You may have heard stories of how the English won the battle in Agincourt thanks to the English and Welsh archers using the dreaded longbow. The longbow is such a part of English identity that even Shakespeare wrote about it:
Fight, gentlemen of England! fight, bold yeomen!
Draw, archers, draw your arrows to the head!
Spur your proud horses hard, and ride in blood;
Amaze the welkin with your broken staves!
This is hardly surprising. For centuries, archery was a big thing in Britain. Villages used to hold regular, even weekly, contests. The humble darts, found in pubs all over the world, are said to be a remnant of that tradition.
You may also have heard how archers trained from toddlers. Indeed, one of the aphorisms concerning archery is that, to make a good archer, you have to start with his grandparents.
But was it really all that effective? This is a surprisingly hotly debated issue today. Some argue that Agincourt was largely won thanks to the heavy rains that negated the cavalry’s advantage, as the deep mud hindered its movements. They point out that the French won the 100-year war, after all.
Others describe the longbow as a game-changer – a claim shared, of course with the crossbow.
The devastating effect of missile weapons and the wounds they could inflict is reflected by early weapon bans. In April 1139, the Second Lateran Council, under Pope Innocent II, banned the use of archery against Christians:
Artem autem illam mortiferam et Deo odibilem ballistoriorum et sagittariorum, adversus christianos et catholicos de cetero sub anathemate prohibemus.
Translation: We prohibit under anathema that murderous art of crossbowmen and archers, which is hated by God, to be employed against Christians and Catholics from now on.
Introduction of the Longbow
The Longbow made its battlefield debut in the little-known Battle of Crug Mawr, also known as the Battle of Cardigan. The year was 1136 when the fierce Welsh tribes annihilated the Normans; the people who had just steamrolled the mighty Anglo-Saxons, one of the great warlike cultures of their time.
But first, a bit of history.
Land of the Dragon
The Welsh had been ruthlessly defending their hills and valleys from invaders for thousands of years. The Anglo-Saxons had battled them to a stalemate. The Norse and Vikings had repeatedly tried to establish settlements in the land of the Dragon. But the Welsh tribes were masters of their terrain and inherently warlike.
Then, a group of hardcore Norman Lords, with the permission of the King, invaded Wales. At first, they were successful. These Lords established estates and built castles along the border with England, becoming known as the Marcher Lords. After a few years, they became rich, built loads of castles, and founded powerful towns like Pembroke.
This process was slow, for the small Welsh kingdoms routinely fought back. While the Normans enjoyed a comfortable numerical advantage, the weaker Welsh tribes used effective ambushes and were supplied by the strong unconquered Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd in the mountains of the north.
Then in 1135, King Henry I of England died while campaigning in Normandy. He left his daughter Matilda as heir, sending shockwaves through the ranks of the Marcher lords, who quickly pivoted towards England instigating a succession crisis. Large numbers of soldiers were pulled from their tentative Norman holdings in Wales and marched to England with their lords to make sure no silly woman would be Queen.
Empress Matilda, Lady of England, went on to wage war against her usurpers for the next decade. Eventually, her son and his line would rule England for generations, forming the powerful Angevin Empire.
While the Marcher Lords were off usurping Matilda’s throne, a Welsh army attacked and wiped out a Norman force at the battle of Llwchwr, killing 500 Norman soldiers. This encouraged the two great Kings of Wales, one in the south and the other in the north, both imaginatively named Gruffyd and Gruffyd, to gather their formidable retinues. Thus began a fierce fight back.
The Normans had lost their numerical advantage and their holdings were isolated. The Welsh kept wiping out entire Norman forces leaving no survivors. This caused panic amongst the Marcher Lords, resulting in the powerful Lord De Clare rushing back to his holdings that were being overrun.
When Lord Richard De Clare tried to cross Welsh lands, his force was ambushed in the steep hills and completely annihilated. Shockingly, this once-mighty lord and all of his heavily armored Norman soldiers were killed to a man.
Battle of Crug Mawr (Cardigan)
With Lord Richard De Clare dead, Owain Gwynedd, son of the King of Gwynedd, then marched into the Norman-controlled lands near Cardigan with an army of 6,000 soldiers drawn from the professional retinues of the two largest Welsh Kingdoms.
Robert Fitz Martin, commander of the Normans, had gathered a much larger Norman army, upwards of 8,000 strong, formed of Flemish infantry, local levies, and a substantial force of elite Norman heavy cavalry.
The large Norman army formed up on the side of an odd-shaped hill just outside of Cardigan, taking up a strong defensive position with 3 deep ranks: the Flemish infantry at the front, the levies in the middle, and the renowned Norman cavalry drawn up behind and on the flanks of the hill.
The sight of that much larger force of Normans, their flags billowing in the wind, with front ranks packed with well-armored heavy infantry and a large force of the dreaded Norman heavy cavalry, that dominated the battlefields of Europe, drawn up on the flanks, must have been terrifying.
