What was so special about the Longbow? by Sarah Woodbury

Posted by on Mar 7, 2016 in Featured Book, Historical Research, Historical Tidbits, Medieval Great Britain | 2 comments

Masters-of-Time185x280My new book, Masters of Time, the tenth book in the After Cilmeri series, opens with an attempted murder using a Welsh longbow. What’s significant about this use is that it occurred in France, where bows had given way to crossbow—a far easier weapon to use for someone who didn’t have the long training Welshmen put into learning the bow.

The Welsh became so very good at the bow that the use of Welsh bowmen is one of the reasons King Henry won the battle of Agincourt. It is also one reason that the Welsh were able to hold off the Norman conquest of Wales for two hundred years before finally falling in 1282—after which King Edward immediately conscripted thousands of Welsh bowmen into his army that he took into Scotland and started requiring Englishmen to learn the longbow.

Bows and arrows have been around since Paleolithic times, with evidence of them as early as 8000-9000 BC in Germany.   http://www.newarchaeology.com/articles/history_bow_and_arrows.php

Kennewick man, the controversial skeleton found in the banks of the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington dates to roughly 7500 BC. A CT scan revealed a stone, projectile point embedded in his hip.

Oetzi the Iceman was found with a quiver of arrows with flint heads and an unfinished yew longbow–taller than he was–in his pack.  He dates to 3300 BC.

A find in Norway revealed 4500 year old bows and arrows that are very similar in form and function to those found in the Yukon dating to the same time period.

The confirmed first use of the longbow was in 633 AD, in a battle between the Welsh, led by Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd, against the Northumbrians.  http://www.themiddleages.net/longbow.html

The shot killed Ofrid (or Osric?), son of Edwin of Northumbria, who just happened to be Cadwallon’s foster-uncle.  Cadwallon had allied himself with Penda of Mercia in an attempt to drive the Northumbrians from Gwynedd, after Edwin had defeated his father and taken over the country.  Cadwallon was successful.   http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/bios/cadwagd.html

Saxons, as a rule, were not archers.  It is another five centuries before there is any recorded use of a longbow in England.  The men of Wales used longbows against the Normans, from the moment they arrived to conquer England and Wales, up through the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd.  One of the greatest victories for Llywelyn was in 1257 before the Battle of Cymerau where the Normans lost 3000 men (http://www.sarahwoodbury.com/cymerau/).  At Llandeilo Fawr, they cowered for two days under a hail of arrows from the Welsh.

Starting in 1252 in England, the longbow was finally accepted as a formal military weapon.  “In 1252 the Assize of Arms required that all landowning yeomen with an annual income between 40 to a 100 shillings were to be armed and trained with a longbow (war bow) and the more wealthy yeomen were also required to possess a sword, buckler, dagger and to be trained in their use.”   http://robinhode.webs.com/yeomen.htm

“C.1280: Longbow adopted by Edward I during the Welsh campaigns after seeing how effectively the Welsh used the bow.

1331-1333: Longbow used by Edward III during the Scottish Campaign.

1337-1453b: The hundred years war with France: During this time, the English and Welsh longbowmen were the most prominent part of the English army, sometimes outnumbering the Men-at-Arms by as much as 10:1. The average was a ratio of about 3:1.”   http://www.archers.org/default.asp?section=History&page=longbow

What is it about the longbow that is both effective and also prevented its earlier adaptation?  This has to do with 1)  it’s size, and 2) the length of time required to learn its use.

The standard yew longbow was over 6 feet long (6 ft. 6 inches), with a yard-long arrow.  They are powerful weapons that require enormous strength to draw.   In general, the draw weight is 120-150 pounds, with a range between 200 and 300 yards.  “In battle, longbow formations fired 10-12 volleys per minute. Each archer was provided 60-72 arrows. A force of 4,000 longbowmen could loose 240,000 arrows within the space of five minutes.”   http://www.militaryhistory.teamultimedia.com/History%20of%20Weapons/Welsh%20and%20English%20Longbow.html

Thus, in order to master its use, a man must practice.   A lot.  Once King Edward of England realized the longbow’s full potential, he adopted it from the Welsh, such that “To ensure a steady stream of bowmen for his army, Edward I banned all sports except archery on Sundays. Shooting ranges were set up on or near church property so parishioners would follow worship services with archery practice.”


Masters of Time, the tenth book in a series where the Welsh do not lose to the English in 1282, was released 16 February 2016.

Sarah Woodbury, March 7, 2016


  1. Thanks for that historical summary. One quibble: the projectile point in Kennewick Man was probably not from an arrow. More likely it was from a spear or atlatl. Many people confuse projectile points with arrowheads, which are always much smaller. I was not aware of neolithic bows and arrows found in the Yukon. My understanding is that the bow and arrow was not used in the Americas until some time after 600 AD, about the time the first Vikings showed up.

  2. Longbow practice on Sundays after mass and no other sports allowed — that is interesting. Thank you for sharing this.