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A Brief History of the English Longbow

by Jason O’Keefe

This fascinating talk was accompanied by many interesting slides and concluded with several members of the audience trying out some of the bows brought by the speaker. 

The oldest evidence of the use of bows was the finding of arrowheads in north Africa dating to 50,000 years old.  Fragments of bows have also been found in Germany dating between 20,000 – 7,500 years ago. By 633 AD, the Welsh were the first in the British Isles to be using longbows and by 1055 their bowmen successfully repelled attacks by Ralph, Earl of Hereford. 

The English appear to have taken archery and the training of archers far more seriously than other countries. At the Battle of Crécy in 1346, English longbowmen defeated a force of 6000 Genoese crossbowmen and a large number of French men–at–arms and nobles. In the same year, the use of long-bows was crucial in the defeat of an invasion by the Scots under King David Bruce.  Ten years later at the Battle of Poitiers, English longbowmen defeated a much larger French army which could no longer field great numbers of crossbowmen.

The demand for yew wood to make bows was such that not only did we deplete our own stock but the trade to England depleted stocks over huge areas of Europe.  The first documented import of bow-staves to this country was in 1294.  By 1350, there was a serious shortage and Henry IV ordered his royal bowyer to enter private lands to cut yew and other woods. In 1470, when compulsory archery practice was renewed, practice bows were allowed to be made of hazel, ash and laburnum.

Supplies of yew were still insufficient so in 1472, by the Statute of Westminster, every ship coming to England had to bring four bow-staves for every tun of cargo. Richard III increased this to ten bow-staves per tun. This stimulated a vast network of extraction and supply which formed part of the royal monopolies in southern Germany and Austria.

The last battle on English soil in which the longbow played an important part as the principal weapon was at Flodden in 1513.  However, the last recorded use of bows in an English battle may have been a skirmish at Bridgnorth in 1642 during the Civil War

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