Yet the Welsh army showed no fear, relentlessly moving forwards, towards the steep hill lined with Norman invaders. The Welsh Army, predominantly heavy infantry, formed up into a single dense line, with the small token force of Welsh Cavalry on the flanks. That Welsh army must have seemed desperate opposite the much larger Norman army, which held the high ground.
This was when the Welsh introduced a weapon to the battlefield, that would become legendary the world over, the weapon that would dominate the late medieval battlefields of Europe for the next four hundred years.
The Welsh army began to slowly advance. As it moved forwards, some 2,000 Welsh Longbowmen separated from the main battle line. Once they were within 200 meters of the enemy, these scruffy men who carried longbows as tall as a man, nocked heavy ash arrows, and unleashed an almighty volley into the front ranks of the Normans, who quickly began dropping in large numbers.
While the Welsh had used Longbows on a smaller scale in ambushes against the Normans, this was the first-ever large-scale use of longbows on a battlefield. The carnage inflicted as these large 140lb+ draw weight bows rained heavy arrows onto the unexpecting Normans was shocking.
The Normans often used archers and had been on the receiving end of volleys before, but never anything like the Longbows, which quickly decimated the front line of Flemish infantry. The Norman commander Robert must have been shaken by his sudden heavy losses because he ordered his elite Norman cavalry to prepare to charge down the hill.
These Norman horsemen were the most feared force in Europe. They quickly rounded the flanks and formed up at a trot. This fearsome cavalry force of almost two thousand heavily armored horsemen, began to close on the Welsh lines when suddenly the Longbowmen switched targets and began pouring volleys into the densely packed Norman cavalry, breaking all cohesion and killing many, who fell and became obstacles for the cavalry behind.
But the Norman cavalry wasn’t done yet. They roared a battle cry and began to charge at full speed down the slope towards the Welsh Longbowmen, who unleashed a finale volley before rapidly retreated between prepared gaps in the Welsh battleline. The gaps snapped shut and formed a shield wall that bristled with sharp steel-tipped spears and savage swords.
Throughout history, from the Battle of Crug Mawr to the Battle of Golden Spurs, a well-organized line of spears has proven their worth against cavalry charges. The might Norman cavalry crashed like a pitiful wave against a stout seawall, all power and momentum sapped by the withering longbow volleys and the spears awaiting them. Before long, the famed Norman cavalry became bogged down in a losing battle against some of the finest heavy infantry retinues left in Britain.
With losses rapidly mounting, Robert Fitz Martin ordered his cavalry to fall back. This resulted in a disorganized retreat, with the Welsh cavalry running down the fleeing infantry and the Longbows raining long-range volleys on the unarmored backs of those Normans capable of running for their lives.
The Normans lost upwards of 3,000 dead while the Welsh suffered negligible losses. Not only was this one of the largest battles ever fought in Wales, but it was also one of the most one-sided battles ever fought in history.
That battle on a hill near Cardigan, in west Wales, was one of the earliest examples of Longbowmen used tactically on a medieval battlefield. The result was nothing short of stunning and the English took note.
Within a few decades, the English had begun recruiting Welsh Longbowmen as mercenaries. By the reign of King Edward I, the Longbowmen had become the core weapon of the English army and would go on to fight in every late medieval battlefield of Europe. There, they often fought against other missile weapons like crossbows, javelins, and even slingers.
So, how did they fare against these?
Longbow vs. Crossbow vs. Javelin vs. Slingers
Here are the Longbow’s advantages:
- Archers are very fast, releasing volleys in seconds. They’re the machineguns of antiquity and the Middle Ages.
- Bows require relatively low maintenance and are fairly easy to replace or fix on the battlefield.
- The effectiveness is all dependent on the Archer, not the bow.
Three major drawbacks would be:
- Even though you can train an archer in 6-12 months, it takes years to become truly good with a bow.
- Any experienced archers killed is a big loss to your army.
- They are expensive to employ on the battlefield if they are mercenaries or paid for by the state.
- Like all missile weapons users, an archer is practically defenseless against an enemy at close range.
Ballistas – large versions of the crossbow – were invented by the Greeks around 400 BC and used extensively by the Romans. They developed into a smaller precision weapon, the scorpio, and the polybolos.
So, crossbows were already an old weapon when European knights first ran into them in the 900s. Ancient Europeans had used similar weapons, but crossbow-like designs had fallen out of favor in Europe by the year 500 A.D., and few Europeans would have recognized them before their resurgence in the late 900s and 1000s.
The French were the ones who brought the crossbow back into European warfare. The English had a huge advantage when it came to bowmen, especially longbowmen, and France and England fought often. Crossbows could slice right through the armor at greater range than even a longbow, and shooters could be trained in hours or days.
