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Welcome to Episode #128 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

Following its prominent use in the decisive victory of the English against the French in the Battle of Agincourt, the English longbow was a stalwart image of English patriotism well into the 1590s. Having been a favorite weapon for the famous Kings of England like Henry V, but also Edward III and Elizabeth I’s father, Henry VIII, the English longbow was a tried and true military technology that was as uniquely deadly as it was uniquely English. 

While it may have fallen out of favor among England’s young men by the time Shakespeare staged Henry V, the longbow nevertheless influenced the life of William Shakespeare. But what was this weapon? How was it used? And why was it effective against strong defenses like metal armour in battle?

Here today to share with us how the English longbow is made, which materials are best for crafting the large and heavy bow, as well as how the English longbow became established as a permanent fixture in the history of England is our guest Alan Odinson.

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Alan Odinson is the owner/operator of Odinson Archery and has been an avid archery enthusiast most of his life. He is considered a master archer and is proficient in many forms of archery related skills. These range from the use of traditional longbows to the use of more complex Asiatic styles of archery. He is also an instructor in archery tactics and warfare simulation methodology. His website can be found at odinsonarchery.com

In this episode, I’ll be asking Alan Odinson about :

  • Was the English Longbow an effective military weapon historically?
  • Are there differences between modern archery and the traditional medieval longbow?
  • What was the pull in pounds for an English Longbow? Did you have to be particularly strong to wield this weapon?

… and more!

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… like an arrow shot
From a well-experienced archer hits the mark…

Antiochus

Periciles (I.1)

Bataille d’Azincourt/Battle of Agincourt | Battle of Agincourt (1415), miniature tirée de l’Abrégé de la Chronique d'Enguerrand de Monstrelet, XVe siècle, Paris, BnF, département des Manuscrits, manuscrit Français 2680, folio 208. | Frühes 15. Jahrhundert (early 15th century) | Antoine Leduc, Sylvie Leluc et Olivier Renaudeau (dir.), D'Azincourt à Marignan. Chevaliers et bombardes, 1515-1515, Paris, Gallimard / Musée de l'armée, 2015, p. 18-19, ISBN 978-2-07-014949-0 | Author Chroniques d’Enguerrand de Monstrelet (early 15th century). Source

Powerful and Effective Military Weapon

Credited with being the reason the English won the Battle at Agincourt, the English Longbow was not only powerful and effective in battle, the English were particularly so proficient with this weapon that it came to symbolize the English national identity. So entertwined were the images of the English longbow and the power of the English military that by the time Shakespeare was writing the battle scenes for his play Henry V, there was a movement among the older generation to try and convince the younger men to take up archery. 

As Alan explains, the longbow was “one of the weapons that really allowed the English empire to grow. Not much before that which could match the range and effectiveness. It was a huge improvement. Used all the way up to WW2 Mad Jack Churchill known for going into battle with a longsword and longbow. Last official in war kill with the longbow in battle. “

In the military, the longbow allowed for much faster shooting. The French used crossbows, and the English had a large advantage over the crossbow specifically.  

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Draw, archers, draw your arrows to the head!

Richard III

Richard III (V.3)

Scaled down, low-resolution, copy of the movie poster for Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, released by Warner Brothers in 1991. This image is of a poster, and the copyright for it is most likely owned by either the publisher or the creator of the work depicted. It is believed that the use of scaled-down, low-resolution images of poster to provide critical commentary on the film, event, etc. in question or of the poster itself, not solely for illustration, hosted on servers in the United States, qualifies as fair use under the copyright law of the United States. Source

Flaming Arrows Were Real!

Fans of Kevin Costner's Robin Hood Prince of Thieves please pay attention: the really cool, life saving, ultra heroic, flaming arrows were actually real in England's history. In fact, customizing the arrows was one key feature to the longbow in particular. As Alan explains, “Specialty arrows, like flaming arrows. It was a bird cage head, flame material in there like an oil base to keep it lit, but they also had rigging arrows, they had a crescent moon head that oculd be fired at a ship’s rigging, and cut the rigging and drop the sails.”

“Here is the crescent arrow head that was used mainly for removal of ship rigging. It could be used combatively against mounted enemies but not often. This is another from my shop.” – From Alan Odinson | This image is provided to That Shakespeare Life in collaboration with Odinson Archery. Image used by permission and ownership of these images is retained by Alan Odinson.

Alan contacted us on social media to share some additional information on flaming arrowheads. He sent us these pictures along with this note:

“These were the flaming arrowheads I referred to on the show. Flammable materials, such as oil soaked hay, was placed in this basket head. It was lit and then fired. This cage prevented the material from flying out when fired. Notice the short pointed tip there. This meant that the arrow only stuck into the object barely while leaving the flaming material exposed at the top. Perfect height for the fire the catch. These were also popular in siege warfare when defending a castle. Boiling oil would be poured on individuals attempting to break the gates and then lit on fire with these arrows.”

