Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Archer's Tale - Part 4: Band of Brothers


"Owre Kynge went forth to Normandy
With grace and myght of chyvalry
Ther God for hym wrought mervelusly;
Wherefore Englonde may call and cry
Deo gratias!
Deo gratias Anglia redde pro victoria!"
-First stanza of the "Agincourt Carol," 15th Century

After the Treaty of Brétigny ended the first phase of the Hundred Years War, the great powers of England and France slipped back into the slow routine of their internal affairs, punctuated now and again by minor proxy fighting with eachother and the occasional chevauchée.  The archers who had been responsible for England's successes knew of no such lull however and found an abundance of employment and adventure throughout Christendom and beyond, as detailed in the previous post of this series.  As far as the war at large, though, things stayed quiet until about 1413AD - when a chain of fortuitous events would produce a battle that would win the English archer a permanent place in the annals of history.

Upon the death of the great warrior-king, Edward III, England faced a troublesome situation in regards to the throne.  Edward's mighty son and heir, the Black Prince - who embodied all the best of his father's martial prowess and leadership - had died of dysentery the year prior.  He left behind a ten year old son, Richard, who was crowned King upon the death of his grandfather.  It would be an understatement to say that Richard II was not like his father and grandfather.  Once he had achieved the age to rule in his own right, Richard displayed none of the militarist tendencies of his forebears and was remarkably pacifist in his rule.  Some in our own times might acclaim such non-aggressive tendencies, but in the 14th Century - when warfare and mortality in general were such intimately familiar events - such actions hardly did anything tho endear one to the people he ruled.  Richard's fate was sealed when he inexplicably banished Henry Bolingbroke, the eldest son and heir to Edward III's younger son and Richard's uncle, John of Gaunt.  Henry won favor with certain key noble families and returned to England as a rival claimant to the throne.  Nobles and commoners alike supported the young energetic Henry and soon, the hapless Richard was deposed and would die years later in prison.  Henry Bolingbroke became Henry IV, establishing the House of Lancaster and setting the stage for a future succession crisis that would cause some of the bloodiest struggles in English history.  At the time of his ascension, Henry had a young son - another Henry - who was destined to lead his country into perhaps its most defining battle.  In 1403, this young Prince Harry would earn his battlefield credibility by leading his father's right flank against the forces of the rebel Welsh prince Owain Glyndŵr and his Marcher Lord ally, Henry "Hotspur" Percy, at the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Late 15th Century woodcut depicting the defeat of the Percys at Shrewsbury - note the longbows on either side.
The Battle of Shrewsbury was an important event for more reasons than being the venue by which a young Henry V won his spurs.  The rebellion began when a native Welsh lord and heir to the old royal houses of Powys and Deheubarth, Owain Glyndŵr, rallied armies in the last bid for Welsh independence from the English Crown.  Unexpectedly for Henry IV, certain key English lords dissatisfied with their prospects after the deposition of Richard II, joined the Welsh rebel - making the situation far more dangerous for Henry's delicate claim to the throne than that posed by mere Welsh rebels.  Another key aspect of Shrewsbury was that it marked the first time when warbow faced warbow on the field - providing a grim foreshadowing of the horrific battles that would define the War of the Roses several generations later.  During the rebellion, many archers of Welsh descent defected to support their countryman, whereas thousands of English archers were called up to defend Henry's royal cause.  Shrewsbury became the stage for the largest battle of the conflict, and it proved as deadly as one might imagine.  Thousands on both sides were slain by the arrowstorm and a young Henry V nearly died after suffering a Welsh cloth-arrow to the face.  Although he was saved by the skill of his surgeons, he bore the scar for the remainder of his life.  When the dust settled on Shrewsbury field, Hotspur Percy lay slain (another victim of the cloth-arrows) and Owain Glyndŵr fled back to Wales and vanished into the mountains of Snowdonia, never to be seen again by mortal eyes.  Henry Bolingbroke spent the last years of his reign finally solidifying his royal claim, passing on a firmly held throne to his battle-hardened son in 1413AD.