The three major advantages to a crossbow are:
- They’re stronger, being able to penetrate armor.
- They require almost no skill to use.
- Since they require minimum training, you can raise an army fast and cheaply.
Even so, the weapon did have disadvantages. Its three major drawbacks are:
- They take longer to reload. Crossbows fire only two rounds per minute while good archers with longbows could fire 10.
- You can’t do battlefield repairs. Crossbow units needed supporting staff and spare parts that weren’t necessary with traditional archers. They were also more susceptible to weather damage because it was harder to remove and replace their sensitive strings.
- Their effectiveness is based mostly on the crossbow in use, not how trained the unit is.
Still, the advantages outweighed the problems, and units across Europe adopted the new weapon. Mercenary units recruited and trained skilled crossbowmen and sold their services.
Western knights hated the crossbow. Their armor protected them from most weapons they would face with the exception of the longbow, a weapon that took years to learn and decades to master. For a few years, kings largely tried to follow the ban on using crossbows against Christian foes, and Pope Innocent II continued the ban in 1139 after ascending to the position of Pope.
However, by the early 1200s, they were once again common in European combat and crossbowmen played a crucial role for Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1238. In fact, just a year later, Pope Gregory IV used mounted crossbowmen against the Lombard League, an alliance of European kingdoms that were all Christian. Yeah, the allure of crossbow power was so strong that a Pope employed them against Christian forces.
How about the humble slingers? They have been used since antiquity as witnessed by the Biblical story of David vs. Goliath.
Slings are by far the best for ambushes, mass-scale battles, and in terrible weather:
- Slingers and their lead or stones are almost never affected by rain, wind, etc. Wind will throw lighter arrows or even heavy arrows off target. But rocks are so dense and often heavy enough to not feel this negative effect.
- Slingers are also capable of scaring units with whistling ammo.
- Slingers can dent metal armor, take chunks of wood out of shields, and cause horrific injuries as Goliath found out. Rock= pulverized bones.
- Their effective range is often 600ft or more.
- You don’t need specialized ammo: rocks and pebbles are pretty much everywhere.
- They can act anywhere. Hills, tree lines, behind hedges, or down below tall grass. This makes them perfect for ambushes when employed correctly.
- They are pretty fast: you can sling rocks in seconds with decent accuracy.
Despite their several advantages, slingers have one major disadvantage: it takes forever to master the sling or become good enough to touch 600ft and not risk causing friendly harm with accidents and misfires. This makes them costly to lose and pay for. To lose a thousand archers isn’t good but you can always retrain new ones in months. Losing a thousand slingers, however, is deadly to your campaign as they are almost impossible to replace. As a result, they are a scarce resource.
Lastly, javelins. Like slings, they are one of mankind’s earliest weapons and a particularly versatile weapon that is great for many things.
Javelin’s major advantages would be:
- You can use javelin-throwing soldiers to ambush your enemies as skirmishers or to flank them. Javelins can be thrown pretty much up to 120ft depending on the javelin used. Roman pila, for example, were amazing for this kind of thing and could be thrown far, accurately, and fast.
- Javelins are amazing for countering lightly armored units and cavalry. A thousand javelin men using heavy javelins against light cavalry of a thousand riders would likely result in a massacre for the cavalry.
- You can use them in multiple roles. For example, you can mount javelinmen on horseback for the added effect of agility, protection, and more to increase the number of javelins they carry. Numidian Javelinmen used light javelins, carrying about 15 of them along with a shield. 1,000 Numidians on horseback with 15 javelins means 15,000 javelins thrown at the enemy, which can cause plenty of harm, fear, and injuries.
The javelin’s three major drawbacks are:
- Knowing when to employ them: you don’t send javelinmen into the fray as infantry. You don’t send them up hills. You don’t send them into forests. And you definitely don’t send them against archers, slingers, or crossbows, all of whom have a far greater range. Yes, javelinmen can use shields with some armor. But it isn’t worth the price or your losses.
- Knowing how to employ them: namely, for ambushes. Always try to surprise the enemy from the high ground, within a dark forest, or in tall grass. Attack less mobile, heavier armored infantry, which slows them down whilst they can’t attack. If they send cavalry that is lightly armored, retreat into formation and form a wall of javelinmen throwing and stabbing.
- Knowing if you should deploy them: never, ever, send javelinmen against javelinmen. It isn’t pretty. It’s like cavalry vs cavalry, only without all the bumping against each other. It isn’t worth it. Send slingers to fight javelinmen. Send javelinmen to fight infantry until they have no javelins.
I hope the above has inspired you to spice your next battle scene with some nice (and historically accurate) surprises for your reader, deviating from the usual sword vs sword trope!
Photos by Pixabay and Shutterstock. I have We are the Mighty and Quora, especially Henrey Bradley, to thank for the information presented here. Visit the relevant posts for more information on the longbow and missile weapons!