The Much-Maligned Crossbow

by

Richard Moore

© 2002 (Updated 2008)

 

 

PART ONE : MEDIEVAL TO  MIDDLE AGES, 1066 - 1485

Anyone who has ever read about Edward III or Henry V or indeed any English Medieval history book knows that the ‘old enemy’ France failed to make an impression in battle through their tactic of heavily-armoured horse by failing to acknowledge the superiority of the longbow over the crossbow. What we might term ‘Hollywood’ has promoted the myth as anyone who has ever watched a Robin Hood film knows that only the nasty ‘bad guys’ use crossbows - one book goes so far as to state ‘true-blooded Englishmen always used the bow’ - though the comparative legend of the early 14th century folk-hero William Tell in Switzerland and Austria offers a different opinion. The Church from 1136 did attempt several times to forbid the use of the crossbow in battle as they deemed it quite out of order in a chivalrous sense that a ‘common man’ armed with one could kill an armoured and mounted noble knight at a distance – King Richard I was shot and mortally-wounded by a crossbow bolt in 1199 and Magna Carta in 1215 cited in one clause that ‘foreign crossbowmen … should be banished from the kingdom’ as the reason being they were little more than ‘assassins’. The reality of this is that through the Pope the Church also tried to ban the use of the bow and arrow in battle for the same reason but this fact is rarely mentioned - the ‘chivalrous’ case of the Church was weakened by acknowledging that an armoured and mounted noble knight should cut down as many un-armoured common foot as he could in a battle but avoid engaging ‘fellow’ enemy armoured and mounted noble knights. Anyway, nobody seems to have taken any notice of the Church’s opinion in this respect – one example is that King John hired a company of foreign crossbowmen to fight his rebellious barons in 1216 - the year after he signed Magna Carta.

The earliest bow unearthed in Britain is said to be 5000 years old : Neolithic flint arrow-heads found in England in medieval times were commonly described as coming from ‘elf-arrows’. The heritage of the crossbow goes back to Roman times with the ballista, mainly a siege-weapon - but a hand-held relic on the same torsion-rope principle has been recently found and dated to the 1st Century and there are suggestions that such weapons were carried by Roman auxiliaries in the invasion of Britain (an excavated skeleton from the time has the head of an iron bolt firmly embedded in the spine which was formerly said to be from a ballista but has now been claimed it was shot from a hand-held crossbow). The Romans had a formidable array of ‘siege-artillery’ to hand and also used sling-shots and archers in military forces but when the Legions left these shores in the 4th Century, the use of the crossbow seems to have gone back to Rome with them and been re-introduced back in England due to The Norman Conquest by their Flemish or Breton auxiliaries.  The Bayeaux Tapestry shows only archers supporting the Norman knights at the battle of Hastings in 1066, but the prevalent missile-arm in their ranks seems to have been the crossbow –a contemporary source states that the crossbow was disappointing as bolts shot from them were not powerful enough to penetrate the mail-armour and padding worn by the defenders of the shield-wall in King Harold’s army : but  at the time the Norman term ‘archet’ covered both bowmen and crossbowmen and The Bayeux Tapestry in being embroidered by Anglo-Saxon seamstresses meant that they may not have known what a crossbow looked like.

A medieval development of the Roman ballista still using the torsion-rope principle. They came in various sizes but in the medieval era some of these weapons grew to an enormous size and could shoot very heavy projectiles. This version is wound-up using mechanical means using a ratchet-windlass mechanism and this facility did appear on later hand-held crossbows. The main criticism at the time of these weapons in comparison to other siege-weapons such as the Mangonel and Traction-Trecuchet was their relatively expensive missiles and a low rate of fire … the latter criticism was a drawback that the crossbow never managed to overcome.
 

The hand-held crossbow that appeared in England after The Norman Conquest was wholly made of wood and basic in design, though highly functional. It had the military advantage over the bow as they used no metal (with the exception of the piles of the quarrel or bolt) so were cheap and easy to manufacture but mainly as an alternative to a trained archer having to practice regularly from an early age to attain a high standard of power and accuracy, a man could be taught the use of a crossbow in less than a day. But the effective range of these early medieval crossbows – especially against padded and/or mail-armoured targets - was not excessive (being between 50 and 70 yards) but more powerful crossbows on the same principle seem to have slowly appeared throughout the 11th Century - and it is through this attempted development that the main design-drawbacks of a crossbow occurred. Increasing the power of the crossbow to reach greater range and better penetration still using the hole-and-peg trigger principle, the serving of the bowstring wore out quite rapidly in use through passing up and over the nock and had to be replaced on a regular basis. It was also found that there was a limit to the overall length and thickness of the prod (also named the lath, the bow-part rather than the tiller or stock and early crossbows appear to have had ash-wood prods rather than the later yew) relative to the required power beyond which a man cannot draw back the string to the nock using his own strength without risking muscle-injury to his back and/or groin. A man necessarily standing with both feet on the prod and drawing the string back reduced the overall leverage of the prod and risked fracturing it.  Some awkward ratios relating to the crossbow came into realisation before the 12th Century - and attempts to remedy the overall design of the crossbow to remedy the defects pointed out by military men made the crossbow expensive, heavy and bulky which in comparison to the bow was another of the criticisms which was levelled at these weapons. The ‘flat-bow’ was even cheaper to make, was far lighter and handier and appeared to require less human-strength to achieve the same if not greater range and penetration, especially against an armoured target. The dart, bolt or ‘quarrel’ (a term originating from the Norman-French term carre for ‘square’) often had square-hammered iron piles and they could only be fitted with horizontal broad-heads for hunting and were fletched for stability only on the two horizontal sides due to lying on the tiller. Crossbow bolts were shorter and much stouter than arrows as the impact from the powerful bow-string of a crossbow on ‘loose’ could - and still will – instantly shatter into splinters a soft or damaged shaft.

