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Crecy - Longbow vs. Crossbow

Brian Wolfe

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Often when I start to write what is supposed to be a serious article and I get into the research I find that suddenly I start to doubt my original viewpoint. 

I was researching into the Battle of Crecy, 26 August 1346 with the intention of writing a piece on the event when I found a good deal of contradictory opinions and sketchy so-called facts.  It is not my intention to hammer on and on about these opinions but as an example I found one source as stating the number of Genoese Crossbowmen mercenaries being at 5,000 and another at 15,000.  I can over look a few hundred or even a couple of thousand but not a difference that equals three times greater or lesser.  Interestingly enough King Edward III set sail from Portsmouth with a fleet of 750 ships and 15,000 men on 11July 1346. Perhaps this is where the confusion came from in one of my sources.  Another source doubts the capability of the city of Genoa to be able to provide even 5, 000 mercenaries, though we’ll accept that number for now. As you can see right away I started to doubt my sources.

 

My viewpoint has always been that the British longbow was far superior to the crossbow of the same era, as in the case of this battle in 1346.  Spoiler alert!  I still hold to my original hypothesis that the longbow was superior but not as it was based on the information I have always held as accurate. 

 

A quick overview of the Battle of Crecy as it pertains to the difference in bows is as follows.  The British had the longbow the French the crossbow; to be more accurate the Genoese mercenaries had the crossbow in the employment of the French.  The English held the high ground, a classic tactical move, on a south slopping hillside at Crecy-en-Ponthieu.  This put the French mounted knights at a disadvantage from the start.  Out flanking the English was impossible for the French as the English left flank was anchored at  Wadicourt and the right flank protected by Crecy and the Maye River just beyond the city.  In essence this constricted the French into what could be termed a confined killing zone. Since the English had arrived well before the French they were well rested and fed, in contrast to the French who were weary from the long march and had not had time to take sustenance. King Philip VI of France was advised to encamp for the night so the troops could be fed and well rested prior to the battle.  Unfortunately for the French, King Philip listened to his to his senior nobles and elected to fight on that very day.

 

Around 16:00 hrs (4:00 PM for you non-military/police types) a heavy rain started.  The British took their bow strings off their bows and stored them under their waterproof hats.  The Genoese could not remove their bowstrings as this required special tools to install and remove the strings.  The wet crossbow strings, which could not have been removed or even adjusted to” take up the slack”, greatly reduced the range of the crossbow while the dry longbow strings, once the British bows were re-equipped maintained their range. As the Genoese advanced the setting sun shone directly in their eyes blinding them. At the same time the British arrows started to rain down on them well before they could reach the range to use their crossbows.  The Genoese commander ordered a tactical withdrawal (another and more honorable term for retreat) which enraged the French knights, which was comprised of their nobility.  History states that the French mounted knights slaughtered the 5,000 (or was it 15,000) Genoese crossbowmen for showing cowardice in the face of the enemy.  As we have all probably read the French knights then fell before the British arrows throwing the French battle strategy into complete disarray and defeat.  This defeat sapped the fighting strength of the French to such a degree that defence of Calais at a later date was impossible, allowing the British to control that area for several hundred years afterward.

 

My issue was with the long held theory that the Genoese crossbowmen could not remove their bow strings in the rain and therefore the range was lessened.  It seems to me that professional mercenary crossbowmen, if the bow string could not be removed, would have planned for such an event, based on their past experiences and training.  Crossbowmen had large shields, called pavises, where they could take shelter from enemy arrows while reloading.  So why not use these to cover the crossbows while the weather was wet?  There are two stories to this question (stories are not necessarily facts).  One story was that while on route to Crecy in the August heat the crossbows plus the heavy shields were too much to carry so they discarded them.  This seems unlikely for two reasons; first you would not discard your pavis in the face of an enemy who could launch almost twice as many arrows as you.  Second the crossbowmen did not carry their own pavises as they had pages, or squires, to do so.  Another theory was that the pavises were on the baggage trains and they simply had not arrived in time for the battle.  The battle did not actually need to start that day but at the insistence of the French nobles it did and the crossbowmen were pressed unto the attack, therefore this might lend credence to the theory that the pavises were indeed absent.  Had the pavises arrived in time would this had made a great difference in the outcome of the battle?  I tend to doubt that it would.  The French were too confined and with the greater range of the longbow and the higher number of shots per minute the Genoese would have suffered greatly.  The impatience of the mounted armoured knights would undoubtedly lead them to attempt an attack which would have been through the front line (the Genoese).  One of the facts of using mercenaries is that you don’t need to pay a dead mercenary and often they would take causalities from “friendly fire” in order to thin their ranks once the battle had turned in the favour of their employer.  The distain for mercenaries by the nobility and the need to reduce the number of survivors needing to be paid may have meant that charging through their ranks was a positive move on several levels.  If we can accept this scenario then the outcome of the battle would have been much the same.