Only extant portrait of Henry V from life.  Most likely taken from the side not scarred by his wound from Shrewsbury.
During this time, France was experiencing internal struggles of its own.  The English situation had stagnated and the lands held under the Treaty of Brétigny were only loosely held and defended by a motley mix of Gascons, Normans, Bretons, and professional soldiers under contract from England.  On the throne in Paris sat Charles VI - known to history as Charles "the Mad" - who, as his nickname suggests, suffered from debilitating mental instability.  A challenger to his throne arose in the person of Duke John "the Fearless" of Burgundy, who, in 1407AD, allied himself to England in return for military assistance in his rebellion.  Several companies of archers and men-at-arms flocked into Burgundy, seeking the same sort of opportunities their forefathers had.  As such, tensions mounted rapidly between the two thrones once again and negotiations became ever more heated between the aggressive Henry and his French counterparts.  In 1414AD, England and her young king received word that French royal forces and taken the Burgundian city of Soissons and inflicted a dreadful massacre of its inhabitants.  Among the victims were 300 English archers who were singled out by the French and horrifically tortured to death as a token of the low regard the French aristocracy possessed for these low-born warriors.  This proved to be the final straw for Henry.

In a show of furious energy, Henry resurrected his great-grandfather's claim to the throne of France and resolved this time to actually follow through on it.  In the early months of 1415AD, Henry raised an army of about 12,000 and landed in Normandy in August.  His first target was the key port-city of Harfleur.  However, Harfleur resisted far longer than expected and Henry's army was slowly whittled down by combat, disease, and desertion.  When Harfleur finally fell in late September, Henry was left with only about 8,000 of his original force.  Knowing this was far too few with which to successfully seize the throne of France, he took his council's advice to return to England to refit.  However, in a surprise decision, the ambitious king resolved to march his small force nearly 134 miles across French royal territory from Harfleur to English-held Calais.  This tactic was more symbolic than strategic - by brazenly marching across French lands in such fashion, Henry hoped to demonstrate his right to the French and the rest of Christendom.  However, as men continued to succumb to illness in one of the coldest and wettest Autumns on record, such a move was a risky gamble, one that many of Henry's closest advisers privately doubted.  But, the young King was, if nothing else, a proven leader and his army began the long march to Calais.

The French nobility, nominally led by the Royal heir, the Dauphin, leapt at the opportunity to finally crush this insolent pretender and his band of commoners.  This was not just seen in the context of immediate strategic needs - the French saw this as a chance to finally avenge the horrific defeats inflicted on their fathers and grandfathers and to demolish the reputation of the upstart English peasant-soldiers that had played such a prominent role in their country's humiliation.  In a matter of weeks, an enormous royal army was assembled to pursue Henry and intercept him before he could reach Calais.  However, the French were hampered by one major internal flaw.  Due to King Charles' insanity, leadership of the army was delegated to a collection of aristocrats headed (in name only) by Duke Charles d'Albret.  Many of these nobles had long-standing rivalries with one another and d'Albret found that exercising effective command and control over his force of nearly 25,000 to 36,000 (scholars are in disagreement to this day about the exact size of the French army that faced Henry) was next to impossible.  Due to this, the French advanced towards Henry at a painfully slow rate, failing to prevent him from crossing the Somme River as was intended.



Although the English were able to stay one step ahead of their French pursuers  Henry knew that he would have to turn and face d'Albret.  The attrition from disease and the elements had only gotten worse - the English army now numbered around 6,000 - and, if the French were to catch them on the move, there would be a distinct possibility he and his small force would be wiped out.  On October 24th, taking a move from his great-grandfather's playbook, Henry stopped his army atop the higher end of a long narrow field bordered on either side by thick woods near the small hamlet of Azincourt.  The French arrived that same day and camped on the opposite end, fully confident they had trapped the young king right where they wanted him.  The French nobles and men-at-arms spent the night drinking and gambling, no doubt betting on who would have better success the next day, whereas in Henry's camp, the English men-at-arms and archers maintained a quiet - if restless - vigil.