However - applied to Hunting, the crossbow had an advantage the bow didn’t have : it could be nocked and loaded by a huntsman and handed to someone to hold who could then stand-by with the crossbow until game appeared and even with an arrow ready-nocked, could beat an archer ‘to the draw’. That someone also did not require much skill or great physical strength to shoot the crossbow as the power was already locked into the weapon and using the leverage of the tricker (or trigger, which is sometimes also referred to as the ‘tickler’) was easy to shoot. For this reason the crossbow caught on with young noblemen who aspired to become hunters … and women. Another advantage the crossbow had over the bow was that small crossbows for the hunting of small game and birds appeared which rather than shooting a bolt shot a rounded pebble from a stream placed in a leather pocket on the string … it didn’t matter if you missed the target as the ammunition cost nothing and could be replaced by simply making another visit to the stream. These crossbows were named an ‘arbust’ to differentiate from ‘arbalest’ which was the alternative name for the crossbow shooting bolts. Many modern American bow-hunters claim that ‘stalking’ game in the woods is easier with a crossbow … and after 1000 years the crossbow appears to be still popular in Scandinavian countries for the same reason.

Soldiers using crossbows to defend a castle : that crossbows were used more than bows in castles is said to be reflected by the design of ‘arrow-slits’ and it is easier for a soldier in armour to use a crossbow rather than a bow - but as the author has demonstrated, though it is awkward to use a bow from such a facility it is not impossible. Some crossbows were fitted with a ‘top-tiller’ or a ‘barrel-tiller’ which enabled the bolt to remain in place when the crossbow was shot downwards vertically. Crossbowmen would have been glad of the stone cover provided during the relatively long process of reloading and archers – through having a longer range - may always have been intended to stand on the tops of walls or battlements. It might be noted in support that many such ‘arrow-slits’ were later amended by adding a hole in the ‘arrow-slit’ to facilitate hand-guns.
 

The military-men of the 13th century were eventually offered new designs of crossbow. A metal ‘stirrup’ had been fitted to the end of the tiller of the crossbow and shaped to take one of the crossbowman’s booted feet and hence standing with both feet on the prod was no longer necessary. The old hole-and-peg trigger principle had vanished to be replaced by the nut, a revolving wheel fitted into the stock of the crossbow which could be locked into position by an extension of the tricker fitted into the belly of the tiller – the tricker was now by necessity made of metal - and two built-in projections on the nut held the bowstring. Lifting the tricker released the nut and the power of the bowstring took over. This eliminated the fact that the serving on the bowstring through passing over the former nock quickly wore out in use and in addition the power of the bowstring was transmitted instantaneously to the bolt - without an impact – as the bolt was now placed directly onto the bowstring between the projections on the nut. Another design amendment came with the new design of crossbow which attempted to solve the loading-power problem (though in conjunction with the nut, it is a question of ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg’) : a handy lightweight tackle known because of the shape of the two-pronged hook as the Goats-foot, the Gaffle or simply the Claw could be tied using a length of rope to the belt, around the waist or over one shoulder enabling the power of the crossbowman’s legs to draw the string back - the crossbowman crouched down to latch the prongs of the iron claw onto the slack bowstring, put one of his feet in the stirrup of the crossbow then slowly stood up to pull the bowstring back beyond the nock or nut before unlatching the claw. It was found that the overall length of the prod could be reduced by making it thicker – and from yew instead of ash - but additional power was gained using the new design with the additional tackle so range and penetration increased to the point where the new design of crossbow could effectively compete when bolts from them were shot from a castle against armoured targets beyond the range of a stone-throwing siege-engine (120 to 150 yards). The new nut fitted to crossbows was initially made from bone or horn but was soon found to be unable to handle the stresses of the power in the new crossbows and now had to be cast from bronze or iron, and hence required a forged metal pin or roller to hold them into the stock.

                         

Introduced circa 1250 with a theoretical draw-weight of almost 2000 pounds, a single bolt from a Springald (above) impaled four soldiers ‘like chickens on a spit’ during a medieval siege in 1302 and reputedly one was used to deliberately strike an enemy commander at long –range during another siege in 1305. From the mid-13th Century, the reputation of The Springald in use as a siege-engine as being the most powerful flat-trajectory weapon known possibly gave impetus and an incentive to designers of the hand-held crossbow.
 

The military-men generally approved – the new square-shaped ‘flat’ heads of the heavier bolts or quarrels were also more efficient at armour-piercing but as the rate of fire of the crossbow had been reduced even further there were some grumbles - but as crossbows could be held in store in a castle for ready-use by men-at-arms or an untrained raised local levy, these grumbles were minimal. At a time when many medieval soldiers were not fully armoured, bolts from pestiferous crossbows on a battlefield would have necessitated carrying a large shield and been an annoying nuisance and at their very worse – deadly.

It was perhaps during sieges that crossbowmen were at their most efficient in both attack and defence. The above illustration is a German combined force of traction-catapult, archers and crossbowmen attacking Naples in 1189 under Emperor Henry VI. The crossbowman in the upper-right corner is carrying his bolts in a quiver on his belt and is just about to lift the ‘tricker’ to loose a bolt. The soldiers below the crossbowman hauling on the traction-catapult are helmeted and in mail but as appears usual for contemporary medieval illustrations both crossbowmen and archers are shown un-armoured.
 