 

It is my opinion that the English were simply superior archers with a far longer ranging bow, the long bow.  The arrows being much longer and with more weight tipped with a four sided tip called a bodkin tip had greater kinetic energy at impact.  This not only brought down the Genoese but the flower of the French mounted knights. There has been doubt that a longbow arrow could penetrate plate armour; perhaps this is true as it is supported by contemporary observation.  However, the armor on a horse is relatively light and certainly not even close to full covering.  Bring down a knight’s horse and you have finished off the man.  I say this as a man in a couple of hundred pounds of steel armour hitting the ground at speed (full charge) would cause multiple debilitating and mortal internal injuries.   Add to this a 2,000 pound horse and its armour rolling over him and you have what could best be described as “puree of knight in a can”.

 

I am suggesting that the wet bow strings and perhaps even the missing pavises (if that is even true) combined with the French knights slaughtering the Genoese as cowards as they were retreating is something that was made up by the Genoese survivors themselves.  A mercenary is only as good as the last victory in which he was engaged.  To admit that the enemy (English in this case) were simply using superior bows and were the better archers would not bode well for potential future employment.  To tell the tale that they were exhausted prior to the battle and upon moving back out of range of the English archers, as a tactical move to regroup, then be cut down by the French (a betrayal) would be acceptable to potential employers who may not be friendly toward the French.  Add to this possibility that the French used the Genoese as a reason for their defeat. Always be quick to take credit for your victories and be quicker to deflect blame in the case defeat. It would be folly to suggest the reason for English victory was due only to their superior bowmen as there were other factors such as the tactically wise choice of terrain by the English and King Philip’s decision to give in to his nobles poor advice. This, of course, is pure speculation on my part.

 

So how can I sit here in the Home Office and make such profound statements?  On what am I basing my opinions and assumptions?  Well, I’m glad you asked.  Almost two years ago this question, in my mind, of wet bow strings drove me to produce two exact as possible copies of a crossbow based on the weapons of the 1300s.  Research alone took almost a year then testing both bows over the course of several months, when time allowed, saw two years pass by.  I built the two crossbows, one for me and one for my friend Brian, in order to see if they would perform in the same manner in the hands of two people who never fired a crossbow before.  The cost of these two bows, considering some parts were made by professional armourers, was just under $1,000.00 Canadian.  I’ll take you through some of the processes of making the bows and the materials used as well as our findings in the next blog.

 

Please stay tuned for a little applied archeology and discussion as to what we discovered.

 

Regards

Brian

 

 

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11 Comments


A great read as usual Brian. 

I was always under the impression that the crossbows of the time had a range of about 80 yards. At Crecy, when the Genoese mercs approached to about 100 yards they made their stand. The English longbow is said to have had a range of up to 300 yards (although having been to a few re-enactments in the West Country showing arrow storms I'd doubt it) it is likely that the Genoese were in killing range of the English war bows.

Edward III had seen/heard about the English Knight's failed excesses against the Scots at Stirling and Bannockburn and built upon his Granddad's battleline strategies when the longbow was developing. A shield wall of men at arms behind a herce (line of dug in pikes) intersperced with archers. Sometimes with wings slating towards the enemy allowing arrows from 3 sides. They had also learned from the Scots and had dug pot holes and trenches to break the horses legs.

I've read that 150,000 arrows were fired in 30 volleys at Crecy. At around 6 shots per minute that would give an arrowstorm of about 5 minutes duration. With bodkins the heavier 3 foot arrow fired from a 6 foot war bow could easily pass through chain mail and the lighter cheaper wrought iron armour. (As demonstrated by the French adopting shields and looking away at Potiers later on.) The unruly French nobles (excessive as were the English Knights) pressed forward against the Genoese and fell with them as the horses and thinner armour on arms and legs were penetrated. 5 minutes of dying in the shade!

The French lost a couple of thousand while the English lost only a couple of hundred.

I also thought that Mercs were pretty well treated during those, and later times. It was difficult to raise the money for a home grown army given the rules at that time. Relatively small armies (in comparison to the later WWs) would scrap in a field and the peasants would work for a new ruler. Didn't really change their way of life. Mercenaries could be raised already trained and already equipped with arms and armour. Albeit the mercs would remain loyal to their Captain rather than who was paying him. And which Captain would go work for someone who was known for killing off the mercenaries - ok maybe the one who wanted a bigger share of the money. But what mercenary would go work for that Captain.

I'm looking forward to the results of the two Brian's (or is that Brians') shooting trials.

