The Medieval English Longbow: Characteristics and Origin

Date of Graduation

Spring 1976


Master of Arts in History



Committee Chair

Sarah Fraley


The Medieval English longbow was a superb weapon. Incredibly powerful, rapid, and deadly, it was a socially leveling force. With it the yeoman was superior to the knight, and the Kingdom of England was the master of Western Europe. Yet, important as it was, the longbow was an everyday object. Because it was so common, few longbows survive. When myth is separated from reality, and the few remaining artifacts are verified, what information is available paints a far different picture than the currently accepted image. The weapon was of Scandinavian, not Welsh origin. It was known to Pre-migration Celts; made of yew wood, not oak, hickory, or ash; approximately 6 feet long, shot a 27 to 30 inch arrow, and had an effective range of cerca 240 yards. One of the fascinating mysteries of the longbow is why it was abandoned. The replacement of the longbow by firearms in the late sixteenth century occurred at a time when the former was still the superior weapon. The question remains, why was the state of archery permitted to decline to such depths that it was abandoned. Hodgkin believes "laziness and the restless inventions of men's minds were the twin causes" of the decline of English archery. The decline of English archery began at the moment of its greatest fame. Proficiency with the longbow required a lifetime of constant practice. By the end of the sixteenth century, Smythe states that the longbows of his day were far inferior to the weapons of Edward III and Henry V. No other European Army took up the longbow. They realized that its downfall was the necessity of "constant practice to reach and maintain efficiency." The tactice and organization which used the longbow were now obsolete.

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© Robert E Kaiser