The crossbow enjoyed some success during The Third Crusade from 1189 as bolts from the crossbows of the Franks levelled many a Seljuk Turk whereas armoured and padded Europeans were observed to be still operational despite being stuck with several arrows from the light laminated wood and horn bows of the infidel Saracens which had failed to penetrate their mail and padding (Saracen archers soon learned to shoot at the heavy un-armoured horses of Crusaders instead, and these valuable horses then also had to be clad in similar coats of padded cloth or leather). Perhaps the best two examples of the use of crossbowmen – who were ‘Italian’ (Genoese) not English - in a force of foot and horse in battle come from this period : in September 1192 the advance from Acre by The Lionheart had met the Saracen army blocking their way to Jerusalem at Arsuf. The enemy had a numerous cavalry, though not as well-armoured as the Franks : but led by Saladin himself, they thought themselves invincible as they had wiped out a similar Crusader army at Hattin in 1187 and captured Jerusalem. The Lionheart drew up his foot in a tight formation, the mounted knights in the centre with archers and crossbowmen between them and the foot. He placed the Knights Hospitallers on his left and the Knights Templar on his right and gave a strict order that nobody was to break ranks or charge until he gave the order. The infidel infantry finally attacked – announced by chilling war-cries – and sent a barrage of arrows against the Christians : the partly-armoured  foot of the Knights Hospitallers were not supported by crossbowmen and were hard-pressed by this barrage but one chronicler who was present described these Saracen missiles as ‘bouncing off’ the armour of the mounted knights. Attacks came in waves – likened by the same chronicler as ‘hammers beating on an anvil’ – until at last the Saracen infantry gave up and spread out to permit the Saracen cavalry to pass through their ranks. These cavalry attacks received bolts and arrows from the centre of the Christian defence before the archers and crossbowmen withdrew but as the Saracen cavalry recoiled after each charge, the archers and crossbowmen recovered their ground and sent a hail of missiles after them (the English archers were out-distancing the Saracen archers and both they and the crossbowmen noticed that their bolts and arrows went through Saracen armour ‘as though it were eggshell’). As the Saracen cavalry became exhausted, The Lionheart released his own cavalry – a thousand armoured knights on heavy horses supported by the foot with archers and crossbowmen on the flanks swept over the Saracen army like an avalanche. Though casualties on both sides were not high, the legend of Saladin’s invincibility had been shattered.   

Later that year on the night of 4th October, the advance forces of The Lionheart were camped for the night in the desert just outside Jaffa. A Genoese crossbowman went out into the desert for ‘a stroll’ and in the darkness first heard and then spotted a Saracen force of cavalry, the advance guard of their army. He raced back to camp and raised the alarm. The Lionheart was greatly outnumbered – he had only fifty-four knights with him (who had only fifteen horses between them) and around two thousand foot in total - so he bundled his soldiers out of bed and although some were half-dressed and had not time to put on their armour – formed them into a tight semi-circle. The men-at-arms were told to plant their shields in the ground and present their spears to the front. Just behind these men, The Lionheart placed his Genoese crossbowmen. When waves of a thousand enemy cavalry attacked in succession at dawn, they could make no impression on the Christian line of defence and in trying to do so, each successive wave was shot up by the crossbowmen. By midday, the Saracen cavalry was obviously tiring but appeared to be forming at close-range for another charge. The Lionheart then ordered what English archers he had forward to the front-line to add to the crossbowmen who then loosed-off volleys of bolts and arrows which stopped the infidel cavalry in their tracks and caused mayhem in their ranks – the archers and crossbowmen then moved back onto both flanks and The Lionheart led his defence line forward in an attack ‘bristling with steel like a hedgehog’ supported by the archers and crossbowmen. By early evening, Saladin had seen enough – leaving his dead and wounded on the battlefield, he retreated to Jerusalem as the morale of his soldiers had plummeted in fearing that the terrible ‘Malik Ric’ – Richard The Lionheart - had now become the invincible. But - as many readers will know – despite this victory The Third Crusade came to nothing and beaten down by logistics, politics, the weather and ill-health, the invincible ‘Malik Ric’ had to turn back before reaching Jerusalem, returned to Europe and left without a capable or inspiring commander, the moral-ascendancy and the tactics of victory were lost by the crusaders that remained in The Holy Land and despite the death of Saladin the upper-hand once again passed to the infidel.

A depiction of Genoese crossbowmen at the Battle of Arsuf in 1192. Though there were only just over a hundred crossbowmen present, at the range they are shown shooting over here their bolts would have decimated the Saracen light cavalry for as long as they had any bolts to shoot. The soldiers are shown wearing wearing different degrees of armour and carrying an assortment of weapons – steel helmets, skull-caps, mail-shirts or padded jacks worn beneath linen surcoats, a dagger or a sword. Most contemporary medieval sources show crossbowmen and archers un-armoured as ‘light infantry’ were not intended to be used for close-combat in a general melee. In the terrific heat and dust of The Holy Land, wearing heavy mail armour and padding was always a problem as a supply of water was often unavailable for long periods … but it seems that if a Crusader soldier without mail could get his hands on any mail - even looted Saracen mail - he wore it.
 

The real challenge for the crossbow in England had already appeared with the performance of ‘common Men of Sherwood’ as archers at the battle of Northallerton in 1138 (whose rate of fire and target-penetration completely devastated the Scots attack) and the inclusion of archers (which may or may not have been unconsciously intended to include ‘crossbowmen’) in The Assize of Arms of Henry II in 1181.  The death-blow for the crossbow in England probably came with The Commission of Array of Henry III in 1258 which called for all small landowners (earning at least £2 per annum) ‘to serve as or provide’ an archer for military service to defend the realm : commissioners would inspect all men of between sixteen and sixty to ensure that they were practising with the bow each week (failure to do so resulted in a fine). This created a large body of men in England equipped and trained for immediate military service … and the high-powered deadly ‘English Longbow’ (though it probably first appeared in Wales) had already taken over in English archery. Prince Edward ‘Longshanks’ had also been to The Holy Land on crusade and saw first-hand the advantage of ‘light infantry’ missile-support and having survived a murder attempt there by a professional Assassin - the prospective murderer used a poisoned dagger rather than a crossbow - to return to England and become King Edward I, he took a lot of trouble to provide companies of archers for all his military expeditions to Scotland and Wales, paying them at a higher daily-rate than the men-at-arms in the infantry : by comparison, the crossbowman rarely gets a mention at the time and this is taken by many historians that crossbowmen had as a result of The Commission of Array of 1258 become extinct in England.

