King Henry Fifth's Conquest of France [Child 164] --- Part 02
DESCRIPTION: Continuation of the notes to "King Henry Fifth's Conquest of France" [Child 164]. Entry continues in "King Henry Fifth's Conquest of France [Child 164]" --- Part 03 (File Number C164B)
Last updated in version 4.2
NOTES: THE CAUSES OF THE WAR
The Hundred Years' War started with a dispute over land. Under Henry II (reigned 1154-1189), England had controlled most of western France: Henry had inherited Normandy from his great-grandfather William the Conqueror; Anjou, Maine, and Touraine from his father Geoffrey of Anjou; and had gained Acquitaine (Guyenne and other lands) by marrying its Duchess Eleanor. He would also manage to gain working control of Brittany by marrying one of his sons to the heiress. (For a map of all this, see e.g. Ashley-Kings, p. 519.)
Over the next century and a half, those possessions were nibbled away by the French government. A large part of the problem was that, while the English King was the Duke or Count of the French territories, he still owed homage to the King of France for them. Petty nobles were always appealing to the French government for redress, and the French king often seized the land as a result. The English were usually unable to reclaim the land.
Sometimes the French captured more than just a border strip. In 1204, they recaptured the whole Duchy of Normandy in one great campaign (Harvey, p. 82). It was King John who lost the Duchy, and people said it was because he was too involved with his young wife Isabella of Angouleme -- but the real problem was that John's older brother Richard had left England bankrupt with his crusades and his temper and his ransom after he had been captured by the Austrians.
John tends to get blamed for a lot of things, these days I think mostly because of his role in the Robin Hood legends, and there is no question that he was a very violent man. Most monarchs of the time were. Many historians still condemn him as a disaster. But it seems to me that the balance has shifted somewhat: He was no worse than other kings of the time, merely much more unlucky -- his brother had left him with a lot of enemies and a lot of problems, and no money to deal with them.
Still, John's reign left England so weak that the French actually invaded -- at the time John's son Henry III was crowned, there was "no organized government, no exchequer, no royal seal. London and half the shires were held by Louis of France and the baronial rebels" (Powicke, p. 1).
Amazingly, the death of John brought most of the barons (who the year before had forced the Magna Carta upon him) back to the side of the new king. A major victory for the English at Lincoln (Powicke, pp. 9-11) and a series of smaller engagements freed England of the French invaders.
But an England distracted by invasion could hardly counter-attack in France. The French had invaded England before completing the conquest of the English territory in Gascony, but even after they were driven out of Britain, they continued to nibble away at the English property in the south of France. This continued through the reign of John's son Henry III (reigned 1216-1272). Henry III in 1258 agreed to the Treaty of Paris, (negotiated, ironically, by his baronial opponents; Davis, pp. 200-201) in which he formally gave up his claim to Normandy, Anjou, and other northern territories, in return for being confirmed in Guyenne; he even picked up a few additional districts at the borders (Perroy, p. 61). The treaty, however, did not cause the French to stop nibbling.
The next king, the energetic Edward I (reigned 1272-1307) tried to turn things around. He stayed at peace with France for two decades (Wilkinson, p. 98), but French lawyers continued to press claims against the English domain (Wilkinson, p. 99). And, in 1294, the French king declared all English territory in France forfeit.
Edward was far the better soldier of the two monarchs; had he been fighting only the French, he might have been able to regain the territory directly (since it is believed the Gascons for the most part preferred English to French rule). But he was already fighting Wales, and the situation with Scotland was also heating up. He simply didn't have the resources to pull off all the things he was trying (Prestwich, p. 18, notes that he never found the money to complete Beaumaris Castle in Wales, and at one point apparently resorted to paying his masons with leather coin-shaped IOUs because he had not the ready coin to pay them). The three-way wars, and perhaps Edward's increasing age, seems to have left him far less able to deal with problems after about 1290 (Prestwich, pp. 26-27).
