Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Archer's Tale - Part 5: Brother Against Brother and the Sunset of the Bow



As the blood washed out of the small field of Azincourt in Ponthieu and as great swathes of northern France fell into the hands of the victors of that field, England found itself facing an unexpected crisis.  Henry V, the great warrior king whose ambition, skill, and leadership had been the driving force directing his countrymen, both noble and common, towards the goal of a unified Anglo-French Crown, suddenly succumbed to illness contracted while on campaign in Normandy in 1422AD at the age of 35.  Behind him, he left his infant son - another Henry, born of Princess Catherine de Valois of France - to carry on the monumental task of uniting two Realms that had been in a constant state of war for almost a century.

Of course, the infant King of England and France was merely a king in name only - the actual command of Henry's kingdom was distributed to a collection of English nobles who assumed responsibility for the Regency.  John, Duke of Bedford and Henry V's brother, commanded all English forces in France.  His other brother (and veteran of Agincourt) Humphrey, assumed the regency of England and was granted the title Protector and Defender of the Realm by Parliament.  As often happened in many regencies, the influences of various (and often competing) nobles and aristocrats grew exponentially, setting the stage for future power struggles that risked getting out of control.  Just mere months after the great Henry's death, there were nobles in England already poised to take advantage of this situation.

The war effort in France also began to shift unfavorably for the English.  Even while he was alive, Henry's strategy had deviated significantly from that of his ancestors.  The Edwards had focused primarily on strategies of maneuver - capitalizing on the mobility of English armies by conducting in-depth raids (chevauchées) deep into French territory and only fighting pitched battles when they knew the conditions favored them, shaping the conflict and constantly forcing the French to react to them.  This freed the lighter and expeditionary English armies from having to defend large fronts of territory.  Not so with Henry, who set out to actually invest English forces over vast regions in northern and central France.  Now English armies, accustomed to and equipped for the rapid tempo of maneuver tactics, started to find themselves being fixed in place defending strongholds and cities from ever-increasing French resistance.  However, the military prowess of England's archers was still in effect.  At the Battle of Verneuil in 1424AD, English forces under the Duke of Bedford won a bloody victory over a combined Franco-Scottish army, cementing English rule over Normandy and the English Regency in Paris.  However, it was to be the last major English victory in the Hundred Years War.

France in 1428AD.  English lands in red, French in blue, and Burgundian in purple.
France never completely submitted to the terms of Troyes and Charles the Mad was succeeded by his son and Dauphin, Charles VII.  Later to be known as the "Victorious" and "Well-served,"  Charles possessed none of his father's mental instability and displayed a natural talent for strategy and scheming.  However, after Verneuil, his prospects looked dim.  France was virtually bankrupt, the remaining French nobility continued to fight more with themselves rather than with the English, and English momentum was still strong enough to dissuade any real support amongst the French people for a concentrated attempt at reconquest.  That is, until a literal God-send appeared in 1428AD.  Arising from total obscurity from a small village in Lorraine, a charismatic young woman named Jeanne D'Arc - purportedly directed by mystical visions - would serve as the rallying force for French resistance so badly needed.  Charles capitalized on the enigmatic Jeanne, who handily won her credibility the next year by leading a French army to the relief of the ancient city of Orleans and inflicting a major loss upon the English besiegers.  Soon after, Charles was crowned King of France in Rheims, nullifying the humiliating terms of Troyes in one fell swoop.  Jeanne (Joan to her English foes), continued to campaign for her King and proved to be a nightmare for Englishmen in France.  While never actually in command of the French armies (all tactical command was handled by a tight collection of French nobles and professional soldiers), Jeanne was indispensable as the figurehead of French resistance, riding into battle and victory at Patay in 1429AD - often described by historians as "Agincourt in reverse."  By the time she was finally captured by English Burgundian allies and, after a long and politically charged trial that still haunts Catholic canon law scholars to this day, executed in 1431AD, the fall of English France had been irreversibly set in motion.