The upper item is a sophisicated version of the twin-pronged Goats’-foot or Gaffle tackle intended to clip onto a waistbelt to provide the leverage to span a 13th Century crossbow (the simplest forms were just a forged claw on a length of rope).

The lower is a development of the ratchet-principle of the ballista in the form of a detachable windlass-crank known as a ‘cranequin’ for a powerful mid-14th Century crossbow : the windlass-crank slotted over or into the butt of the crossbow and could be removed after ‘spanning’ – but what a crossbowman then did with it is unknown. For powerful crossbows, using the ‘cranequin’ is a necessary but time-consuming process.

An Italian soldier of the 15th century using the method of ‘spanning’ a crossbow using detachable windlass-gear fitted with a single handle slotted over the end of the stock with the crossbow braced against his chest. His crossbow is fitted with a steel-spring prod fitted into the tiller. He appears to be carrying a shield on his back and wearing upper-body plate-armour over a padded jack, some sort of padded or studded gorget or collar and a ‘kettle-hat’ over a coif.
 

Whatever design William Tell used, the traditional legend has it that he always used a crossbow. When in the popular Swiss legend William Tell was forced to shoot an apple from his son’s head with a single bolt from his crossbow he did so – but when asked by Gessler (the ‘bad guy’ who had forced him to do the shot) why Tell was carrying a second bolt he replied that if he had killed his son he would then have reloaded the crossbow and shot him. Going by the design of the crossbow on the statue of William Tell erected in Switzerland in 1895, the popular legend doesn’t say if Tell would have asked this man to wait around for the thirty or so seconds it would have taken him to reload his crossbow in order to do so.  It should be noted that although the William Tell legend is set in the first years of the 14th Century, the first mention of William Tell did not occur until 1474 - and like Robin Hood, he has been used since as a racial and nationalist ‘propaganda’ figure and the truth of his actual existence and origin have always been in question.

Early 15th Century French crossbowmen using the pavais. Due to the time it took to reload a crossbow, crossbowmen deployed in battle or besieging a fortification and up against archers first had an ‘assistant’ who would hold a heavy wooden shield known as a pavais for them to shelter behind – without the assistant, the crossbowman would have to carry the heavy pavais himself and prop it up to shelter behind which was no doubt in comparison to the lightly-equipped archer a serious limitation on the battlefield mobility of the crossbowman. The French crossbowmen had pavais at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 but were unable to use them effectively due to the French battle-tactics.
 

European nations such as France, The Holy Roman Empire in Germany and the Italian States did not have the English Assize of Arms or Commission of Array system so the crossbow remained popular and still held sway with their military - though only as a supporting factor as the Church still considered them as the weapon of ‘assassins’ and most nations still favoured the ‘chivalry’ of heavily-armoured mounted knights to be the only decisive means of victory in battle. Even plain crossbows of the above design now used a lot of metal in their construction and were quite expensive to manufacture and it was often only the mercenary companies that invested in the crossbow, recouping the expense by hiring themselves out. The power of the old torsion-principle was now eclipsed by the power offered by the mechanical windlass-winder known as the ‘cranequin’ fitted to crossbows (which by necessity had now become pretty bulky and heavy). Ornate designs of crossbow appeared – museum examples today showing relief-carving, silver and ivory inlays and engraved decor were probably intended only for aristocrats going out hunting – but through the application of the mechanical windlass-tackle the crossbow developed into a weapon capable of such draw-weight power that no thickness of armour that could reasonably be worn by a soldier could resist the penetration of the bolts from such a weapon at a range less than 100 yards : a rather grisly excavated battlefield relic in the form of the skull of a 14th century medieval soldier who although wearing a steel helmet and a mail coif over a padded cap has the head of a crossbow-bolt embedded in his brain.

14th century French soldiers named ‘arbalestiers’ in the three stages of loading and shooting a crossbow. The windlass-crank seen here has two handles which appears to be the most common fitting … but the artist has shown the two handles directly opposite each other, which is not usual. Two of the soldiers are carrying their crossbow-bolts in the characteristic leather box at their belts and the soldier in the centre is ‘picking a quarrel’. A ‘bastard-string’ was used to fit the bowstring to a crossbow ready for use in a similar fashion to that used to nock the string of the longbow. What the soldiers would do with their crossbows if they had to draw and use their swords is debateable, though despite any historical evidence for it some ‘practical’ re-enactors have fitted their crossbows with leather slings to carry them on their backs.

A detail from a 15th century French depiction of the 14th century Battle of Crecy, the first big battlefield-tussle between the crossbow and the longbow. They show their crossbowmen - having left their pavais shields in the rear - caught loading using ‘cranequins’ and suffering from the superior rate of fire from English archers armed with longbows : some crossbowmen have already begun to retire from the front-line to find shelter behind the French foot and horse – who then began to abuse them for retreating and eventually French knights attacked them. The French blamed the Genoese crossbowmen for their defeat – they allowed a thunderstorm to soak and weaken their bowstrings before the battle and although depicted at close-quarters here they never advanced into effective range. The English archers were able to quickly unstring and refit their longbows if rain threatened and – partly-armoured and supported by several cannons – dominated the battle.
 

The mid-14th Century saw steel-spring prods being fitted to crossbows and a small steel spring to the tiller behind the nut to hold the bolt in place on the tiller during activity – but the supremacy of the English longbow due to rate of fire and penetration in the battles of Halidon Hill (1333), Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415) and subsequent sieges of the ‘Hundred Years War’ saw the military reputation of the crossbow plummet – as far as the British were concerned, anyway - though some blame can be attached to ill-management and badly-considered tactical applications by the French of their men armed with crossbows and even the prevailing weather (armchair battlefield-critics might consider that the effect of rain on bowstrings applied equally to the English and Welsh archers - but it is quicker and easier to remove and refit a string from a longbow than a crossbow before and after a sudden shower of rain). It should be noted that amongst the military property of the Crown listed as stolen in 1381 from The Tower of London by insurgents during The Peasants’ Revolt were a number of crossbows.   