The English might have lost their foothold in France completely had not the French been badly beaten at Courtrai by the Flemings in 1302. This gave Edward the strength to negotiate things back to the situation as it had been before the confiscation (Wilkinson, pp. 101-102). Still, that left the English with only a rather precarious hold on their southern territory. (And would cause the future King Edward III to be "conditioned" to fighting with France over his holdings there; Ormrod, p. 17.)
And then came the disastrous Edward II. Most of us will know him for losing the Battle of Bannockburn, or for being deposed in 1327, but he also oversaw the loss of additional land in France. By the time his son Edward III took the throne, English possessions in France amounted to little more than a coastal strip from Bordeaux to Bayonne. (And even that had been confiscated again a few years before, and once again given back.) As Sedgwick notes on p. 23, this was only about an eighth of the original Angevin dominion. It's not really fair to blame Edward II for all the English problems -- Edward I's biggest single defect was his financial incompetence (Prestwich, p. 41), and he left the problem for Edward II to solve -- but he failed utterly to improve the situation, and he faced baronial revolts throughout his reign (Prestwich, pp. 83-85, etc.); these can only have weakened the crown.
THE REIGN OF EDWARD III
Edward III came to power in two uncomfortable stages. After the most recent French takeover of Guyenne, Edward II had sent his wife Isabel (called the "she wolf of France"on p. 17 of Sedgwick, though Shakespeare saved that name for Margaret of Anjou, who deserved it even more; cf. 3 Henry VI I.iv.111) and his son to try to negotiate with their cousin Philip. But by letting her take their son, Edward II had given Isabel the key player in the English political situation. She scorned her husband, and the fact that she had her son meant that could stay in France until Edward II was put aside -- or she could start her own conspiracy (Prestwich, p. 96). She chose the latter, strengthening her hand by marrying Edward to Philippa of Hainault; soldiers from the Low Countries enabled her to invade England.
In 1326, when Edward III was fourteen, his mother and her lover Roger Mortimer made their move (Prestwich, p. 97). Edward II failed to respond in any useful way, and was deposed in early 1327 (Prestwich, p. 98). He was killed later in the year (Perroy, pp. 58-59). Edward III was now theoretically king, but his mother and Mortimer ran things -- with great brutality, and without much success; their attempts to fight Scotland, e.g., resulted in an unfavorable treaty in 1328 (Ormrod, p. 14).
In 1330, Edward rebelled III against his own mother, killing Mortimer and taking power into his own hands. He found himself in a very interesting situation. For one thing, he could make a very strong case that he should be King of France. France had no real succession law at this time; Perroy, p. 71, notes that for more than three centuries, every King had had sons to succeed him, so none had been needed -- the crown just naturally passed to the King's son (who often was crowned before his father died).
But that suddenly changed. The old king Philip IV "the Fair" (i.e. "Handsome," not "Just" or "Unbiased"), who had died in 1314, had had three sons. Louis X had died in 1316. He left a posthumous son who died within days and an infant daughter Joan who was set aside (Perroy, p. 72, seems to think that Joan of Navarre would have had a better chance of succeeding had it not been for the brief life of John the Posthumous, since there would have been no chance for people to sit around waiting to decide what to expect). This established the precedent that a woman could not succeed to the throne, but it should be noted that it did not inherently mean that they could not transmit the crown; there was as yet no precedent that said that, since a woman could not take the throne, her son could not either (Neillands, p. 35). Louis's brother Philip V, who perhaps used the time between the old king's death and the baby's birth to improve his position, reigned 1316-1322. There had been some dissatisfaction when he succeeded (Perroy, p. 73), but when he died, leaving only daughters, the throne apparently went to his brother Charles without serious protest. Charles IV reigned 1322-1328 and left one daughter and a pregnant wife (Perroy, p. 74). The child was a daughter, and based on the recent precedents, was set aside.
