Archery in Anglo-Saxon England
When discussing archery in the Anglo-Saxon period three main questions come up:
- How common were bows, and were they used in battle?
- What type of bow was used?, and;
- How was the bow used?.
In the following article I hope to be answering these questions.
One of the most common arguments against bows is 'If they were at all common why have we never found many?'. At first this seems a valid argument until you consider that from the period of the longbow's greatness (c.1250 - 1500) not one bowstave[note 1], of the tens of thousands known to have been produced, has survived. Indeed, until the discovery of the Mary Rose, we had no mediaeval bows at all. It is therefore quite surprising to consider that from the first millennium somewhere in the region of 40 - 50 bowstaves have survived with traces of many others having been found. As with most weapons finds, most of these come from pagan grave finds, but they can give us a very good idea of the type of bow in use shortly before, and probably during, our period.
The most likely explanation for the lack of bows found in the Christian period (both pre and post conquest) is simple, unlike a sword or axe, a bow is a 'disposable' weapon. As a bow is used it loses strength until it is too weak to be of use, especially if your life or livelihood depend on it, therefore it is an item which would be frequently replaced rather than cherished and passed on from father to son as other weapons might be. Add to this the fact that all wooden bows are prone to breakage so again would need to be replaced. It could be argued that if there were so many bows being 'thrown away' why have so few survived? Again the answer is simple, at the end of its useful life what do you do with a bow? You throw it away or find another use for the wood; certainly we have found that broken bowstaves are very good for stirring dye baths and lighting fires. A bow is not the sort of weapon you hang on the wall as a family heirloom! Since we do not have many actual bows we must use other sources to help, the main one of these being documentary evidence. Almost all the archers shown in manuscript illustrations or on carvings are using the bow in a military context (apart from one manuscript showing a woman hunting with a bow) and as an individual rather than as part of a unit (with the notable exception of the Norman archers on the Bayeux Tapestry). Apart from illustrated sources we have many written references to the bow, the most notable being those in the poem 'The Battle of Maldon' -
- 'And yet no warrior could injure another, except by the flight of a feathered arrow.'
- 'Bowstrings were busy, shield parried point.'
- 'The hostage helped them with all his might - his name was Æscferth, the son of Ecglaf; he came of a brave family in Northumbria. He did not flinch in the battle-play but shot his arrows as fast as he could. Sometimes he hit a shield, sometimes he pierced a man, again and again he inflicted wounds for as long as he could hold a bow in his hands.'
These are the best known references to archery although some of the less well known ones also help shed light on the matter. In Beowulf [note 2] when the hero dies, we hear:
- '....... Now flames, the blazing fire, must devour the lord of warriors who often endured the iron-tipped arrow shower, when the dark cloud loosed by bow strings broke above the shield wall, quivering; when the eager shaft, with its feather garb, discharged its duty to the barb.'
The works of Aldhelm contain several references to archery, the most useful of which reads;
- 'just as the warlike bowman in the midst of battle is hemmed in by a dense formation of enemy legions, then, when his bow is tensed by his powerful hands and arms and arrows are drawn from the quiver,... the throng, swollen with the arrogance of pride, their shieldwall having been shattered, turn their backs and flee headlong.'
Aldhelm also uses the bow as an example in his 'Tract on Virginity'. Another good reference is found in riddle 23 in the Exeter Book -
- 'Agof[note 3] is my name, if you work it out; I am a fair creature fashioned for battle. When I bend, and shoot a deadly shaft from my belly, I desire only to send that poison as far away as possible. When my lord, who devised this torment for me, releases my limbs I become longer and, bent upon slaughter, spit out that deadly poison I swallowed before. No man is parted easily from the object I describe; if he is struck by what flies from my belly, he pays for its poison with his strength - speedy atonement for his life. I will serve no master when unstrung, only when I am cunningly notched. Now guess my name.'
The authors of these pieces obviously expect their readers to be familiar with bows and archery terms, so bows must have been well known at the time, even if used primarily for hunting, and there can be no doubt that they were used in battle. Who used them in battle is another matter. We know that the Vikings made use of the bow quite extensively both on land and at sea, especially the Norwegians (recorded as 'Famous bowmen') and the Swedes (the word 'bow' sometimes being used to denote a warrior in Sweden). Even kings were known to wield bows in battle, taking great pride in their skill, and this is shown well in the telling of the Battle of Svoldr in 'King Olaf Tryggvasson's Saga'. It seems reasonable to expect that when the Vikings settled in Britain they would have brought their bows with them and that skill in archery would still be prized amongst them. As to how much the Saxons used archery we cannot be so sure. Certainly they knew of, and used, bows both as weapons of war and for hunting. However, whether they were used by the upper ranks of society or just by ceorls is a more difficult question.
