Archers and Archery

English and Welsh bowmen (and King Henry V) at Agincourt / lookand

English and Welsh bowmen (and King Henry V) at Agincourt / lookand

An archer was a soldier, usually professional, armed with a bow and a quiver full of arrows. It would be difficult to estimate how long this lethal weapon has been in use, but woodcuts exist of Scythian archers employed by the Romans. The bow was not long, because the Scythians fought on horseback, but the arrow seems to have been at least two and a half feet long from goosefeather guide to the iron arrowhead.

Both Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander used archers as a form of artillery in warfare, but it was in the Middle Ages, especially in England, that the archer became the most effective form of soldier, able to decimate cavalry. The French cavalry, knights well versed in fighting, mounted on huge horses and encased in armour, were destroyed by English and Welsh archers used by Edward III, the Black Prince, and later Henry V, at the battles of Crecy,  Poitiers and Agincourt.

The arrow was the great leveller. You might be a baron owning a couple of castles, but the arrow shot by a peasant could pass through the armour and your body and come out the other side leaving you mortally wounded.

In Europe clever mechanics invented the crossbow, which was a machine version of the bow and arrow, but it was a cumbersome weapon, though equally deadly. It is interesting to note that the crossbow was actually declared illegal and unemployable by the Lateran Council of 1139. The Councillors declared it too accurate and too deadly, as if all weapons designed for war were not intended to be both deadly and accurate. The same foolishness occurred in the early part of the 20th century, when the British Bren gun (.303) was declared illegal by the Hague Convention – for the same reasons. This extraordinary automatic light machine gun was slow in action, and only held 28 rounds in the curved magazine, but it was superbly accurate, capable in the right hands of placing six shots within the same hole (in a canvas target) at six hundred yards. This is the best grouping ever achieved by any firearm ever. The Lateran Council by the way decided to make an exception: if the crossbow were used against infidels, it was legal!

In the reign of Edward I (‘Hammer of the Scots’) the bow and arrow was recognized as the supreme weapon of war. The bow was made of maple, yew or oak wood, and was nearly two metres long (over six feet). Considerable strength was needed to draw the bow string. The firing of arrows of arrows was accurate at ranges of up to 350 yards(approx. 320 metres) which gave a crowd of archers protected by stakes an advantage over all troops and cavalry. Edward used this firepower to deadly effect.

By the reign of Henry VIII archery was a national sport in England, and practicing it was obligatory in every village green. Queen Elizabeth I’s tutor Ascham wrote a learnéd treatise on archery called Toxophilus (1545).

But then gunpowder and musketry took over, and the musketeer naturally superseded the archer: Science and development.  In the 19thcentury wars of the newly independent North Americans against the Native American, or ‘Red Indian’ as he used to be known before political correctitude became commonplace, the mounted Indian brave with a bow and arrow proved how devastating an expert archer could be, even against men armed with rifles. Particularly expert and wholly deadly were the Arapaho, Sioux and Cheyenne, who were trained to kill a soldier with an arrow fired from the back of a galloping horse, with the rider/archer gripping the pony’s flanks between his knees.

Particularly good examples of this lethal art can be found in the film Dances with Wolves, with distinction in the scenes of the buffalo hunt.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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