In better times, the Pope might have intervened at this point. But the Papacy was under the French thumb. Philip the Fair had actually called a Pope to stand before a church council (Renouard, p. 13), and since 1305 the Popes had resided at Avignon, and were all French (Renouard, p. 15). Not all Avignon popes were entirely worthless, as is sometimes claimed; Urban V would eventually be sainted (Renouard, p. 55). But the French king definitely was in a position to pressure them (Dante, in fact, called the early popes of this period the French king's "whore"; Saunders, p. 35. Another wit of the time called Avignon a "bawdy house"; Sedgwick, p. 22. On pp. 123-124, Saunders notes an instance where Urban V was forced to deny Edward III's son Edmund a dispensation to marry a rather distant cousin because the French feared the match). It was not until 1365, when England and France were theoretically at peace, that the Pope decided to go back to Rome (Renouard, p. 58), and it didn't arrive until 1367, and even then, much of the administration was left in Avignon (Renouard, p. 60).
It is deeply ironic that this Papal ineffectiveness came about because the Pope elected in 1305, Clement V, was a Gascon who truly wanted peace between France and England; Renouard, p. 20. But Clement V -- who had helped arrange the marriage of Edward II to Isabella of France; Renouard, p. 21 -- died in 1314. And his successor, though he thought about returning to Rome, was comfortable in Avignon and feared the political situation in Italy (Renouard, pp. 27-28). (This was the political situation underlying Dante's Divine Comedy, which, if you study Dante, you will know was extremely unsettled).
The next Pope, Benedict XII, decided it was time to build a palace in Avignon (Renouard, p. 41), and the Pope after that, Clement VI, built an even fancier dwelling, and that was that. For much of the war, there simply was no impartial pope to mediate. Benedict XII was still Pope when the Hundred Years' War started, and though Renouard declares he had "fundamental good sense," few of the other authors I've read think much of him. And Innocent VI, who succeeded Clement VI in 1352, had so many burdens due to demands by the cardinals and the poverty caused by Clement VI's excesses that he could do nothing (Renouard, p. 49).
This was the situation when Charles IV died. With his daughter out of the running, there were three candidates left for the crown of France. One was Isabel, the sister of Louis X, Philip V, and Charles IV -- or, if the French insisted on a male king but would allow succession in the female line, her son Edward III. A second possibility was Count Philip of Evreuex, who was himself of the French royal family (he was the son of Philip the Fair's younger half-brother Louis) and who by this time had married Joan of Navarre, the daughter of Louis X (in later centuries, they might have been proclaimed joint monarchs, like William and Mary or Ferdinand and Isabella, but that apparently never occurred to anyone). The third candidate was Philip of Valois, the son of Philip the Fair's full brother Charles of Valois and hence the first cousin of the three recently deceased royal brothers (Perroy, p. 74).
Perroy notes that Philip of Valois, already the regent of France, was an adult, of known competence and no great moral disqualifications, and he was the senior prince to be descended from Philip III entirely in male line. In contrast, Isabel (who had shown up in France in 1325 with her lover Mortimer) was regarded as an appalling degenerate; Edward her son was still very young; and Philip of Evreuex was also young and also had a questionable character.
It was an odd situation. If one ignored Joan, the daughter of Louis X (which everyone did, since she was only a little more than twelve years old and at this time had no supporters though she did became Queen of Navarre; in any case, she had *already* been passed over), then under English law, which permitted succession in the female line; Isabel was the rightful Queen of France and Edward her heir.
(I can't help but note one irony: Edward, who was trying to gain the throne of France via the female line, in England converted a number of earldoms so that they succeeded in male line only; Tuck, p. 152).
The French, however, managed to dig up a law -- the so-called "Salic Law" -- that said that the throne of France could only be passed on through a male line (no one really believed this law was relevant, but the French didn't want an English king, and to they used what came to hand).
(We might note that Joan of Navarre ended up with a really raw deal. Apart from being the legitimate Queen of France, she was Queen of Navarre, Countess of Champagne, and overlord of Brie. She was eventually allowed to succeed in Navarre, but only after the French monarchy had enjoyed its revenue for some time, and she never got the French counties, since they were traded off for lesser lands; Perroy, pp. 80-81. In the end, this was to hurt the Valois monarch, since the heirs of Navarre would often side with the English; Joan's son Charles the Bad was truly a thorn in the French side until finally suppressed; Perroy, pp. 127-129.)