An enhanced detail from a medieval text illustrating the mechanical windlass-gear fitted to powerful 14th-15th century crossbows. The sketch is a little out-of-proportion as the windlass shaft would have to be horizontal to the line of the tiller or stock of the crossbow - and the tricker isn’t shown at all. In most military crossbows the windlass-gear is a permanent feature but on some existing medieval hunting crossbows it appears to have been removeable (where a hunter would then keep the windlass-tackle is uncertain). This crossbow has a steel-spring prod and the bow-string would be much thicker than shown here. Such crossbows were very powerful but also quite heavy and bulky and quite expensive to acquire. Care has to be taken by the crossbowman not to get the linen winding-ropes damaged or tangled up. A German medieval crossbow of the 16th Century of this design claims to have a draw-weight of 5000 pounds and a range of 500 yards – with a good rate of fire from it being one bolt per minute.
 

Around this time, an attempt was made to release the crossbowman from having to use the ‘cranequin’ or the windlass-gear and improve the rate of fire from a crossbow by the introduction of a free-standing upright wooden lever-gear into which the crossbow could be inserted and the claw-principle along with the long handle of the gear then used to nock the crossbow in one easy motion before being removed for shooting.  It is pretty unlikely from the size and weight of this gear that it was ever intended as an individual issue or see battlefield use but in a castle it would have been handy where a group of crossbowmen operating from the top of a wall or inside an ‘arrow-slit’ could have used it. The gear would certainly have improved the loading time of a crossbow – estimates lie between seven and ten seconds to nock a crossbow from start using such a gear, so one such gear would have served five crossbowmen shooting within five yards of it - but if the powerful crossbows intended for use with one weren’t fitted with cranks they would have been useless without such a gear to hand and it is unknown if this particular gear saw any extensive use.

The Agincourt Campaign of 1415 offered a potential battlefield ‘re-match’ of longbow versus crossbow. The archers of Henry V enjoyed a high-morale factor through past victories - though suffering on that campaign along with the rest of the army of Henry V the inclement weather and wholesale sickness brought on by bad food and drink causing acute dysentery. Because of the great disparity in opposing numbers (5000 English and Welsh archers supporting about 900 foot – the English knights dismounted to fight – against a French army numbering over 25,000 men including a great weight of heavy cavalry) the result of a battle seemed very clear but the French desire for revenge for past defeats led to a high degree of French over-confidence on the battlefield which by selecting a badly-restricted position for their army denied them the support of their crossbowmen, who though confident they could achieve success against the English archers were relegated to a ‘back seat’ right from the start and eventually pushed out of the battle by the French horse and foot. Though the English and Welsh archers were as much worried the night before the battle as the rest of the army of Henry V by potential destruction next day and ‘dug in’ behind an improvised wall of sharpened stakes on the morning of the battle, once the enemy were in sight their ebullience and confidence quickly re-established itself and they seem to have had no real fear of opposing crossbowmen or enemy horse … they remained highly-disciplined in the opening stages of the battle and once the French had got themselves into a real pickle seem to have had no hesitation in joining the general melee in the battle using daggers, short-swords, axes or by picking up dropped or discarded weapons. The fighting became wholesale slaughter and saw many high-ranking French nobles fall : it ended with the disparity in dead and wounded – between 7000 and 10,000 French not including 1500 noblemen taken prisoner (many of whom being unable to pay their ransom never returned to France) to between 100 and 500 English – being claimed as a ‘miracle’ and a clear indication that God was on the side of King Henry V. The oft-quoted tradition that before the battle the French nobles had announced that they would sever the two right-hand bowstring-fingers of all captured English and Welsh archers to render them useless resulting in the pre-battle ‘two-fingered salute’ given to the French by ‘English’ archers before the battle started is one of the most popular and endearing legends concerning the longbow versus the crossbow … but this probably has more to do with post-battle ‘propaganda’ and ‘national character’ than battle-tactics. As any archer knows, longbowmen use three fingers to loose an arrow but the loss of any two of them would obviously be a severe disadvantage.  The French crossbowmen at Agincourt must have initially been quite frustrated and angry – but they didn’t receive a repeat of the criticism aimed at them after Crecy and at the end of the battle, were probably very glad they had been left out of the ‘re-match’.

Back in England, the 15th Century civil war which became known as ‘The Wars of the Roses’ saw a great demand on both sides for ‘retained archers’ … though the nemesis of the longbow was now well-established in the form of cannons and battles of that period also saw early ‘handgounnes’ operating alongside archers. The longbow by then was very close to it’s peak of battlefield performance through use and standardisation supported by royal decrees from the time of Edward III concerning continuous supplies of European yew staves and the quality of manufacture of both bows and projectiles (though 16th Century royal statutes show that the crossbow was still in use by including them in laws such as ‘all the heads of arrows and quarrels after this time to be made shall be well-boiled or brassed and hardened at the points with steel’ and ‘every arrowhead and quarrel be marked with the mark of him that made the same’).

From an original medieval text, an English ‘arqubusier’ firing his ‘handgounne’ at the battle of Tewkesbury in 1468. The early ‘handgounne’ required two men to operate (one of them carried a charcoal brazier around to heat the iron rod to provide the means of ignition through poking the red-hot point into a hole in the gunbarrel). Accuracy was non-existent at anything other than close-range and their rate of fire was even less than the crossbow - but it was acknowledged that the fire and smoke on a battlefield was ‘impressive - though it did frighten the horses’. But - it was one of these weapons that dropped the Earl of Lincoln, rebel commander at the battle of East Stoke in 1487 by the bullet piercing his cuirass as he stood up in his stirrups to get a better view of the battle - reputedly by a deliberate ‘aimed shot’ - and so became the herald of the end of archery and the age of individual gunpowder-weapons.
 


