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It is just a fletch wound

Archer drawing a bow

Do you think you have what it takes to become an archer like Robin Hood?

For tens of thousands of years bows and arrows have been used not only as  weapons in battle, but also for hunting and sport.  In the traditional stories, although Robin Hood uses a sword and a quarterstaff (a big stick), it is the bow he is most famous for. On TV and in the movies, however, the ‘bad guys’ always use crossbows. So let us have a look at the longbow and the crossbow.

The longbow

Longbow without string, found on the Mary Rose wreckage.

Though it may not look like much, this longbow is almost 500 years old. It is one of many found on the shipwreck of the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545. There are no surviving English longbows older than this, but experts have been able to learn a great deal from these bows!

Effective range: 229 metres

Speed: 10-12 arrows per minute (depending on the archer)

A bow was fairly cheap to make, compared to a sword or a complex crossbow, so it was easy to mass produce them. If you had enough archers in your army, and they could shoot far and hard enough, it didn’t matter so much how accurate they were. It became such a popular weapon by the 1200s that armies across Europe, and especially in England, recruited thousands of archers.

The main job of an archer was to stop mounted knights. This can be done by shooting arrows into the slim gaps of plate armour and small holes of the mail armour to get to the squishy flesh underneath. They could also stop, or at least slow down, a knight by killing his horse. As armour improved over time, so did the longbow. The draw-weight (the force needed to pull the string of a bow back) increased. So, the power behind an arrow on release was stronger and it could punch through armour.

But there was one big drawback. It took years to become strong and skilled enough to draw a longbow. So in England laws had to be passed to keep everyone equipped and practising:

The crossbow

Effective range: 200 metres

Speed: 2 bolts per minute (depending on archer and loader)

Crossbows are ancient weapons which were used in China as early as the 7th century BC. They did not become common in Europe until the medieval period, at least 1000 years later… so a bit late to the party really. They shoot bolts, also called quarrels. And unlike longbows, crossbows require little strength or training to use. If you can pick it up and point it in the right direction, you can shoot it.

A crossbow made from wood, iron and cord from the 15th century

This crossbow is from 15th century Germany. It is much smaller in size compared to a long bow. It has an oval of iron at the front called a ‘stirrup’. You would put your foot through this bit and then use your hands to pull back the string of the bow into the trigger…what a lot of effort!

The crossbow could pierce through armour. This made it as powerful as a longbow. This was such a disturbing idea, that anyone at all could operate a weapon powerful enough to kill a knight, that in 1139 the Pope tried to ban the use of longbows and crossbows against Christian soldiers.

But there was one big drawback. They took a lot longer to load than a longbow, which put the archer in danger on the battlefield as it left them exposed. So, a type of free-standing shield called a ‘pavise’ was invented to shield the crossbowmen as they reloaded! Clever, right? But also heavy and awkward.

Rectangular shield decorated with image of St George and the Dragon

This pavise is from the 15th century. If you look very closely you can see that it is decorated with the image of St George stood on top of a dragon! Do you think this shield would be good protection while you reloaded your crossbow?

So why does Robin Hood have a bow?

In Robin’s day, if you were not a knight, you had and used a bow. Robin having a bow is typical for the time. It is his skill that is exceptional. And on TV and in the movies, maybe having the sheriff and his men use crossbows is a way of suggesting unlike Robin, they lack skill and strength? Almost like they have to cheat with an easier weapon to be as powerful as the ‘good guy’. What do you think?

Activity Pack

Download the Robin Hood Fun Activity Pack (pdf, 2MB) to dive even further in to the mayhem of Robin’s world. Watch the story telling of Robing Hood and the Hunter to hear how Robin and Little John came up against two of their most fearsome foes. Also read our article about the history of Robin Hood, where he came from and…was he even real?

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