Guerard, p. 100, sums up what happened after Charles IV died: "For the third time the king had no son. The rule adopted in 1316 was applied: women could not inherit the throne, nor transmit rights which never were theirs. So a cousin of the late three kings, Philip of Valois, received the crown instead of their nephew, soon to be Edward III of England. The decision was neither absurd nor inevitable. Authority was still linked with leadership in battle, but on the other hand, women, like Eleanor [of Acquitaine], had been suffered to inherit vast feudal domains. To give this practice the prestige of antiquity, it was later called 'the Salic Law." But the French royal house had forgotten for many centuries that there ever were Salian Franks." (So much so that I've head the name "Salic Law" linked with laws governing salt. Butler, p. 14, goes so far as to declare the whole thing an invention).
Perroy, p. 71, notes that every other fief in France could pass in female line, and that the French even had rules for how female vassals could meet military obligations to their feudal overlords. But he adds that the French nobility universally accepted the accession of Philip of Valois (p. 76).
Keen, p. 245, thinks that the fact that Edward III was still a minor was significant; the French didn't want an underage King.
(Incidentally, there is a folkloric twist to the tale of the deaths of the last French kings of the Capetian line, according to Barker, pp. 12-13 and Doherty, pp. 57-58. Philip IV had plundered the Knights Templar, on the grounds that they were no longer defending the Temple, long lost to the Saracens -- accurate as far as it went, but it should have been the Pope's decision. Philip seized their rich treasury, and covered it up with confessions under torture. He eventually had the Grand Master of the Temple, Jacques de Molay, burned as a relapsed heretic -- relapsed because he denied a confession given under torture! De Molay cursed the Pope, Philip, and Philip's descendents. The Pope and Philip of course died, and Philip's male line died out, and the female lines never regained the throne of France.)
Despite his disappointment, Edward might have accepted the French decision regarding the kingship if he had been treated fairly -- in his early weakness, he actually paid homage to Philip VI in 1329 for his territory in Guyenne (Seward, p. 24). For a time, Edward even considered going on crusade with Philip (Perroy, p. 88). Perroy, pp. 84-85, sums up the situation in 1330 as follows: "So it had taken no more than three years for the diplomacy of the Valois, again, employing all the [bullying] methods used by the last Capetians and covering all the tracks already beaten by them, to win a victory of the highest importance over their Gascon vassal. Edward's homage at Amiens, and his subsequent declaration which put it on the same footing as liege homage, would seem to have set aside the dynastic pretensions of the Plantagenets forever. Beaten in every round of this close conflict, Edward was back in a position more humiliating than ever in relation to his suzerain. Acquitaine remained diminished by a partial occupation and weakened by the greater subjection of its duke to the French monarchy."
Several false moves changed Edward's attitude toward Philip. Edward had taken all he was going to take in France. He had unwillingly offered homage, but he had his own terms -- he wanted to keep what he had; no more French nibbling at the border! The French had never really restored what they took from Edward II in 1325, leaving Guyenne far too small to be defensible. But Philip not only kept up the pressure, he even opened up a sort of second front by demanding that the Scots would be part of any peace (Perroy, pp. 87-88). Edward, who was as tired of fighting the Scots as he was of being cheated by the French, was in the process of trying to put Edward Balliol on the Scots throne (Ormrod, p. 18), and he wanted a free hand against them.
Edward, tired of shooting at a moving target, promptly started working on building a coalition against France. Parliament voted him subsidies for war in 1336 (Perroy, p. 91). Negotiations were still going on, mediated by the Pope, but the Pope was trying so hard to prevent war that he actually made it harder for the participants to address the real issues. Perroy, p. 90, says that "From December 1334 onwards, the policy of Benedict XII ended by precipitating the conflict which it aimed at avoiding." The crisis of 1336 came about because it appeared that Philip would be sending reinforcements to Scotland, now in desperate straits in its war against Edward.
