levies) and the Genoese had gained a lucrative reputation for wielding it.  However, before the Italians were even remotely within the maximum effective range of their weapons (about 50-100 yards), they stepped into the killing zone of the warbow.  The English archers released a furious barrage upon the hapless mercenaries who began taking casualties at an exponential rate.  The chronicler Froissart wrote that the English arrows fell so thick that it seemed like snow.  The average English archer, properly trained, could fire 12-15 arrows per minute.  A skilled crossbowman could shoot less than half that in the same time.  Badly bloodied, the Genoese cut the strings of their weapons and fled back in panic.  King Philip, not fully comprehending the situation, thought the mercenaries were reneging on their contracts and coldly ordered his mounted knights to “slay me that rabble.”  After dispatching the remaining mercenaries, the first rank of French cavalry impetuously advanced on the English lines – totally unaware of what lay in wait for them.  Jean le Bel, a possible eyewitness of the battle, wrote this description:

“But the great lords’ battalions were so fired by their rivalry with one another that they didn’t wait for each other, but charged in a jumbled mass … At the same time, the English archers were loosing such awesome volleys that the horses were riddled by the dreadful barbed arrows; some refused to go on, others leapt wildly, some viciously lashed and kicked, others turned tail despite their masters’ efforts, and others collapsed as the arrows struck, unable to endure.  Then the English lords – who were dismounted – advanced and fell upon these men, as helpless as their horses.”

The warbows in action
Massive bodies of fallen destriers littered the slope in front of the English.  French lords and knights were hurled to the ground, some killed by the fall, some crushed by waves of cavalry from behind, and many cut down by the English arrowstorm itself.  It was widely believed by historians in the past that the English cloth-arrows were only effective by striking the horses of the French knights, but that Continental plate armor of the time was strong enough to deflect direct hits.  Recent research conducted with recreated warbows has dispelled this theory and proved that, within a range of 20 to 30 yards, the bodkin point could penetrate even the finest Milanese steel plate clean through.  Such was the power of the warbows wielded at Crécy, whose archers rained down death upon the feckless French for almost 15 minutes.  Although one rank of French knights did successfully reach the English position and engaged Edward’s 16-year old son and heir (another Edward – later to be known famously as “the Black Prince”) in a furious melee, the battle had already been decided.  After having witnessed the complete failure of his grand army, Philip was forced to flee back to Paris with small remnants of survivors.  He left behind him on the field around 2,200 slain French nobles along with untold thousands of nameless footmen.  The English barely lost 300 men.  To say King Edward’s victory was complete is a criminal understatement – France had been shockingly humiliated on their own soil by an army comprised primarily of professionally trained commoners who wielded a weapon that supplanted over 400 years of armored cavalry supremacy on the battlefield.  Edward would end his campaign of 1346 by seizing the city of Calais on the Channel coast, a city the English Crown would continue to hold until the reign of Mary Tudor.

Although the arrival of the Black Death in 1348AD would cause a lull in the fighting, the Anglo-Welsh warbow from this point onward was on the Continent to stay and the fields and hedgerows of France would become the natural habitat of the English archer.  After Crécy and the deaths of almost an entire generation of feudal leadership, France was thrown into political and social chaos.  Fast-moving expeditionary English armies would conduct devastating raids – called chevaucheés – deep into French territory, wrecking a French economy already strained by plague and domestic unrest.  King Philip would die in 1350AD and leave this dire situation to his son, Jean II.  Although Jean would do what he could to stem the tide of English success, his reign came to an abrupt and dramatic end at another colossal English warbow victory at Poitiers in 1356AD won by the English royal heir - the legendary Edward the Black Prince.  Jean would be captured fighting on the field along with the ancient French battle-standard, the Oriflamme, as his forces were once again shredded apart by English arrows.  France’s humiliation was now complete and, in 1360AD, the captured king negotiated the Treaty of Brétigny with Edward III.  In return for dropping his maternal claim to the French throne, France would return to the Edward and the Crown all of the old Angevin possessions in Aquitaine, Gascony, and Ponthieu along with considerable additions from Central and Northern France.  Content with his victories and the wealth and fame they had won for him and his kingdom, King Edward allowed hostilities to slow to a quiet simmer – keeping his equally capable and charismatic son on the Continent to command the remaining English forces there.  But the drama of the warbow was by no means finished in Europe – quite the contrary, for the adventures of the English archer had only just begun.

To be continued …

Sources referenced:
Jean le Bel, The True Chronicles, 1357AD.
John Capgrave, Abbreviacion of Cronicles, 1417AD.
Jean Froissart, Chroniques, 1388AD
Robert Hardy, Longbow – A Social and Military History, Haynes Publishing, 2012.
Hugh D. H. Soar, Secrets of the English War Bow, Westholme Publishing, 2006.