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The longbows of Agincourt

In this blog post, Thom Richardson, our curator Emeritus, writes about the iconic longbows of the Battle of Agincourt.

The accounts of the Privy Wardrobe, the fourteenth century organisation which ran the armoury at the Tower of London and the earliest ancestor of the present-day Royal Armouries, give incredible detail about the manufacture, storage and issue of armour and weapons, especially longbows and arrows, throughout the first half of the Hundred Years War. Unfortunately the records run out after 1410, so the details about what went over to Harfleur with Henry V for the Agincourt campaign don’t survive. But we have a pretty good idea of all the processes from what went on before.

Standard issue weapons

On the whole, each archer in an English army during the 15th century was issued with a bow, between two and five bowstrings and two sheaves of arrows for each campaign.  Each sheaf contained twenty-four arrows tied up with hemp cord, which archers reused to tie the arrows around their waists for battle.

man in costume carrying arrow bag full of arrows

An example of an ‘arrow bag’ as used at the battle in 1415.

Ordinary arrows were of poplar, fletched with goose feathers and fitted with a single type of low-barbed head. The best bows were painted and supplied with ash arrows with steel heads, fletched with peacock feathers.

Understanding the longbow

Though hardly any medieval longbows survive, we now have an amazing group of them from the Mary Rose, which have revolutionised our understanding of the weapon in the last twenty years. We now think they ranged in draw weight between 65–160 lb, with an average about 110 lb, double what we thought a generation ago.

Odd that this change in understanding should have taken so long, as we have had two of the Mary Rose bows, excavated from the bottom of the Solent by John Deane and William Edwards using their newly invented diving apparatus in 1840, on display at the Tower ever since.

Reconstructing the weapon

Anyway, the ‘new’ high-powered bows have been reconstructed, experimented with, and enabled the rediscovery of a medieval style of shooting ‘in the bow’ which had been lost through centuries of target archery with much lighter longbows. One of these experimental archaeologists, Mark Stretton, who is one of the best exponents of this rediscovered style of shooting, undertook a fascinating experiment with a bow, some arrows and a radio-controlled lawnmower, which showed that a skilled medieval archer could shoot just three aimed arrows into a charging French knight (or lawnmower).

Rethinking the longbow

While the bows have ‘become’ more powerful than we used to think, the ‘arrowstorm’ beloved of English archery enthusiasts has diminished. We used to talk about resupply of arrows as if it was a natural and simple process, but the Privy Wardrobe accounts show otherwise.

Each archer had two sheaves of arrows to last a campaign, and would probably go into battle with just one of them. So all the statistics of how many arrows an archer can shoot in a minute are very much put into perspective by realising that such an arrowstorm could last just three minutes, then the arrows were gone. Once we are aware of that, we can see it happening in the sources: at Poitiers in 1356 the English archers ran out, and tried to recover spent arrows. At Towton in 1461 the Lancastrian archers ran out of arrows, and suffered the indignity of having the Yorkists shoot their own arrows back at them. So the vision moves away from darkening the sky with arrows like the Persians’ at Thermopylae towards a smaller number of accurately aimed arrows shot from very powerful bows by highly skilled and practised professional archers.

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