The Azincourt battlefield as it appears today, taken looking Northwest towards what would have been the French end of the field.
When the French awoke on an undoubtedly chilly morning of October 25th (the feast day of King Henry's personal patrons, Ss. Crispan and Crispian), they saw the English already drawn up for battle on the far side.  The field on which they faced eachother was especially chosen by Henry for several reasons.  The woods on either side became narrower as one went closer to the French-held side, forming a tight bottleneck a few hundred yards from the French position.  Also, the field had been plowed just a few days before and, with the past several weeks of wet weather, what had been a field in some places was now a quagmire of knee-deep mud.  Henry intended to use all this to his advantage - as he would need every one he could get to even the odds against his enemies that vastly outnumbered him.  As in so many battles before, the French army was again primarily composed of heavy armored cavalry, supported by unknown numbers of peasant levies and mercenary footmen.  The English this time were entirely on foot, even the handful of nobles that formed the King's retinue, and archers formed the majority by far.  Henry deployed his men in the classic English formation - infantry in the center with archers on the wings, this time placing large sharpened stakes in front of them to protect against cavalry charges.  As the morning cold was subsiding, King Henry stepped out in front of his tired, hungry army and delivered a speech.  To this day, no one knows what was really said, but whatever it was, his words must have been effective enough to steel his men for the desperate fight that faced them.   For several hours, the French and English sat on either end, facing each other, neither one making the first move.  The French undoubtedly remembered their former defeats at the hands of English armies in the defense and refused to move against Henry's position.  If battle were to be joined, the English would have to make the first move.

In perhaps one his most recklessly bold moves, Henry ordered his army to advance towards the French just to where his archers could reach them at their maximum range (about 300 yards).  The archers picked up their stakes and the entire English line moved forward.  Whether d'Albret was unaware of this or failed to organize his own forces in time, the French never moved during what could have been their one golden opportunity to annihilate the exposed and defenseless English.  Henry halted his line at the appointed distance and the archers replanted their stakes.  At the command of Sir Thomas Erpingham, the noble in command of all archers, the first volley was launched at the still immobile French lines.  A sudden clatter of steel impacting steel rippled across the front ranks of the French and cries of struck men and horses could be heard amidst shouts and curses.  This proved too much for the impetuous French nobles, many of whom had grown weary of waiting.  The first lines of cavalry spurred on towards the English, each noble and knight trying to outstrip the other and keeping no formation whatsoever as they thundered towards their foes and into the arrowstorm that awaited them.

The English archers were now back in the position that suited them best.  Firing at will at a rate of 12-15 arrows per minute, they plastered the charging French with intersecting crossfire.  While at farther distances, the plate armor worn by many of the knights and nobles would have deflected many of the arrows, their horses were not so lucky.  Many knights were thrown from their mounts or had them slain beneath them and those that survived slogged through the muddy morass on foot.  Once within 20-30 yards of the English lines, they provided ideal targets for the archers, whose bodkin tipped cloth-arrows could pierce even the finest Milanese plate armor at that range.  The few riders that were able to ride the whole way up to the lines were confronted by the bristling hedge of stakes, forcing them to stop and expose themselves even more.  The first wave of French collapsed entirely and many of the highest ranking nobles of France lay dying in the mud.

The French charge collapses.
d'Albret, still not totally aware of what was happening in the field below, ordered the rest of his forces to advance.  This time, thousands of footmen and dismounted knights poured into the narrow muddy field, crushing in on one another to the point where many could not move at all.  Along with taking casualties from the continuing arrow fire, many French footmen were trampled to death by their own men - chroniclers speak of knights falling and being pushed into the deep mud where they drowned in their own armor.  However, due to sheer numbers and the gradual exhaustion of English arrow ammunition, successive French waves were able to reach English lines.  On Henry's side, his dismounted infantry braced for the French that made their way to them.  Every English leader present personally fought with distinction in the furious melee that commenced - King Henry himself had a portion of his crowned helm hacked off as he covered his stricken younger brother, the Duke of Gloucester, by standing over him.  As archers ran out of ammunition, they too fell in on the attacking French from the flanks and did fairly well in close quarters combat - no doubt due to their light armor and quickness against the heavy and slow French knights bogged down in the mud.