Nice one

Steve 

Edited by Spasm

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Hi Steve

Thanks for your additional information. I will now have to take a bit from my next blog as you have already covered some of the information. A bit shorter blog next time is welcomed. Mercenaries were welcome before and after a battle but like the military of old of little use to the winners. Often they were more problems than they we were useful. Actually Edward III failed to pay back loans to finance the war to three Florintene banks causing them to declare bankruptcy. This allowed the bank of the Medici to rise. Makes one wonder if a King would not pay his bills would he be as honest in paying other bebts? It is a thought.

Regards

Brian

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Didn't mean to steal any of your thunder Brian.

I expect that facing down an unruly mob of mercenaries who may be facing you on the battlefield at a later date was a lot easier than some banker who was threatening bankruptcy, pffft. 

Having a think about those arrow storms, I wonder how many times a charging Knight would've been hit before he made the fighting line? Figures do vary wildly but losses were pretty bad, even with armour. Probably most were done in by the men at arms but it must've been pretty bad with some 8 thousand arrows streaking downwards with another wave already in the air.

Assuming the battlelines were roughly 100 yards apart, similar to those battles fought 500 years later in the peninsular and the US civil wars. No armour there though, maybe the long bow would've been more effective than those flintlocks.   

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Steal my thunder?  Not at all, please do.  When I started my blog section I was intending it to be a base to build on by the membership.  When I am not being a knob and actually posting something serious I really want input, new ideas and ways of looking at things.  It's probably a selfish thing in a manner as I want to learn as much from others, perhaps more, than educate. 

Regarding arrow storms I would think it would be even more terrifying than being fired apon today as you can see "them" coming.  Of course never having been a target of either arrows or under machine gun fire I am just speculating.

Thanks for adding to the blog and please feel free to keep doing so.

Regards

Brian

 

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So, to add some more input and because you re-ignited my interest as to just why Crecy was such a one sided affair:

Originally my thoughts were on the longbow, or rather the warbow, being a superior weapon than the crossbow. Easy, I figured, I'll go find out that the crossbow didn't fire as far. Surprisingly this doesn't seem to be the case with the heavier crossbows used at the time. Although I'm hoping that your experiences and tests will fuel that thought.

So, roughly 6,000 Genoese crossbows against 7,000 English warbows. With a few French tagging along (about 30,000) and some English dismounted men at arms (about 6,000). But still a complete destruction of Phillip's army with about 12,000 killed. Figures do vary enormously depending on the source.

I agree with your thoughts on both the French and the Genoese blaming each other rather than being truthful and admitting they were simply mashed by the English.

The Genoese also blamed the first use of cannon on the battlefield. (Probably not the very first time they were ever used but maybe the first time they had seen Knights knocked off of their horses by them).

I suppose the clues are there that, in fact, the French were soundly beaten by better tactics and a battle plan well tried and tested against the Scots. The line holding firm with massed arrow storms from English warbows.

Edward himself used Genoese mercenaries with crossbows to subdue the Welsh some time before this trip into France. He saw the Gwent longbows in action against his mounted Knights. The greater speed of firing (particularly against the heavier crossbow) and the heavy draw weight that could be handled by an experienced archer.

The mounted Knight changed to fighting on foot alongside the archer during the battles against the Scots. Falkirk and Berwick were won by prepared arrow storms.

The crossing of the Somme two days before the battle at Crecy was achieved against well prepared Genoese crossbowmen alongside French Knights. The English lost about 250 against a force of 3,500 who were so confident they waded into the river against the English. Impatient Knights again.

So, my thinking is that the impatience of the mounted knights controlled, heavily armoured men at arms in the centre with large angled wings of archers well trained and accurate with heavy warbows with the use of the lay of the land basically out thought, and out fought, the Scots and the French. The French being further hampered by unruly Nobles and Knights insisting that their numbers would crush the English and wading straight in when advised to wait until the following day.

Now all I want to hear is that the effective range of a crossbow is less than that of a warbow. It seems that the 170 odd longbows brought up on the Mary Rose had pulling lengths for a 30 inch arrow and a pull of between 100 and 180 pounds. Most of us couldn't even think about a full pull on one of these bows. It seems that although claims of a range of up to 400 yards the first volleys were let loose at around 250 - 300 yards. 

 

   

  

  

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Hi Steve,

Thank you once again for the additional information on the battle and history.  I didn't really want to spend a lot of time on the material you have added, even though I had intended to do so, in the next installment.  So, again thank you, you've saved me a lot of time and now I can spend my efforts on my findings.  Considering the short draw of a crossbow neither Brian nor I had a lot of faith in the two bows I had constructed.  Brian held his opinions until after I admitted my own doubts, however, I found it good to realize I was not alone in those misgivings.  Not to give a lot away (i.e. spoiler alert) we were both quite surprised, specially in our first vollies which were far too high to hit the target.  The surprise came when we needed to retrieve the bolts (arrrows) and couldn't find them at all, initially.  After some frustration we moved our search farther back and eventually located the spent bolts, also called quarrels.  After this we moved the target farther away. :lol:

Naturally my crossbows are not as good as the originals especially when considering their range  However considering Brian and I have both hunted with standard bows  which were rated at 80 and 100 pound draws I consider our findings as a fair representation.  Honestly I'd say our findings are as good as many of the experiments found on so-called History and Discovery Channels. 