PART TWO : POST-MEDIEVAL

By 1509, a royal decree of Henry VIII emphasised the importance of archers by stating that a royal licence had to be granted to permit the use of a gun or a crossbow as an alternative to a longbow – this decree was reinforced in 1511 for men under forty years of age and again in 1541 by the restatement that all men below the age of seventeen and sixty had to provide himself with a bow and arrows and practice with them every Sunday (a law jokingly pointed out by historians several times as it has never been repealed and is still on the statute book). Such statutes created longbows of terrific draw-weight power (one longbow recovered from the Tudor warship Mary Rose is recorded as having a draw-weight of 180 pounds). But – the inevitable could not be avoided and the same statutes as stated also attempted to limit the use of both firearms and crossbows although cannons were fitted to the Mary Rose and by that time Henry VIII had commissioned his own private firearms. 

In 1547, the German crossbowmen of Mainz had sold their crossbows and bought muskets and gunpowder to form a Guild of Sharp-Shooters, exhibiting their new skill with firearms in ‘target-shooting’ and were already dabbling in the ballistic art of ‘rifling’. The demise of the longbow in the face of the hand-gun is echoed in several period English testaments. The praise of the English longbow in the face of modern alternatives is indicated in these as none mention the crossbow.  In 1549, the English Bishop Latimer preached a sermon before Edward VI in which he denounced the vice of the modern age and advocated a return to ‘the manly and noble pastimes of our youth’ which emphasised archery : “In my time my poor father was as diligent to teach me to shoot as to learn me any other thing and so I think did other men their children. He taught me how to draw, how to lay my body in my bow, and not to draw with strength of my arms as other nations do but with the strength of my body. I had my bows bought me according to my age and strength and as I increased in them so my bows were made bigger - for men shall never shoot well except they be brought up to it. It is a goodly art, a wholesome sort of exercise and much recommended in physic.” 

Though the European crossbow reached a zenith of both performance and associated décor in Italy during The Renaissance at the same time as hand-guns were taking over, The Venetian State Papers of 1557 contain a similar exhortation of the English longbow : “The English, to say the truth, being most expert archers so that they would not yield to any other people more trained and experienced than they are, and such is their opinion of archery and their esteem of it that they doubtless prefer it to all other sorts of arms and to arquebuses in which they trust less, feeling more sure of their bows and arrows ; contrary however to the judgement of the captains and soldiers of other nations. The English draw the bow with such force and dexterity that at the same time some are said to pierce corselets and body-armour and there are even those amongst them that are moderately practised who will not undertake at a convenient distance either aiming point-blank or in the air – as they generally do so as the arrow may fly further – to hit within an inch and a half of the mark.”

Whatever the validity of the above claim – as at the time of writing both longbows and crossbows had been visibly piercing both mail and plate-armour on battlefields for over 200 years - by 1578 The Tower of London had seven thousand muskets in store and a large quantity of gunpowder and though both the longbow and the crossbow were admitted into English forces during The Spanish Armada Scare of 1588, the London Trained Bands in 1595 were commanded to hand in their longbows and arrows to receive matchlock muskets or calivers and a supply of gunpowder in return. As no mention is made in 1595 of what was to happen to all the crossbows owned by the Crown it is presumed that the Government crossbows in store at The Tower of London had already been consigned to the scrapheap. Though a few English crossbow designs made during the time of Elizabeth I exist (named ‘latches’ or ‘latchets’) they all appear intended for hunting purposes.

A graceful and lightweight English ‘latchet’ crossbow from the time of Elizabeth I. This crossbow used a slightly longer and thinner un-fletched bolt fitted with a broad-head pile. The prod is made of yew and integral with the tiller - the polished hardwood tiller is capped with a rounded wooden dome and in this crossbow having no stirrup is said to suppose that this crossbow was intended to be loaded with the dome on the ground and the shooter pulling the bowstring down rather than up  - the author doesn’t believe this is so as this is an awkward and because of the set of the metal tricker a somewhat risky method without a return-spring fitted to the tricker and believes the wooden dome was intended to be placed against the stomach of the shooter during nocking.
 

Why the gun was adopted in the face of the longbow or crossbow concerns an understanding of the great social, economic and political changes in England from ‘The Wars of the Roses’ through the reign of Henry VIII and The Reformation through to Charles I. No more ‘robber-barons’ existed in a unified England (though Scotland was still considered a threat from 1688 until 1746 and Ireland was still unstable in 1790) and the defence of the realm had now passed to the coast or via the re-constituted ‘Royal Navy’, beyond it. The required investment in the kind of professional armies possessed by France and Spain was enormous and such forces could no longer be opposed by a English common levy called-up to back a small retained ‘standing army’ – gunpowder had been refined and cannons on the battlefield were now of a design that could now effectively out-range even the longbow. Though the sword, longbow, crossbow, cannon, matchlock hand-gun and pike all joined forces in The Thirty Years War and The English Civil Wars of the 17th Century, the invention circa 1700 of the ‘socket-bayonet’ fitted to flintlock muskets introduced the modern infantryman and put most of these out of business (though it took another 218 years and the creation and development of the internal-combustion engine, the machine-gun, mass-produced armour-plate and the caterpillar-track to finally make battlefield-cavalry obsolete). The age of mass-produced replacement ‘cannon-fodder’ in time of war - if and when required - had arrived.  
 

EPILOGUE

In the 18th and 19th Centuries, legend has it – supported by historical evidence – that due to the shortage of gunpowder and muskets, the crossbow was suggested by Congress as an arm for George Washington’s Continental Army in 1775 and The Royal Toxophilite Society (whose patron was HRH The Prince Regent) did suggest that the shortcomings of the famous ‘Brown Bess’ muzzle-loading flintlock infantry musket noted at the battle of Waterloo in June 1815 could be resolved by a re-introduction of the longbow into the infantry.

