The “English longbow” was neither invented by the English nor called a longbow during our period, although the weapon was certainly known as a characteristically English weapon. It was called many things: a bow or bowe; a war bow; in the case of issued weapons, a livery bow; and, yes, an English bow. Possibly the earliest use of the term “long bowe” is in one of the Paston letters dated to 1449.
Most of our information concerning the physical details of medieval war bows comes from those found in the wreck of the Tudor warship Mary Rose. Comparisons of the artifacts with illustrative sources from our period show an almost complete correspondence. We also look at textual materials to determine details not visible in illustrations and to gather information regarding construction, distribution, and use of the weapons. We also review modern attempts at reconstructing bows and shooting techniques to understand how bows could be expected to perform in actual use.
The war bow was a relatively cheap weapon capable of throwing a projectile over a significant distance, and its effect in action was devastating. That much is clear. The issues of quantifying and understanding its power are more problematic.
Richard Galloway, bowyer and archery researcher, has made bows according to medieval references. Reconstructed bows range from 60- to 160-pound pulls with draw lengths from 28 to 34 inches. Robert Hardy’s study of the Mary Rose bows indicate typical poundages of 88-120 pounds with draws between 28 and 30 inches. The heavier bows (160-175 lb.) can throw a bodkin arrow up to 320 yards and a flight arrow up to 350. The lighter bows (100 lb.), which are the most typical of those found, can throw up to 220 and 250 yards respectively.
Can such long ranges be right? It seems that they may actually be conservative. The Ayme for Finsbury Archers of 1594 lists the targets that used to stand in the fields around the northern outskirts of London. Several of these are described as “eighteen score and eighteen” yards (378 yards) and the longest at “nineteen score and fourteen” (394 yards) used for shoots where the target “must be in every man’s reach.” Sir John Smythe states that war arrows could be shot to 12 score (240) yards, but also says that “some number of archers being chosen, that could with their flights shoot 24 or 20 scores.” The man made a difference as well as the weapon.
One of Edward IV’s statutes (1465) describes an archer’s bow as “of his own length and one fistmele (the length of a closed fist plus the extended thumb; about 7″) at the least between the nyckes.” We expect that such a description is suitable to our period as well, even though the Mary Rose bows average 6 feet 6 inches in length, with none shorter than 6 feet 1 1/2 inches. Some of the men associated with the Mary Rose archery equipment were 6 feet tall, significantly taller than the average crewman’s height of 5 feet 7 1/2 inches.
The war bow is simple to make, but strong and relatively durable. The bow is made from a single stave of timber. Far and away the most favored wood was yew, often imported from Italy or Spain where the wood was grown “industrially” in a process known as pollarding. A yew bowstave contains both heartwood and sapwood. The heartwood forms the “belly” of the bow and the sapwood forms the “back.” Belly and back are defined by the direction in which the bow bends (i.e. the same way a person bends). But yew was expensive and, though considered the best, was not the only wood used for war bows. A statute of 1542 requires that bowyers “for one bow of yew shall make four of elm, wych (a variety of elm), hazel, ash or other wood apt for the same.” In the fourteenth century the favored wood for bows came from bough wood, but the wood could also come from a sapling or the trunk (“bole”) of the tree. Ascham (in the sixteenth century) disparages bough wood and prefers bole wood.
Bows are often not straight and smooth. When the stave is cut along the grain of the wood, the result is sometimes an undulating surface. Also, the heartwood’s tendency to expand gives the unstrung bow a noticeable curve away from the user. Today a bow with such a curve at the tips is called “reflexed”. Ascham says to look for a bow that is “small, long, heavy, and strong, lying straight, not winding, not marred with knot gall, wind shake, wem, fret or pinch.”
A finished bow is of a length suitable to the archer, with a D shaped cross-section. Finished bows may be “painted” (polished) or “white” (unpolished). There is no “handle” (shaped place where one grips the bow). Ascham recommends waxing the center of the bow where the hand grips, to keep heat and moisture from spoiling the wood (modern bowyers oil the wood first). The Mary Rose bows have marks on the left side of the upper limb, marking the center of the bow. These are presumed to be bowyer’s marks indicating the point from which the arrow should be shot.
The issue of sheathing the ends of the bow in nocks of horn or some other material is still debated, but at least one late fourteenth century alabaster carving in the Victoria & Albert Museum clearly shows applied nocks on a bow. All of the Mary Rose bows seem to be set up to take nocks of some sort, and recently an actual horn nock has been recovered from the wreck. Why sheath them? Because such sheaths ease the stringing of the bow and reduce the wear on the string caused by friction generated by shooting. Ascham warns that a bow should be well nocked (presumably well smoothed) “for fear the sharpness of the horn shear asunder the string.”