A peaceful resolution became impossible in 1337; in that year, the French once again declared Guyenne forfeit to the French crown (Seward, p. 35; Ashley-GB, p. 130; Barker, p. 12). Perroy, p. 66, suspects this may have been simply another dodge used by the French to bring the English to heel; after all, it had worked twice before in the reigns of the last two kings! But, Perroy notes, both Edward I and Edward II had been distracted. What the French had really accomplished was to convince the English that they wanted to retake Guyenne. And Edward III didn't have to take this as tamely as his predecessors; he was not distracted, as Edward I had been in 1294, or facing revolt, as Edward II had in 1324. Edward therefore declared war on his first cousin once removed.
The war which followed was not expected to last long (indeed, both parties thought they had ended it in 1360). They didn't even get down to serious fighting immediately. In this whole first phase of the war, there were only three major battles.
Although Hundred Years War is generally held to have lasted 116 years (1337-1453), the serious periods of combat were only 1337-1360, 1414-1436, and 1449-1453. The reign of Richard II (1377-1399) and the early years of Henry IV (1399-1413) were especially quiet. Some have proposed to split the war into three conflicts, called something like the "Crecy War" (1337-1460), the "Agincourt War" (1415-1422), and the "Reconquest." There is some validity to this (especially since 1453 did not actually end the English attempts to invade -- Edward IV and Henry VIII also mounted invasions). But the whole conflict from 1337 to 1453 was all about the same two issues: Who would control Gascony, and what would be the English King's relationship with the French. Edward III, in starting the war, probably wanted simply to get full control of Gascony, without having to answer to the French king.
Interestingly, though Edward had earlier stopped treated Philip as King of France (Perroy, p. 93), it wasn't until 1340 that Edward formally claimed the throne of France -- presumably partly as a bargaining chip, but mostly to make it possible for the Flemish to ally with him (Burne, p. 51). The cities of Flanders officially acknowledged the French King as their suzerain, so rebelling against Philip would have caused them to be punished by the Church. But once Edward claimed to be King of France, the Flemish could acknowledge *him* and be free from those sanctions. Of course, they would still have to face French wrath if the French won....
Edward probably never expected to become the actual King of France; indeed, when he dictated something approaching a victor's peace in 1360, he asked for far less. But he had made his claim (and the Kings of England would in fact continue to call themselves Kings of France for centuries), and that started a chain of events that would take half a century to work out.
STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF FRANCE AND ENGLAND
The French actually had one advantage over what they had had in the time of Edward I: France was a more united country, meaning that the French could bring more pressure to bear. And France had a far larger population base than England -- at least three times the total population (Perroy, p. 51). Even more important, it had greater financial resources, meaning a greater ability to pay an army (Edward III, who had to keep his army together long enough to gather, invade, fight, and come home, repeatedly went bankrupt, and even drove his bankers bankrupt; Seward, p. 33. Renouard, p. 44, notes that between 1342 and 1346, the majority of Florentine banking firms -- the source of credit to all of Europe -- crashed. England's population was large enough to supply plenty of soldiers, but unless Edward could pay them, they wouldn't fight. It is interesting, though futile, to speculate how much of the economic crisis of 1348-1350 was due to the Black Death and how much due to the collapse of international credit).
But Edward III had at least *six* advantages over his grandfather for the contest with the French.
One of them was, in fact, the result of Edward I's own campaigns. Wales was now firmly in English hands. There was no possibility at all that Edward III would be seriously distracted by the Welsh -- indeed, he would have some Welshmen in the armies he took to France, and derived at least a little revenue from Wales.
Second, Edward did not have to worry too much about the Scots. He had loosed Edward Balliol upon them as a shadow king, causing several years of civil war (Magnusson, pp. 197-198). When the Scots had invaded England in 1333, Edward III faced then in his first great battle, at Halidon Hill. It was a complete English victory (Magnusson, pp. 198-199), which in fact set the pattern for the later battles of Crecy and Agincourt. Scotland was devastated. They did not manage another serious attack on the English until Neville's Cross in 1346. And even in 1346, Edward III didn't even have to show up in the north.