The first two extracts from 'The Battle of Maldon' tell us that bows were being used, but not who was using them (Saxon or Viking, Highborn or low). The third extract tells us that Ecglaf was a hostage and that he 'came of a brave family in Northumbria'. To be of any use as a hostage he would have to have been fairly high born so we could argue that the upper ranks did use the bow in war, however we also know he came from Northumbria, an area heavily influenced by the Vikings so he could have just been carrying on the Viking tradition for archery. It seems most likely that amongst the Saxons the bow was used mainly for hunting by the high born although it was sometimes used in battle by the ceorlish ranks. However amongst the Vikings archery was quite widely used by both high and low.
There is reliable evidence of Welsh archery eleven years before Hastings in the account of Ralph, Eorl of Hereford, on the expedition he led into Wales. When the Saxon horsemen had ridden into the Welsh mountains they were ambushed by archers who shot so accurately and strongly that, according to the Abingdon Chronicle, 'the English people fled, before ever a spear had been thrown, because they were on horseback'. One estimate from the time puts the English casualties at five hundred whilst the Welsh suffered no losses. Here was a lesson that, if the Saxons had learned from it, could have changed the outcome of the Battle of Hastings; cavalry are helpless against well ordered archers.
The evidence for the use of the bow in Normandy before 1066 is even slighter than that for England, though our knowledge of the Battle of Hastings clearly suggests a strong likelihood that military archery in Normandy was by that time well developed. This is made even more likely when you remember that the Normans were descended from the Vikings who we know had a good tradition of archery.
The question of what type of bow was used is easier to answer. Many 'military historians' claim the longbow[note 4] was not used before the twelfth century; this is patently incorrect. The longbow can be shown to have a continuous use in northern Europe ever since the late stone age. The oldest longbow yet found in this country is a yew bow from Somerset and is dated 2,665BC, on the continent there is a Danish example from around 6,000BC! As we get into the post-Roman/early mediaeval period we have a series of bows from Denmark and Germany. They are all made of either yew or fir-wood and they are longbows of deep stacked 'D' section cut from logs of wood, the outer surface of the logs forming the backs of the bows. The length of these bows varies from 1.65 - 1.95m (66" - 78") and in proportion they are almost identical to those found on the Mary Rose. Some of these bows were self nocked, others had nocks of horn or iron, some of them sharp enough to use as weapons at close quarters. Many of these bows were bound round every few inches with linen or sinew tread; it is not certain whether this was purely decorative or was to help stop the wood splitting. Whatever the reason it is something that has been found worldwide from pre-history to the present day so it seems perfectly reasonable to assume it was done to some bows in our period.
From the later Viking period several bows are known to have survived, one from Dublin, one from Hedeby and several from Birka. The bows from Dublin and Hedeby are both yew longbows, the Hedeby bow possibly having had horn nocks. The bows from Birka are more interesting as they are short, composite bows of horn and sinew. It is most likely that these bows are not of Viking manufacture but were a trade item from the east.
Manuscript drawings and stone carvings invariably show archers using bows of almost their own height or larger which again suggests the use of longbows rather than shortbows. The Bayeux Tapestry is often quoted as a source to back up the argument for bows of the period being shortbows, however those doing so often do not look at all the information this work gives us. If the pictorial evidence of the tapestry is to be taken as truthful in any way, then some of the archers had longer bows than others and the longest bows, in proportion to their users, are longbows. In general the tapestry makers have taken great care to be accurate about the proportions of men and weapons, and men and horses. All the archers in the main panel appear to be using shortbows and this is the evidence that is often used to support the shortbow theory. However, this does not take into account the further 23 archers shown in the lower border. Of these archers most appear to be using longbows. There are currently two schools of thought to explain this; the first is that the Norman archers in the main picture are far better equipped than those in the border so it may be these are meant to be professional soldiers rather than the general levy. If this is so it is quite possible they are mercenary bowmen from eastern Europe, and these archers are known to have used horn and sinew shortbows. They are also known to have sometimes used their bows from horseback as one of them is shown doing towards the end of the tapestry. The other explanation is that the artist is drawing from eyewitness accounts where the fact that a bow is canted over in combat makes it appear shorter from a distance. Until we have more sources we cannot be certain.
It has also been argued that the Welsh used a flat-bow rather than a longbow. Whilst this may be possible (flat-bows and longbows are found side by side in pre-history) it is unlikely since no traces of flatbows have been discovered dated later than the start of the bronze age. The main source for this idea is one translation of the works of Giraldus (who was writing in the twelfth century) where it was claimed the Welsh are reported as using flatbows. This particular translation was put forward by a Swede who was trying to prove that it was the Scandinavians who introduced the longbow into Britain. All other translations of this work make no mention of the bows being flat. Useful information this document does give us is:
- 'the bows these Welshmen use are not made of horn, or ivory, or yew but of wild elm, and not beautifully formed or polished, quite the opposite; they are rough and lumpy, but stout and strong nonetheless, not only able to shoot an arrow a long way, but also to inflict very severe wounds.'