These are what Alan describes as “These are more of a classic Saxon style arrowhead. These were more or less hunting arrows and weren't used much in combat. These are some I made in my shop.” See more of Alan's work at OdinsonArchery.com | This image is provided to That Shakespeare Life in collaboration with Odinson Archery Image used by permission and ownership of these images is retained by Alan Odinson.

This is an example of a metal cage in which the English longbowmen would place their flammable material for firing a flaming arrowhead.This image is provided to That Shakespeare Life in collaboration with Odinson Archery Image used by permission and ownership of these images is retained by Alan Odinson.

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Sir boy, now let me see your archery;
Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus (IV.3)

Battle of Crécy between the English and French in the Hundred Years' War. From a illuminated manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chronicles 15th century | FR 2643, fol. 165v | The victorious English are on the right. | From Chapter CXXIX of Jean Froissart's Chronicles, example source at http://www.maisonstclaire.org/resources/chronicles/froissart/book_1/ch_126-150/fc_b1_chap129.html | Source

You had to be very strong to weild a longbow

The English had more than one kind of bow that qualified as “archery”, which is why when you see images of people hunting birds with bows and arrows, the bows seem much smaller. That's because they were quite different. As Alan explains, “[The English] had a longbow and a war bow. Those werne’t the same. The draw weight on the war bow was significantly heavier. Other than that, the same. Modern archery now has taken away all the difficulty of historical archery. Compound bows with wheels on them, that has a let-off, which means if the bow is 80lbs to draw it, you don’t have to hold that weight (the let off takes that down to 20-50lbs). No sights, so you had to guage the range. Bows are also not as heavy of a draw weight, no plate armour, not used in battle. Arrows are also different. Their arrows could pierce armor.” 

Young prince Maximilian hunting for birds as a horsed archer, it was depicted in the so-called “Weißkunig” (part of the Triumphal Arch by Albrecht Dürer and his pupils) | Date 1470| Source: Part of the “Triumphal Arch (woodcut) ” Weißkunig, heavily illustrated with woodcuts. | Author Albrecht Dürer and his pupils | Public Domain | Source

Anyone weilding a longbow needed to be particularly strong. Alan explains that “the draw weight on a typical longbow went up to 200 lbs, with the average being 180lbs. Compare that to traditional hunting unarmoured longbows [which had a draw weight of] 60-80lbs.” Skeletons retrieved from the wreck of the Mary Rose, reveal that men who had trained to become longbowmen were abnormally strong and had physical features overdeveloped in the muscle areas necessary for firing a longbow. This meant that an army of longbowmen coming at you across a field of battle would have looked quite scary and formidable indeed. 

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You are a good archer, Marcus;
Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus (IV.3)

English: English Yew longbow (105 lbf at 32 inches). Photo taken by me, James Cram, and released into the public domain | 26 December 2006 (original upload date) | Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. | Hitchhiker89 at English Wikipedia

It took a lifetime to learn to be good with a longbow

English historian Hugh Latimer described the longbow and learning to use one as a life long pursuit. He writes, “In my tyme, my poore father, was as diligent to teache me to shote, as to learne any other thynge, and I think other men dyd theyr children. He taughte me how to drawe, how to lay my bodye in my bowe, and not to drawe with strength of armes as other nacions do, but with the strength of the body.” (Source)

Latimer's description of the longbow indicates a true fact about learning the longbow in England: Children were raised up in this skill. Literally, there life's pursuit was to grow up to be a longbowman in the military. For children, the bow was made small to fit their young stature. As they grew, the weapon was increased in size and strength to match the growing skill of the archer. Alan explains that this meant the men who were raised in this way developed into very large, powerful, warriors. 

Photo by Hans Splinter September 8, 2005. Medieval Archery Competition. Used by CCAttribution License. Source

“In reality, it is your back that does most of the pulling. The back muscles, and the really insanely heavy bows. Video of a guy shooting a traditional English longbow. He leans his whole body into it and draw his whole body back hips, core, feet, and back, he uses his entire body to draw it back. Had to be very strong. Queen mary they found had tons of English longbows on it. Found some skeletons that were of English longbowmen, their body structure had changed and their spines were deformed.” 

In addition to being very strong, archers were also adept at shooting from various angles. Alan explains, “Alot of archers will hold the bow sideways toput the arrow on there, and as they lean back and draw, they will rotate the bow up and down to shoot it. Volleying shots mostly, group launching them into the air.”

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Immediately access to our digital streaming app, PLUS Bonus content, exclusive interviews, documentaries, digital history activity kits, and more! Come inside, where you can cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare.

Books & Resources Alan Odinson Recommends

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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