Third, the French, though they had money, found it almost impossible to collect. Their tax system was incoherent. The French monarchy had spent years devaluing its coinage, making it almost impossible to value or spend. By the time of the Agincourt campaigns, it was little more than pot metal (Perroy observes on p. 127 that the currency was devalued 70% in *just six years* after Crecy! Butler, p. 44, says that there were 64 devaluations under Philip VI, 104 under Jean II, and 41 under Charles V, though how this is possible is beyond me, and adds on p. 62 that there were times when no one would accept *any* money because they didn't know what the coins would be worth. Prestwich, p. 170, notes that one of the things Edward III had promised if he became King of France was a stable currency).
The British, though they too had trouble raising money, at least had a meaningful coinage which did not decline significantly over the years (Perroy, p. 124, argues that lack of finances was the chief reason the war lasted so long: Both sides had more big ideas than they had cash); Perroy, p. 56, says that "after a century of exhausting war [the pound] had not been devalued by more than 20 per cent." (The English did, however, play around with the French coinage -- Butler, p. 44 -- though some of this is the fault of Burgundians.)
Fourth, Edward had a new way of raising armies, and new tactics for the army raised. The new tactic was the chevauchee, the plundering raid (Seward, p. 28). It was the ancestor of Sherman's March to the Sea: A fast-moving force doing as much destruction as possible. (Walsingham summed up one of Edward III's chevauchees with the Caesaresque, "Cepit, spoliavit, combussit" -- "he came, he despoiled, he burned"; Sedgwick, p. 36.) It could inflict extreme economic damage and spread great misery, though it could not defeat an enemy outright. He also had the contract ("indenture") system for raising troops.
Historians have called indentures the most significant military development of the Middle Ages (Burne, p. 31). In the old days, the King called on his retainers to bring out their servants for brief military service (a system that went back to Anglo-Saxon times); the result was often to bring out a useless, unarmed rabble -- villages would often send the men for whom they had the least use (Prestwich, pp. 63-66). Edward I had first experimented with paying soldiers to serve, and by the time Edward III took the throne, this was the standard method. It cost dearly -- it was the single biggest reason why Edward III was constantly broke -- but it brought in solid armies. They were also more disciplined, according to Burne, p. 35; a man who has to give satisfaction if he wants to be paid has to obey orders. It was not a true standing army (the French would in fact invent that later in the war), but it was closer to a professional army than anything which had existed to that time (Featherstone, p. 36).
Plus, because declines in the power of the aristocracy and the failure of some families, Edward was able to appoint more "professional" commanders -- Prestwich, p. 190, notes that Edward was able to appoint his own Marshal and Constable of England, instead of having the offices handed down by heredity. The French, by contrast, still had hereditary high officers. It is unlikely that they could have employed men such as the brilliant knights Thomas Dagworth, John Chandos, and Walter Mauny in such high posts as Edward did.
Edward also could call out men the French would never have dared to employ. Many of his soldiers were convicts given conditional pardons in return for service (Prestwich, p. 193). John Hawkwood himself was seemingly one of these; in 1350-1351, we find records of him brutally attacking a man, and soon after he was charged with stealing a horse (Saunders, p. 46). A Frenchman guilty of the sorts of crimes these men committed would likely have deserted. An Englishman in France would be less likely to do so, since he was far from home -- and even if he did desert, he would probably start preying on the French, making him a de facto ally even if not part of the army.
Fifth, Edward had the sympathy of the people of the Low Countries, many of whom were technically subject to the French but whose industries depended on English wool. Edward was to use this as something of an economic lever, selling wool to the counties that were on his side and denying it to the pro-French areas (Perroy, p. 95). This proved a mixed blessing, however, since it put the English wool production system into a severe recession -- and Edward depended on that revenue.
Edward's biggest advantage, in any case, was the longbow.
Oh, Edward I had had longbowmen, too, but not as many (indeed, the Welsh invented the longbow, so they potentially had the advantage against him -- except they never used it). By Edward III's time, practice with the bow was mandatory for the lower classes. So Edward III could assemble much larger, better armies of bowmen.