Things truly became desperate for Henry and his army when word reached him of a French attack on his baggage train in the rear.  Thinking that a portion of the French army had circumvented his position and was now closing in from behind, the King issued a grim order - to execute all but the highest ranking French prisoners and prevent them from taking up arms again.  Many of the English knights and nobles refused the order as unchivalrous, but the common archers had no such qualms and descended upon the helpless prisoners.  As troublesome as Henry's decision might appear to the modern mind, one must realize the circumstances that forced this decision.  Until a battle was concluded, prisoners on a Medieval battlefield could still very much become combatants again if the opportunity arose.  With the massive amounts of prisoners present at that stage in the battle, Henry and his men could have faced annihilation had they risen up and taken arms again.  A Medieval commander's first and foremost concern was for the preservation of his own men.  It turned out that the attack had merely been a raid conducted by some locals from nearby Azincourt and would have posed no real threat to Henry, but in the confusion and desperate melee of the moment, there is no way Henry could have known that.  Even many of the French chroniclers from the time did not condemn Henry for his decision - it was a desperate call brought on by desperate circumstances.

At this point, the situation for the French was lost.  With nearly all their leaders killed or captured (to include d'Albret), the remaining French forces yielded the field.  What had begun as a confident march to victory had turned into yet another devastating defeat.  On the English side, the exhausted Henry ordered an end to the fighting and proclaimed that the Te Deum be sung in gratitude for a victory he believed could have only been miraculous.  When the sun set that night, it did so over an estimated 10,000 French slain.  Among the English, only about 112 casualties were recorded, to include the King's young cousin, Edward Duke of York.  Henry continued his march to Calais and returned to jubilant celebrations in England.  It seemed that the victorious days of Edward III and the Black Prince had returned and the realm rallied behind their young charismatic King Harry.  Veterans of Agincourt (as it was pronounced in English) became overnight national heroes and the English archer was finally enshrined as one of the everlasting symbols of the English nation.

Flags bearing the Cross of St. George, England's national symbol, in modern times -  first worn by English archers in France since the time of Richard II.
In 1416AD, Henry returned to France with larger armies and continued his campaigns of conquest.  Organized French resistance was all but gone and Henry shifted English strategy from one of raiding and chevauchées to one of actual seizure and garrisoning of territory.  In 1420AD, the remaining French leadership, pressured by the additional internal threat of the pro-English Duke John of Burgundy, sued for peace.  Henry negotiated the Treaty of Troyes with the feeble King Charles and secured the title of heir to the throne of France along with the hand of Charles' daughter, Catherine de Valois, in marriage.  At long last, the English and French thrones were united.  Sadly, Henry V never saw himself on the throne as he suddenly died a mere two years later, contracting that ubiquitous scourge of Englishmen in France, dysentery, while on campaign.  He left behind an infant son, Henry VI, who would live to be the only English monarch to ever actually hold the title of King of France.  The reign of Henry VI, however, would be a sad one for his nation - one that would see her greatest warriors diminished abroad and turn on one another at home.  Despite this, though, the legacy of Agincourt would continue on long after the warbow that had secured its victory became a relic of the past.  This is in many ways due to the stirring portrayal of the battle and the men who won it by the one writer most responsible for the English identity as it is known today, William Shakespeare.  Although the Bard wrote his play, Henry V, many generations after the last Agincourt veterans had died, it is without question that he accurately captured the esprit de corps that was undoubtedly shared by all the men present there, from the King himself down to the lowliest archer.  That sense of brotherhood in the face of overwhelming adversity would continue to inspire generations of men in the English-speaking world long after the warbow had disappeared from the battlefield, as I will elaborate on further in this series.

Cross erected on the Azincourt battlefield in memory of the slain on both sides.