The potential of the crossbow in ‘Hunting’ can perhaps be best explored in the 20th century. In more recent times, the ‘flap’ caused by the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in 1940 highlighted the lack of basic small-arms to equip the volunteers from reserved occupations or those that were below or beyond enlistment age of what became known as Local Defence Volunteers (more popularly known as ‘Dads’s Army’) - though many hundreds of rifles, pistols and ammunition were donated at the time by sympathetic shooters and hunters in North America (many of which were never returned to their rightful owners) British museums were inspected by army officers for arms for which ammunition was still available - and the longbow and especially the crossbow came under scrutiny.  Though these measures have to be taken with an understanding of the pressing situation at the time, a crossbow from a museum would have been far more effective than a double-barrelled shotgun loaded with birdshot or ‘a breadknife lashed to a broom stick’ which was one recommendation to a resident but  unarmed willing British resistance-fighter on the South Coast in the face of a Nazi invasion following Winston Churchill’s exhortation in his broadcast in the darkest days of 1940 that “… we will fight them on the beaches, we will fight them in the towns, we will fight them in the hills – we will never surrender !”  Plans for a ‘secret army’ of irregulars if a Nazi invasion actually occurred in 1940-41 show plans to issue them with rifles and if these were not available, crossbows. Recent files that have popped up show that the crossbow in particular was adopted during The Second World War by both OSS and SOE for ‘covert purposes’ in that they could be easily manufactured on a ‘take-down’ basis for concealment and used to silently kill enemy soldiers by irregulars or Resistance forces. In the 21st century, modern ‘Special Forces’ hint that the crossbow is still available as part of their covert kit – fitted with infra-red ‘night-sights’ and the bolt being a converted hypodermic syringe loaded with deadly cyanide – for quickly and silently bumping-off enemy sentries – and once again, the threat of the use of crossbows by political assassins has recently resurrected, best reflected in popular fiction but newspaper headlines in the United Kingdom in 2006 reported that a bolt from a crossbow landed on the playing-field during a football match in Manchester : the game was abandoned by the referee and it was later reported the missile had been deliberately shot from outside the stadium.

Crossbows – like the longbow with ‘two strings to my bow’ and ‘nock on - nock off’) – have also left behind some popular sayings which are still in use (‘to pick a quarrel’ and ‘a bolt from the blue’ probably being the most frequently used). Many legal restrictions in several European countries apply to crossbows that do not apply to bows – mostly due to the fact the powers-that-be declare that crossbows can be more easily concealed - and illegal bow-hunters armed with modern lightweight crossbows fitted with telescopic sights (as seen for sale on many internet sites) generally get the blame whenever a wild deer is spotted today by a tourist in The New Forest with an arrow sticking out of its backside.   

Despite the commonly-held belief, ‘true-blooded Englishmen’ - whoever they might be in the medieval 12th to 15th Centuries having a mixture of Celt, Gaul, Roman, Saxon, Jute, Angle and Norman blood in their veins - didn’t always use the bow and it wasn’t always the ‘bad guys’ that used crossbows. If Robin Hood and William Tell ever get together in the same place they can add their own opinions on the subject.
 

‘To pick a Quarrel … ’

During the siege of Chalus in 1199, after King Richard the Lionheart had been struck by the crossbow-bolt during the attack he made light of the wound and ordered Mercadier – his mercenary captain and second-in-command - to continue the attack : the castle eventually fell and all the defenders were captured and hanged, except one - the man who had shot the King. It was Mercadier’s surgeon who eventually extracted the crossbow-bolt from Richard the Lionheart’s collar-bone with some difficulty and is said to have noted that although the wound was deep but in putting on weight, wearing unwashed clothes and by not having the bolt extracted and the wound cleaned and dressed for some hours after he had been struck, it was the Kings’ own stupid fault he contracted gangrene. When he knew that he was dying, King Richard asked to see Peter Basilius - the Limousin crossbowman who had been seen using a frying-pan as a shield during the siege and who had later shot him - and asked him for what reason he had done it ?  Basilius stated that King Richard had personally killed his father and two brothers in the attack … and because of this, Richard forgave Basilius and ordered him to be released. Richard died on the evening of April 6th, eleven days after he had been struck. The next day, the mercenary captain Mercadier had the crossbowman Peter Basilius skinned alive and then hanged.

In the civil war after Magna Carta, Rochester Castle was besieged and fell in November 1215 to loyalist forces, with the rebel survivors taken prisoner. King John was furious and wanted to hang the entire captured garrison outright but was persuaded not to do so for fear of retaliation against loyalist prisoners being held by the rebel barons. King John had to be content with hanging a single crossbowman - for the reason he had recognised the ungrateful crossbowman had formerly been a member of his own household.

‘A bolt from the blue … ’

So - the crossbow claimed perhaps it’s three best-known medieval victims … unless it wasn’t an arrow but a crossbow-bolt that struck King Harold in the eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066  ? 

Appendix : Figures and Ranges
 

The range and effectiveness of medieval crossbows has always been in question. That a bow or a crossbow can shoot an arrow or a bolt a great distance (modern archers are said to have shot flight-arrows from longbows over 400 yards) denies the fact that such projectiles would become relatively ineffective after travelling a certain distance and even in modern-day practical experiments arrows fitted with armour-piercing bodkin piles shot at plate-armour at close-range have glanced-off a rounded surface – though against un-armoured targets or flesh-and-blood they are devastating.