Today we tend to sneer at any weapon of the pre-firearms era. We should not. The longbow (and oriental composite bow) were the best weapons known to man until the mid-nineteenth century, when the Minie bullet made relatively rapid-fire rifled guns possible. (Indeed, Featherstone, p. 177, lists several authors who argued the English should give up arquebuses and other early firearms and return to longbows. On pp. 189-191, he actually details a case of a longbow being used in World War II!) A longbow, in the hands of a trained archer, had a greater range than a smoothbore musket, and greater accuracy than a musket, and a higher rate of fire than a musket -- a brilliant musketeer might get off five shots in two minutes, and the average would have been somewhat less than four. In two minutes, a truly excellent archer could get off more than a dozen arrows.
Prestwich, p. 70, describes the bow as follows: "[T]he classic longbow was two ells in length, or about seven feet six inches... was the thickness of four thumbs, and fired a 'clotharrow' a yard long.... It is likely that the heaviest bows had a range of up to four hundred yards, though real accuracy was unlikely beyond two hundred. A rate of fire of ten flights per minute was possible; a constantly reiterated simile of fourteenth century chroniclers is that arrows fell like snow on the battlefield; but, unlike snow, arrows produced a terrifying noise." It has been estimated that perhaps half a million arrows were shot at Crecy (Saunders, p. 3). We don't know just how much time the archers spent firing at that battle, but if we assume 20 French charges (higher than any estimate I've seen), and that the attackers were in range for four minutes per charge (which is also mathematically high), that would mean that, during the charges, a hundred arrows landing per second. Even if all they did was stick up in the dirt, they would he a fair obstacle to the attackers!
Burne, p. 28, gives slightly different statistics: "The longbow could be discharged six times a minute: It had an effective range of 250 yards and an extreme range of about 350 yards." Featherstone, p. 40, gives identical numbers, but elsewhere claims that there are instances on record of a bowshot travelling a third of a mile, although these were unaimed shafts fired solely for distance. (And I frankly don't believe it. Saunders, p. 62, says that trained twentieth century archers "achieved a range of 180-200 yards," though to be sure they did not grow up with the bow.)
Seward, p. 53, says bowmen "could shoot ten or even twelve [arrows] a minute, literally darkening the sky, and had a fighting range of over 150 yards with a plate-armour-piercing range of about sixty." This agrees with Wagner, p. 17, who claims a firing rate of up to twelve arrows per minute, with a range of 150-200 yards, armor-piercing range of sixty, and a draw weight of 80-100 pounds. Barker, p. 88, states that the bows of the period had an astonishing pull of 150-160 pounds, giving them a range of about 240 yards, though Featherstone, p. 61, claims the standard pull was 100 pounds. Jarman, pp. 73-74, makes perhaps the most extreme claim: that the bow could pierce chain mail at 275 yards! Ross, p. 111, believes the "effective" range to have been 165 yards with a rate of fire of 10-12 arrows per minute.
Some of this variation is because of technological advances over the years; Neillands, p. 202, suggests that the longbow used late in the war had a greater draw than the early bows (dubious, I think), and that it used a better "armor-piercing" arrowhead (probably true).
Some of those range citations may actually be inspired by Shakespeare; in Henry IV, Part 2, Act III, scene ii, about line 45, Shallow claims that an archer named "Double" could shoot direct fire to a range of 280-290 yards, while implying a normal archer could shoot 240 yards. Of course, any data on anything taken from Shakespeare should be viewed with extreme suspicion. All of this is hard to prove, since no longbows of the Agincourt era have survived, according to Featherstone, p. 59. Bows eventually wore out, after all -- plus, since the best bows were made of imported yew, the supply was somewhat limited; Featherstone, p. 62. The Yorkist kings, in fact, passed laws forcing importers to bring them bowstaves; Featherstone, p. 64.