This tells us much about the bows in use by the mid twelfth century, and probably those in use in the eleventh. The reference to horn and ivory show that composite bows were known, and the inclusion of yew shows they knew of this best of bow timbers. The most useful reference though is to the description of the Welsh bows as 'rough and lumpy'; this is evidence that the Welsh bowyers understood the importance of 'following the grain' and leaving knots proud when making a reliable, powerful bow. It also shows that they knew that of the native timbers British elm was a superior timber to British yew for making bows (the best yew for bows came from Scandinavia, Spain and Austria). It is quite likely that these are the type of bows Eorl Ralph faced a hundred years earlier.
Further evidence for elm as a bow timber comes from the Viking Rigsthula. In this we have a passage which reads:
- 'And the big farmer twisted a bowstring, bent an elm bow, made arrows; whilst the mistress looked at her arms, smoothed her clothes, tightened her sleeves.'
Whilst considering the bow we should also consider the types of arrow that were in use. Fortunately this is far easier to find evidence for since a fair number of arrow shafts and hundreds of heads have survived (again far more shafts than later mediaeval finds excluding those from the Mary Rose). The shafts are made of hazel, pine or ash, although aspen is known to have been the main arrow timber in the later mediaeval period. Of the many arrowheads found the majority have been broadheads, with or without barbs. The mail piercing 'bodkin' arrow was known as early as the fourth century although it does not become common until the start of the eleventh century. The earlier arrowheads were generally tanged but sockets become more common through the ninth to eleventh centuries. Other types of arrow head found include barbed fishing arrows and crescent shaped small game arrows[note 5]. It is probable that wooden blunts were also used for small game although none have been found to date. Bone is known to have been used for arrowheads with examples being found in Denmark and Greenland. Traces of hazel arrows with fire hardened points have been found in Germany although these probably were only used for hunting, and then only by the poor. A few horn or bone nocks have survived although most arrows probably had self nocks cut straight into the shaft.
Traces of goose feather fletchings have been found and swan and eagle are also known to be good feathers for fletching. Although we can not be certain exactly what shape fletchings were used certain shapes are found in primitive cultures world-wide so it seems fair to assume these would have been used in northern Europe. The commonest shapes are triangular or a long, low rhomboid shape although 'parabolic' and 'hog's back' are also quite common. The Saxons had several words which distinguished a war arrow from a hunting arrow so they probably understood the principle of specialised ammunition.
The question of how the bow was used is actually a two part question, firstly how was the bow shot?; and secondly, how were archers used? On how the bow was drawn we have one source that shows many archers shooting in the same way; all the archers on the Bayeux Tapestry are shown facing their targets and drawing to the chest, a most inefficient way of shooting[note 6]. However by the thirteenth century foreign chroniclers refer to the 'English' way of shooting a bow where the archer stands sideways on to his target and draws back to his chin or ear. Did this style of shooting develop out of the style used by the English, Welsh or Scandinavians in this country? We can not be certain, but certainly several manuscripts from our period show archers shooting in this style. Certainly to shoot bows of the power Giraldus describes this method of shooting would have to be used as it employs the large, strong back muscles rather than the weaker arm muscles.
On how the archer was used we have a more difficult problem. It seems from literary and pictorial evidence the Saxon archer acted as a single man although the Normans are known to have used archery units shooting in volleys. The Vikings seem to have used both systems. Certainly both have their merits and drawbacks. A unit shooting volleys can be a very effective way of laying down a 'suppressing fire' although a good shieldwall could withstand this for quite a long time making it a very costly technique in arrows. To be fully effective this technique also requires a lot of training as a unit. A single man acting as a skirmisher/sniper can pick his target well and get a good ratio of arrows to wounds. However he could not inflict massive damage to the opposition if he was having to wait for a clear shot. The other possibility is that archers in our period did what later English archers are known to have done; shoot in volleys at long range where the scale of the attack can make up for the lack of accuracy and then pick individual targets at closer range where the accuracy is better. This is an area which is open to debate, but if you only have a few archers, as the Saxons appear to have, the sniper method would be the most efficient, whereas if you had a large body of trained archers the volley shooting method would be very effective. Certainly both methods are supported by literary evidence; for example in 'The Battle of Maldon' and the extract from Aldhelm we see examples of the single archer whereas in Beowulf we see reference to 'the iron tipped arrow shower, the dark cloud loosed by bow strings' implying the volley shooting method.
- There is an object thought to be from the mid-thirteenth century that may be a bow, but this, as well as the date, are uncertain.
- Although Beowulf is earlier than our period it embodied the 'Heroic Code' warriors were still expected to follow in our period. It is therefore fair to take examples of weapons-use in the poem as ways weapons may have been used in our period.
- 'Foga' is a Saxon word for bow. 'Agof' is simply foga spelt backwards.
- In this context the term longbow is used to mean a wooden bow of a 'D' shaped section, with limbs tapering towards the tips and near to, or greater than, the archer's own height. This is not the BLBS definition which would exclude some of the Mary Rose bows from being longbows if it were applied to them!
- I have been fortunate enough to handle many of the heads from our period which are in British Museum collections not on general display.
- It is unlikely the bows would really be shot like this if the claims made for the effectiveness and range of the Norman archers at Hastings is to be believed.
Original article by Ben Levick 1992