Sources referenced:

Robert Hardy, Longbow - A Social and Military History, Haynes Publishing, 2012.
Paul Knight, Henry V and the Conquest of France 1416-1453, Osprey Publishing, 1998.
Richard Wadge, Arrowstorm - The World of the Archer in the Hundred Years War, The History Press, 1997.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Archer's Tale - Part 3: The Men of the Bow



After their humiliating defeat at Poitiers coupled with the loss of their sovereign as an English prisoner, France sued for peace by means of the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360AD.  In the treaty, France ceded to the English Crown all its ancestral Angevin possessions along with substantial gains in Maine and Ponthieu, a foothold in the now-English client state of Brittany, and the port city of Calais along with its surrounding lands.  In return, Edward III curiously dropped his claim to the throne of France and promised a truce with the House of Valois.  In just 23 years, England had burst onto the scene of Continental politics as a first-rate power and the military exploits of Edward’s armies were now the talk of Christendom.  This is in no small way due to the archers that bore the Cross of St. George.  But, who were these men?  Military history often focuses much of its attention to weapons and tactics at the expense of investigating the human warriors who employed them.  Fortunately, a plethora of sources contemporary to the men who carried their warbows onto the fields of France, Spain, Italy, and the British Isles still exist today and have given valuable insight to scholars in our times as to who these intrepid adventurers were.

France post 1360AD - English lands shown in red and pink and English allies and dependencies shown in white and yellow.
Due to the military reforms enacted by Edward I and his successors, English armies deviated from the old Continental systems of feudal obligation and conscripted levies and adopted what might today be called a more volunteer “citizen army” concept.  This concept was not that strange to England, however, as it had roots in the ancient Anglo-Saxon Fyrd system that predated the Norman Conquest.  Starting with Longshanks, the Crown issued Assizes of Arms that, more or less, divided all men of military age (15 through 60 years old) into their respective social classes based on their total property value.  Then, accompanying Statutes would mandate what sort of weaponry and equipment should be maintained by men in those brackets.  Take this example from the Statute of Winchester (1284AD):

“Every man between fifteen years and sixty years shall be assessed and sworn to armour according to the quantity of their lands and goods ; that is to wit from £15 land or 40 marks* goods a hauberk, sword, knife, and a horse: £10 land or 20 marks goods a hauberk, sword, and a knife … and he that have less than 20 marks in goods shall have swords, knives, and other less weapons: and all others that may shall have bows and arrows out of the Forest and in the forest bows and boults. And that view of armour shall be made every year two times.”
(*A “mark” in Medieval England equaled 13 shillings and 4 pence – roughly two thirds of a Pound sterling)

However, in the late 13th Century, actual service was still seen as compulsory when the Crown went to war.  What changed dramatically under Edward III was that Englishmen were no longer compelled to serve out of obligation, but were offered the reward of financial compensation.  Edward’s Assizes established a contractual system in which bands of volunteers (both men-at-arms and archers) agreed to serve for wages – something that could be sweetened with the prospect of additional bonuses in the form of enemy loot.  As to exactly how these men were recruited, there were two systems.  The first was the Commissions of Array.  This was the older system that had been enacted by Edward I in which knights and minor nobles were assigned a particular county or shire within the Realm and, when the King called for troops, these commissioners selected the most fit men from their respective county to meet that county’s particular quota.  Although this system was used initially at the start of the Hundred Years War, it was fraught with numerous problems due to logistical inefficiency, desertion, and corruption on the part of certain commissioners (See Shakespeare’s character “Falstaff” from Henry IV Part 1).  Gradually, a more efficient and lucrative system took the Commission’s place – the Indenture system.  Under this, the Crown would grant Nobles and professional men-at-arms the authority to issue “indentures” in the King’s name to any volunteers.  These volunteers would then form a “retinue” under the figure who hired them and would be under his operational command for the duration of the campaign.  However, these indentures always had an end date and stipulated in exhaustive detail the terms of service.  The Indenture system also allowed the formation of highly skilled retinues of specialists – the archers from Cheshire, Lancashire, and southern Wales gained such an elite reputation that they were allowed to negotiate indentures with and serve directly under the Crown itself.