Jeanne capturing the English redoubt at Orleans.  Jeanne's story would prove so problematic to the Catholic Church that her cause for canonization would not be realized until 1920.
On the other side of the Channel, Henry VI (having come of age in 1437AD), found himself ill-equipped to carry on his father's legacy.  Shy, pious, and martially uninclined, he shied away from any role of leadership in the war and in his rule in general, leaving much of it to be assumed by his beautiful and ambitious wife, Margaret of Anjou and her circle of noble supporters.  With English military fortunes in France continuing to suffer defeats, the rifts between the two main rival factions of the English nobility, the Royal House of Lancaster and the House of York, began to dangerously widen.  As this occurred, preservation of the English hold on France started to become more of an afterthought.  The situation was even deteriorating for the common archer and soldier in the field, as Robert Hardy writes:

"The carefree days of pillage and living off the land were long past.  Now, musters began to be taken by the month, and payment in cash was monthly.  The port authorities on both sides of the Channel were given powers to arrest deserters ... and the penalties in either case varied from simple return of the offenders to their units, to imprisonment and forfeiture of wages ... What used to be a question of either a private contract or compulsory levy ... was now a public duty, the evasion of which constituted a crime against the king and the country.  The organization of war had moved into the modern context."

Furthermore, tactics were changing - and not in the favor of the English.  The warbow was no longer an exclusively English weapon, with Burgundian, Scottish, and even French archers developing comparable skills with comparable weapons made from Italian yew.  The French began to attack the thinly stretched English garrisons' logistical support - forcing the isolated strongholds to surrender.  On the battlefield, the French finally seemed to have learned to never attack an English army while in the defense and would strike them while on the move or in the vulnerable moment before the archers could be deployed behind stakes.  Also, the French began to utilize a weapon that would eventually render the warbow extinct - gunpowder.  At Formigny in 1450AD, victory was snatched from English hands when the French deployed two culverins against the formations of archers.  The cannon fire broke up the thin English line and forced the archers to charge ahead to seize the two guns.  Waiting for them was the French cavalry, who rode them down and destroyed the English army.  Piece by piece, English France was chipped away until all that remained of the ancient Angevin inheritance was Gascony in the southwest.  In 1453AD at Castillion, the last English army in France was cut to pieces while advancing on a French fortified position reinforced with artillery.  The English commander, John Talbot Duke of Shrewsbury, the last competent military leader left in France, had his horse shot out from underneath him and was found dead upon the field.  The city of Bordeaux fell shortly after and all that remained of the great English victories of the Hundred Years War was the small Channel port of Calais.

The English Crown would hold Calais until losing it in a surprise French attack in 1558AD.  Mary I mourned the loss of Calais until her death and was quoted as saying, "When I am dead and opened, you shall find 'Philip (of Spain - her husband)' and 'Calais' lying in my heart."
As news of defeat after defeat reached England, the effete rule of Henry VI continued to rapidly erode.  Rival nobles despised him and his domineering wife who, with her circle of favorites, politically persecuted their rivals.  The commoners, along with a Parliament fed up with his disastrous foreign policy, resented his weak leadership.  Compounding all this, rumors of mental instability eerily similar to his mad French grandfather began to leak out.  England was now ripe for civil war.  The war that would arise from this hotbed of instability would later be remembered as perhaps the bloodiest conflict on English soil, and in no small thanks to the employment of the warbow seen throughout it.

The first blood of the conflict later known as the War of the Roses (due to the heraldic symbols of the two rival factions - the White Rose of York and the Red Rose of Lancaster) would be drawn at the First Battle of St Albans in 1454AD.  Although minor in military scope, it was a massive political victory for the Yorkist cause led by Richard Duke of York, whose forces routed the Lancastrians and captured Henry VI.  Lancastrian resistance rallied under Margaret of Anjou (ever the more capable leader in her marriage) and for the next decade, war raged across England between the two irreconcilable factions.  Fueling this war were thousands of archers and men-at-arms recently back from France who now either faced joining a side or unemployment.  Gone, however, were the days of fighting noble battles against French cavalry - now, it was a fight to the death for political power in which prisoners were seldom (if ever) taken.  The battles of the War of the Roses would be marked by the appalling casualties suffered on either side - far beyond what was normal for a Medieval battle.  Brutality was the norm and mercy was almost never shown by the victors - as displayed in the aftermath of the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471AD when Lancastrian nobles claiming sanctuary in the nearby abbey were unceremoniously drug out and summarily executed on the spot.