Please feel free to add as much as you please to this blog.  Who knows we may have the beginnings of a book here.  :cheers:

Regards

Brian

 

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One thing that I'm pretty sure about is that the bodkin (arrow tip) wasn't capable of piercing the quality armour and undergarments of the time. Maybe the lower quality armour to a certain degree. I've watched a heavy warbow smash it's arrow on armour at no farther than 20 yards without anything more than a scratch on the breastplate. I've seen armour made by modern blacksmiths that you'd have a problem getting a knife between the plates. The armoured gauntlets are just a work of art.

I suppose it's therefore difficult to understand why the armoured men at arms and knights didn't just wade through the arrowstorms and cut the archers down. I really can't imagine what it would be like below a storm of arrows but given that the French changed their tactics back to shield walls and looking away from a volley it must have had a terrible effect on the advancing line.

Lightly armoured crossbowmen, men at arms and horses were driven back by high trajectory and aimed level volleys. The heavily armoured were forced to march uphill over the dead and dying, horses stumbled into pot holes and trenches and then facing a hedge of wooden steaks, long pole arms and fresh armoured men just baying to get at you. It must have been terrible. Given that the French charged at the English about 15 times and fought from around 4pm until midnight, they were very worthy to bear arms for Phillip.

I'm looking forward to seeing how your experiments went with those very nice looking crossbows.

 

 

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Hi Steve

You make some very good points.  The French did indeed change their tactics concerning mounted knights wearing heavy armour to what we would see as cavalry in modern thinking.  At the battle of Crecy I have read that King Philip had mounted infantry but decided to use them as ground troops.  Why didn't the armoured knights just wade through the arrow storm is another good point. One suggestion (from past thinking) was that the heavy amour would not allow fluid movement and rendered the knight to moving like a slow robot.  This is simply not true as tests with full armour has shown that getting up after a fall such as tripping or side-stepping an opponet is quite possible.  I would think that it was a matter of vision.  Vision through the visor slot was quite obstructed.  I have had the opportunity to wear a reproduction helment and it is like wearing a box over your head with only a very narrow slot to look through.  Any larger slot would allow arrows to pass through.  Taking the helmet off to allow clear vision would allow the head to be unprotected with an easy target for the longbow or even a crossbow at distances where the knight's weapons would still not be able to be put to use.  As you have pointed out the attacking forces needed to cross over a field strewn with dead and dying soldiers and horses.  The point you make about the French soldiers being very worthy to bear arms for Philip could not be more accurate.  Overall I don't think either side saw much cowardness in either their own troops or those of the enemy.

Regards

Brian

 

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I thought I would add photos of the bolts (arrows) I made for the crossbow trials now.  There is a photo of an original from Prauge of around the same time period as the Battle of Crecy as an example for compairson with the ones I made.  Mine are shorter and a little lighter but since I was not trying to use them to test penetration I was staisfied that they would do the job.  The fletching (arrow feathers) of the original, now mostly lost, were made of thin wood.  I could have copied this as well but it seemed to me a lot of bother when plastic sheet would do just as well.  The originals were set on a partial spiral to give the bolt a spin and therefore more accuracy.  Mine are straight.  The ends of the bolts, I have read, were prone to damage when fired due to the action of the string.  I have never seen such damage but to avoid the possibility I used a small strip of plastic glued to the end where the string would contact the bolt.  Note that the original bolt was shaped to fit into the arrow slot of the crossbow.  I copied this to a point but again exact copies were not necessary. 

In total I made two dozen bolts of the same weight and proportion so that Brian and I would not have to do as much walking to and from the target.   I also experimented with much lighter bolts and some with a third feather on the top.  These were much more accurate than the copies of the original and a lot of fun to play with.  I think there were two or three that we either didn't loose or destroy.  If I can locate the one I have around here I'll post it later.  I will be taking a trip to the local armourer/blacksmith to have some experimental tools made for the shop, and possibly to market, soon and intend to have him make a reproduction bodkin tip as in the photo.  I will then make a reproduction of the bolt I have in the collection to display with my crossbow, but that is a story for later.

Regards

Brian

 

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It might be interesting to add a couple of photos of a chain mail hood or "coif" I have here in the Home Office.  Where it came from and how I got it I have no memory of but it's here.  It is a modern reproduction but gives some idea of the construction, which in this case is quite nice.  As noted in earlier posts either by Steve or me, the bodkin arrow point was designed to penetrate chain mail.

Again, my sincere thanks to you, Steve, for your assistance in making this an interesting blog.

Regards

Brian

 

 

 

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