For the average archer, the financial compensation (both offered and potential) more than served as an attractive incentive for service with the King abroad.  Archers, along with the rest of the army, were paid at contracted daily rates agreed to in the terms of their service.  At the time of Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, mounted archers (“mounted” here refers to their mode of transport, not how they deployed onto the battlefield) were paid at the rate of 6 pence a day – foot archers received 3 pence.  Be aware that, in 14th Century England, 1 penny could buy a gallon of ale.  By the time of Henry V, professional archers were being indentured for 9 pence a day (although, that may have been due to minor inflation).  This was a vast improvement over what would be earned yearly as a farming landowner or a simple craftsman.  The prospects of loot would only enhance the attraction to service.  English kings and lords who led armies into France made it clear that all spoils of war would belong to those that captured it – some English nobles even refused any booty for themselves as an act of loyalty to the Crown.  For the common soldiers and archers, the spoils of a victory could be immense.  John Jodrell, an archer in the elite Cheshire retinue that served at Poitiers, sold a French silver salt cellar he seized to the Black Prince for £8 – a bonus of a year’s worth of pay!  After the fall of Caen to Edward III in 1346AD, Froissart records entire barges being loaded with furs, jewels, gold, silver, and wine.  With the possibility of such prospects, it is easy to see how English commoners – trained in the use of the warbow from childhood – would volunteer in droves when the King called for men.

Looting on campaign, 14th Century.
One must also take into account the culture and society from whence these warriors were drawn.  Far from being the idealized heroes of Agincourt mythos that remains in the English-speaking world to this day, the men of the bow were a rather refreshingly simple, if rough, bunch.  Of all Medieval Europe, England had for the longest time possessed a cultural admiration for the “common freeman” that went all the way back to its shadowy Anlgo-Saxon period of huscarls, fyrdmen, and theigns.  With the establishment of official checks on royal power under Magna Carta and the formation of the legislative body of Parliament, such traditions simply became entrenched.  Commoners in England commanded far greater respect than their contemporaries on the Continent, and any English king or noble who forgot this fact did so at his own peril!  The men who wielded the bow usually came from diverse backgrounds, but all of them were accustomed to the hard living required of every human in the Medieval period.  At best, they were rough-hewn farm boys and city ruffians – at worst, they were professional brigands and outlaws attracted to service by the prospect of a Royal pardon.  All of them sought wealth, adventure, and maybe even a ticket to climb higher in society … as many did.  It was not uncommon for an archer in the 14th and 15th Centuries to gain enough wealth or prestige to return home in far better social standing than when he left.  A few even won the favor of the aristocracy and were granted arms of nobility.

The prospects of the archer didn’t end with service to his own country, either.  After the Treaty of Brétigny and the uneasy truce that followed, many archers and men-at-arms faced lack of employment as their indentures were finished.  Having grown accustomed to war and the rewards that came to those that survived, many veterans simply never returned home and instead formed “Free Companies” that roamed throughout Christendom offering their considerable skills to the highest bidder.  Perhaps the most famous stomping grounds for these soldiers-of-fortune were the fabulously wealthy and forever-fighting merchant city-states of Italy.  These English mercenaries became both a scourge and a boon for the city-states of Tuscany and Lombardy, depending on which side had hired them.  Their efficacy on the field was unquestioned and English Free Companies soon became some of the most highly priced mercenaries in Italy.  The men themselves often grew phenomenally wealthy and some even influenced Italian affairs on a grand scale.  Perhaps the most famous example of these adventurers is the notorious John Hawkwood (Giovanni Acuto to the Tuscans).  Originally the younger son of a common landowner in Essex, Hawkwood answered the King’s call to fight in France – possibly serving in both the Crécy and Poitiers campaigns.  While in France, he fostered close relationships with other professional English warriors who, together with Hawkwood, would form the “White Company” after the end of hostilities in France.  Gradually, Hawkwood would gain sole command of the White Company and became the most famous (and dreaded) mercenary leader in Tuscany.  Called “Il Volpe” (The Fox) by friend and foe alike due to his cunning use of maneuver in his tactics, Hawkwood served in the employ of numerous Italian city-states to include Milan, Pisa, Florence, Naples, and even the Papal States.  Over the course of his long life, he amassed unbelievable wealth and power, becoming a powerful Tuscan lord in his own right and rubbing shoulders with other famous men and women of his day like Chaucer, Petrach, St. Catherine of Siena, and Froissart.  However, he never forgot the key to his success – at the battle of Castagnaro in 1387AD, Hawkwood deployed his English archers in a manner reminiscent of the Black Prince’s own tactics at Poitiers and won a smashing victory for his Paduan employers.  He died an honorary citizen of Florence and was buried with full honors in the great basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore (commonly known as Il Doumo in Florence) where his tomb can be seen to this day.  Not bad for the landless son of a humble farmer from Essex.

