The Welsh Longbow - Sarah Woodbury

The Welsh Longbow

Bows and arrows have been around since Paleolithic times, with evidence of them as early as 8000-9000 BC in Germany.

Kennewick man, the controversial skeleton found in the banks of the Columbia River inKennewick,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 new 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.TLP blogThe 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.

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.

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 (  At Llandeilo Fawr, they cowered for two days under a hail of arrows from the Welsh.

Starting 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.”

“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.”

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.”

Thus, in order to master its use, a man must practice.   A lot.  Once King Edward of Englandrealized 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.”

Edward III used the long bow to great effect during the Hundred Years War, filling his ranks with Welsh and English longbowmen that decimated the French ranks, particularly at the Battles of Crecy and Agincourt.


7 Replies to “The Welsh Longbow”

  1. Love this blog. I may be behind the most recent research but my understanding was that the long bow was mainly used by the Welsh of Gwent (where the apocryphal tale of the Norman knight being pinned to his horse by two arrows took place IIRC) while the North Welsh were known for their skills with spears.

    I have “the Welsh Wars of Edward I” at home and my recollection was that the Edward had a leg up on Llewellyn because his Welsh soldiers from Gwent were skilled with the longbow.

    1. I’m glad you love the blog! Thank you!

      You are correct in principle about the bow/spear thing, as far as I know. Generally, the sources say that the bow was a weapon of the south and the spear of the north, but at the same time, it’s not like the men of the north didn’t use it. This is the phrase I have read many times: “the men of the south were more skilled in the bow”. It was their specialty, and Edward did employ archers against their compatriots in the wars against Llywelyn. However, by the time Llywelyn ap Gruffydd rose to power, the bow was used in his forces. Edward was only 17 in 1256 when Llywelyn’s army (admittedly, commanded by others) defeated the Normans at the battle of Cymerau, as I mentioned in the post.

      Edward learned the power of the bow from the Welsh victories, and adopted it. The problem was, of course, how long it took for a man to learn the skill, which meant that in order to have an army of bowmen, you had to use Welshmen. Llywelyn, not being stupid, knew the power of the bow. And certainly by 1282, his armies consisted of men from all over Wales, not just the north, even if it was his stronghold.

      Edward did employ archers against Llywelyn, and it may be that ‘it takes one to know one’–by using his own Welsh tactics against Llywelyn (guerrilla warfare and archers), Edward hastened the end of the war. At the same time, Edward won the war of 1277 because he threw everything he had at Llywelyn. The extent to which Llywelyn was outnumbered, outgunned, and outspent is something like 10 to 1. Actually, once the English captured Anglesey and the harvest, the Welsh were doomed.

      The problem for our part is that there are so few sources upon which we can rely–really, Gerald of Wales and some documents from King Edward, both of whom had an agenda. Also, note that the first recorded use of the bow was by an army from Gwynedd, that of King Cadwallon.

  2. It’s nice to see an article acknowledging the existence of the longbow prior to the 1200’s. There’s such a silly misconception nowadays that the longbow just materialized into existence in the year 1200.

    1. Weird what people come up with, isn’t it. That 1200-ish is probably related to the English longbow, since the English didn’t use it (much) until Edward I got them going.

  3. From what I remember, only the Mongols, Japanese, and Indians (the Asian ones, and MY people at that) would have been on equal par with them. They were considered the best archers in Europe, right?

    No, I think they were THE best. By that time, the Mongol conquests had pretty much stopped, the Japanese began to turn to the sword rather than the bow, and Indians relied more on the sword and the ax.

    1. I’m not sure about the bow in other people’s history, but the Welsh were supposed to be the best in Europe. The crossbow, while effective and far easier to master, couldn’t shoot 6 arrows a minute for starters …

  4. Gosh, where would the Englis have been without the longbow? Still stuck on their little island (in terms of empires and kingdoms of course).

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