Yorkist archers at Towton, 1461AD.
  The bloodiest day came when the young and charismatic Edward of York took up his house's cause from his father and he met the Lancastrians at the village of Towton on a freezing Palm Sunday in 1461AD.  Both sides deployed thousands of archers, but the Yorkist archers had the wind in their favor, which carried their cloth-arrows farther and blew snow into the eyes of their opponents.  The Battle of Towton would end in a crushing Yorkist victory - leaving behind 28,000 Englishmen slain on the field, the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil to the present day.  Despite Edward's coronation as Edward IV, the war would drag on for almost another two decades until finally coming to a dramatic close at the famed Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485AD.  The Yorkist king, Richard III, far from being the pathetic villain unfairly crafted generations later by Shakespeare, was in reality a brave and competent leader who died fighting while leading what some historians call the "last charge of the Plantagenets" against the Welsh-born leader of the Lancastrian cause, Henry Tudor.

Richard III striking down Henry Tudor's standard bearer in his last charge as king at Bosworth Field, 1485AD.
With the coronation of Henry VII and the establishment of the Tudor Dynasty, the long horrific saga of England's bloodiest civil war came to a close.  With the passing of the Plantagenets also, incidentally, came the passing of the warbow that had won for its people some of its greatest victories.  Many factors could be seen as the cause for the gradual disappearance of the warbow from English battlefields.  In the chaos of the War of the Roses, the old English military system that had fostered the men of the bow was virtually erased, destroying the comprehensive training traditions that were essential for the creation of archers.  The Tudors certainly tried to resurrect them.  In its waning years, the warbow found an unlikely admirer in the problematic Henry VIII, who tried to nurse the culture of the bow back to life and deployed archers in his wars in both Scotland and France.  Perhaps the last huzzah, as it were, for the warbow took place in the very land where it had tasted it's first success - in 1513AD, English forces under Thomas Howard Earl of Surrey virtually annihilated an invading Scottish army at the Battle of Flodden through the combined use of artillery and archers.  Scotland's king, James IV, was slain along with a vast number of high ranking Scottish nobles.  Many consider Flodden to be the last battle of the Medieval period, and perhaps it is fitting that the warbow was a major participant.  After Flodden, warfare began to change irrevocably.  The warbow found itself steadily giving way to another ranged weapon, one that made up for its slower rate of fire and shorter range by being vastly easier to train with, equip, and deploy - the gunpowder firearm.  Tactics both on the Continent and in England shifted in favor of the "pike-and-shot" tradition created by a blending of Swiss-German style pike infantry supported by musketeers.  Medieval-style heavy cavalry practically became nothing more than a ceremonial relic since both pike tercios and musket balls could decimate armored horsemen.

Pike "tercios" colliding in Hans Holbein's 16th Century engraving "Bad War."
However, in some places in England, the ghost of the warbow lingered on.  In the reign of Elizabeth I, the warbow could still be found.  Their continued efficacy was even still attested to in reports to the Pope after the disastrous defeat of the Spanish Armada.  But their numbers were rapidly dwindling, as was their support within England.  In 1590AD, Robert Barret composed a tongue-in-cheek debate in his work Modern Wars.  In it, two speakers, a Gentleman and a Captain address the debate over warbow vs. musket that must have been raging within English society at the time.

"Gentleman: 'Why do you not like of our old archery of England?'
Captain: 'I do not altogether disallow them ...'
Gentleman: 'Will not a thousand bows handled by good bowmen, do as good service, as a thousand hargubuze or muskets, especially among horsemen?'
Captain: 'No, were there such bowmen as were in the old time, yet could there be no comparison.'"

How far England had come from the days when English archers had struck fear and awe in the hearts of their foes all across Christendom.  The last mention we hear of warbows in England come from an entry from 26 April 1644AD in an Ordinance Department issue book listing, among other items, 12,000 arrows and 1,000 bowstrings.  The bowstaves themselves seem to have already vanished.  As for its last recorded use on a battlefield, from the late 17th century come reports of Scottish clans using them against eachother in their clan-battles ... one supposes it took far longer for the warbow to be forgotten in Scotland!

Although it took an impressive amount of time, the warbow at long last ceded the field of battle to its louder, more dramatic successor.  Gunpowder and the firearm had arrived to trouble the unhappy world and, to this day, sadly have yet to depart from it.  Yet despite the passage of time rendering the bow useless in warfare, the nation whose identity it had played such a vital role in crafting would continue to remember and even revere it.  Perhaps there, in its enduring remembrance, lies the true legacy of the English warbow and the men who carried it.  I will cover this legacy in my next and final piece.




Sources Referenced:
Robert Hardy, Longbow - A Social and Military History, Haynes Publishing, 2012.
David Nicolle, The Fall of English France 1449-1453, Osprey Publishing, 2012.
Hugh D. H. Soar, The Crooked Stick, Westholme Publishing, 2009.

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