Other differences in the figures may be attributed partly to the fact that different archers had different abilities, plus the fact that an arrow can be fired on either a straight or a falling trajectory, with the latter having much greater range but far less accuracy. Also there was the question of how much damage it was supposed to do when it arrived. Though national feeling also seems to have caused different assessments -- the one French historian I've studied, Perroy, claims on p. 97 that the longbow was not especially accurate and that it had a rate of fire only three times that of a crossbow. Prestwich, p. 198, says by contrast that the longbow could fire five times as fast. Featherstone says it fired four times as fast.
Different arrows may also play a part; Barker, p. 86, notes that there were two standard types of arrows in use by the time of Agincourt. One had a longer shaft of a lightweight wood, with a leafed or barbed head that was hard to extract; the other, designed to penetrate plate, had a shorter, lighter arrow with a "bodkin point" that was extremely sharp, with a narrow point, for maximum penetration. Barker states that this sort of arrow could pierce plate at 150 yards, though it will be evident that it would not be as stable in flight and so was less likely to hit. Featherstone, p. 48, quotes a contemporary account which describes a sheaf of arrows as containing two-thirds heavy and one-third light shafts; the latter of course did less damage but could be fired farther.
A clothyard arrow could go six inches into the flesh, and the barbed head made extraction difficult (Saunders, pp. 4-5). Such wounds were very difficult to treat using fourteenth century techniques.
To put this in perspective: Keegan, p. 95, estimates that a knight on a trained destrier could charge at 12 to 15 miles per hour. Let's use 15. That's 26400 yards per hour, or 440 yards per minute. If a bowman could begin firing at 150 yards, and could fire eight arrows per minute, then he could get off three arrows while the knight was charging him, and the last one at least could pierce armor. If he could keep calm, he could certainly stop any individual knight charging him -- and, because bowmen could stand closer together than knights on horseback, there would typically be two to four archers firing at each horseman. The longbow was about as close as the fourteenth century came to a terror weapon -- especially against horsemen; although a clothyard arrow could not at long range penetrate plate mail (which was becoming common by the time of Crecy, and was almost universally used by the time of Agincourt), it could bring down a horse, and if a charging horse fell, it was just about sure to knock out the rider as well. And, in the crush, a man who fell to the ground was likely to suffocate or be killed by the pressure (Saunders, p. 3).
Edward III seems to have made his archers even more effective by mounting them. They still fought on foot, just like his knights -- but they were mobile while on campaign. This gave him much more operational flexibility.
And the longbow was exclusively English. The French had none. They did have archers -- crossbowmen. A crossbow was in many ways an easier weapon than a longbow; it gave the arrow a higher initial velocity than a longbow, so a crossbowman could aim straight at the target; no fancy training about angles-of-flight needed. That higher velocity also meant that it had somewhat longer range in the hands of a true expert. But it took the better part of a minute to crank it up to prepare to fire the thing. (Seward, p. 55, says that an expert could fire four quarrels per minute. It would have taken an exceptional expert; Barker is more nearly correct when she says on p. 87 that the standard was two shots per minute -- after all, the thing had to be loaded, then aimed. A good longbowman could load and aim in one gesture. Plus crossbows were heavy and complex enough to break down fairly frequently. A longbow, being just a well-shaped piece of wood and a string, didn't have nearly as many parts that could go wrong, though it did need maintenance to retain its strength.)
A crossbowman faced with longbowmen would rarely get off a first shot; he almost never got off a second shot. And while a crossbowman didn't require as much training as a longbowman, he required some, so the French couldn't just overwhelm the English with numbers. On a man-for-man basis, longbowmen remained the most deadly soldiers in the world until the nineteenth century. (Well, apart from artillerymen, anyway.) The English lost the Hundred Years War primarily because the French eventually managed to develop a useful individual firearm. It didn't make French men-at-arms equal to English longbowmen -- but it was easy enough to use that the French could finally give all their soldiers a weapon that could hit at a distance. The English could not match that; a good longbowman had to be trained from birth (Burne, p. 220n, claims that one can still see the marks on some church walls where archers sharpened their arrows on their way to Sunday archery practice), and needed to be physically strong as well.
Last updated in version 4.2
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2017 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.