Examination of medieval battlefields today (though fraught with guesswork using existing medieval accounts, recent examination since has yielded more accurate battlefield topography) does yield some interesting clues regarding the effective ranges considered at the time for such missiles but some account has to be given in the table below that ‘morale’ would have been a factor. By comparison hardly any missiles came towards the Normans at Hastings: the Anglo-Saxon nobles seem to have considered the arrow in battle as ‘unsporting’ in the same way they dismounted to fight. At Northallerton, the Scots infantry were surprised by the presence of English archers and they had very few of their own with which to reply. At Arsuf the Saracen archers were spread very thinly and shot at such a range their arrows didn’t adequately penetrate the shield-wall or the armour of the Franks – the arrows and bolts from the Frankish crossbowmen and archers were seen at the same range to pass through the Saracen armour ‘like eggshell’. At Crecy, the opposing crossbowmen were tired and not in very good heart and also had wet bowstrings. At Agincourt - though greatly outnumbered - the English and Welsh archers advanced to ‘extreme bowshot’ but didn’t seem to have much fear of the enemy crossbowmen who though seemingly confident at the time despite the mud were made redundant through the French battle-tactics. 

 Battle

 Flat-bow

Long-bow

 Crossbow

HASTINGS 1066 70 yards  -  50 yards
NORTALLERTON 1138 - 100 yards  -
ARSUF 1192 - 100 yards 75 yards
CRECY 1346 - 200 yards 100 yards
AGINCOURT 1415 - 250 + yards 150 yards

A rather grisly test performed by the author some years ago with the target being a piece of pork of about three inches in width wrapped in linen then wool showed that even a modern bullet-pile on a bolt shot from a light hunting crossbow penetrated an inch into the target at 50 yards – by comparison (though slightly unfair as no broad-headed quarrels were available to be shot) an arrow shot at 50 yards from a longbow fitted with a broad-head pile went through the fabric and piece of pork (note – the piece of pork used in the test was later roasted and consumed by the shooters). Another test which has been performed recently gave the following results :

 

Draw-weight in pounds

Projectile weight in ounces

Speed in feet per second

Longbow 80  3 150
Crossbow 700 1.5 135

Set against the overall comparison of cost, weight and facility of both weapons in the medieval era, the longbow does seem to come on top. But – until circa 1220, the longbow was still in development and wasn’t in general use in England. Many men of the fyrd or The Assize of Arms could not have justified or afforded the expense of a crossbow. The ‘flat-bow’ made of ash in use 1066-1135 though cheaper and more accessible to common hunters did not have the same range or penetration as a longbow circa 1250 made of yew, and by 1350 such bows were even more powerful. A comparison follows :

 

Draw-weight in pounds

Projectile weight in ounces

Speed in feet per second

Flat-bow 40  2 100
Crossbow 250  1 120

‘Sporting’ or hunting use shows that the crossbow may have still an edge over the bow up to the year 1150 - especially with the fact that use and accuracy of a crossbow could be learned more speedily than a bow and once loaded by a more experienced huntsman a crossbow could be passed to a novice or a woman to shoot. Expense would not have mattered much to a wealthy Norman or Saxon family seeking a result and the power of the crossbow could also have been increased through the introduction of the Gaffle-tackle and the Nut.

In many medieval battles before 1450, the foot were not fully-armoured and at Agincourt, many of the archers opposing the French crossbowmen were not armoured and those who were seem to have chosen ‘upper-body’ armour only and/or a steel helmet. The heavy pavais or pavise shield used in battle and siege and usually attributed to crossbowmen only was also used by archers in a siege as seen in several medieval illustrations and modern interpretations.

The development of the pavais into the moveable wheeled screen known as the mantlet is shown here in use by archers during a siege – but in the final stages the assault on the castle walls has become hand-to-hand combat at close-quarters and the job of knights and men-at-arms using the siege-tower or belfry.
 

The choice of ‘professional’ English soldier or the mercenary companies alongside them seems to have been the crossbow until 1250, when the longbow took over in England for battle-use through calling-up the Assize – but the crossbow continued in use (though they also used archers) in other European nations. Developments aimed at increasing the power and range of the crossbow also included developments of the projectiles. The weight of a crossbow-bolt or quarrel could be increased for close-range use (almost inevitable during a siege or a battle) and increase the potential for ‘armour-piercing’. Striking an un-armoured target with such a quarrel would be extremely debilitating to the person concerned and in 1200, not all the foot comprising an army were armoured.

Crossbow-bolts in the medieval era could be fitted with a stouter and heavier head and these heads were later fitted with ‘discs’ to adapt their kinetic-energy to offer a penetration of armour even if striking armour on a glancing-surface, though these ‘discs’ probably did reduce their range and perhaps introduced a degree of instability in flight. The soft-metal disc made the first impact and the crossbow-bolt without glancing off from the rounded surface would then penetrate the armour. The padded ‘arming-jack’ worn underneath armour could be up to an inch thick. This innovation is documented in the medieval era but the application and extent is unknown.
 

Central European medieval crossbowmen such as Swiss and German huntsmen when out hunting do not seem to have expressed concern about their crossbows : accuracy and penetration of game such as boar and deer do not seem to have raised much of a problem until the ‘handgun’ became generally available from 1550. The novelty of possessing a firearm instead of a crossbow seems to have eclipsed the fact they were more expensive, awkward and slower to load than the crossbow and had to be used over much the same range. The development of firearms promised much in the future – but it would take gunsmiths and shooters another 200 years to create the effective rifle and permit sportsmen to pass beyond the range and the accuracy of the longbow or crossbow shot at a man-sized target at optimum ranges.

The following may provide a guide though in terms of ‘average’ performance, shooters of longbows and crossbows were ‘professionals’ with experience and common soldiers using the musket often did not have the same training or commitment and their directive was not to ‘aim’ but to ‘advance into range, point them in the general direction of the enemy and fire volleys en masse’. Hunters and sportsmen using the early long-rifle on the ‘patched bullet’ principle claim some astounding feats of marksmanship, especially when involved in colonial warfare.

  Effective range
(un-armoured target)
Accuracy to within 2 inches
at 50 yards
Crossbow  1500 150  40%
Longbow 1500 200 40%
Matchlock Musket 1600 100 10%
Flintlock musket 1700 150 20%
Flintlock Rifle 1750 300 100%

Richard Moore  ©  2002  Updated August 2008