"Monsignore, God grant you peace," said the monks.
"And may God take away your alms," Hawkwood responded immediately.
"Lord! Why do you speak to us this way?" asked the frightened monks.
"Indeed, because you spoke thus to me," replied John ... "How can you think you spoke well," said Hawkwood, "when you approach me and say that God should let me die of hunger?  Don't you know that I live from War and peace would destroy me?  As I live by war, you live by alms."
Conversation attributed to Hawkwood by 14th C. writer Franco Sacchetti in his work Il Trecentonovelle
However, such stories of riches and adventure should not be allowed to obscure the hardships suffered by the average archer on campaign.  As in all military endeavors throughout human history, the possibility of death lay behind ever hill and hedgerow.  Other than the obvious deaths from combat and improperly tended wounds, there were a myriad other dangers that faced archers every day.  Disease often ran rampant on campaigns – Henry V lost over a third of his original force in 1415AD to dysentery.  Poor food and dirty water often compounded the effects of disease.  The elements could also take their toll if commanders failed to time their campaigns properly, as befell John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, when his chevauchée was caught deep in enemy territory during a fierce winter in 1373AD.  However, contrary to modern misconception, the average Medieval commoner was fairly naturally resilient and most had an average life expectancy of 60-70 years.  Although medical knowledge was certainly not what it is now, there was still basic understandings of what things caused disease and how to avoid them.  Surgeons that often accompanied armies were fairly skilled at mending all but the worst of combat wounds and even used substances that served as natural antiseptics.  A young Henry V, then Prince of Wales and commanding his father’s flank at Shrewsbury in 1403AD, was saved by surgeons who removed a Welsh arrow from his face and treated the wound with honey – a natural antimicrobial agent.

All in all, the English archer became somewhat of a rockstar on the Continent.  Their fame (or villainy … depending on whose side you were on) extended throughout Christendom to places as exotic as Rhodes - in service to the Knights Hospitaller against the Turks, Castile (the Black Prince won a famous victory with his archers at Nájera in 1367AD while supporting King Pedro against his French-backed pretender Enrique II), and Prussia fighting pagan Lithuanians during the Northern Crusades.  This fame later became an integral part of the national pride of England – a pride that carried on to the present day.  In my opinion, I think lifelong warbow expert and red-blooded Englishman Robert Hardy put it best, however:

“Of the archer himself we shall learn much more, from a detail here or a clue there, as we go on. Broadly speaking, he was drawn from the villages and fields, a man of small property, sometimes none, sometimes an outlaw or a poacher pardoned for service; a man of no great estimation in the world, but a man of country skills and strength, rough living and hard working, accustomed to things of wood and finding pleasing familiarity in the wooden bow ... With two quivers at his back, he shouldered his bow in its canvas bowcase and marched his way to much estimation in Britain, and after 1346 to find great esteem and to inspire great dread throughout Europe.
It had been hard to train him to his best; it proved impossible to keep him to it; but at his best there was no man in the world to beat him, no matter the odds against him; and his breed lasted long beyond the warbow; he used the musket and the rifle; he endured in 1915 the same - and worse - than his forefathers suffered in 1415. There has been a fashion lately to deride, not his kind, but his service to his nation as an exploitation by his rulers of his servitude and simplicity. Neither he nor his nation has ever taken kindly to servitude ... He will never entirely perish because, for all the sloth and cantankerous emulation that lie side-by-side in his nature, he shares with the best of mankind: courage, clear sight, and honesty."







Sources referenced:
William Caferro, John Hawkwood – An English Mercenary in 14th Century Italy, John Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Jean Froissart, Chroniques, 1388AD
Robert Hardy, Longbow – A Social and Military History, Haynes Publishing, 2012.
Peter Hoskins, In The Steps of the Black Prince, Boydell Press, 2013.
David Nicolle, The Great Chevauchée – John of Gaunt’s Raid on France 1373, Osprey Publishing, 2011.
Richard Wadge, Arrowstorm – The World of the Archer in the Hundred Years War, The History Press, 2007.