We’ve all seen many movies from medieval times, the crusades and historical battles like Braveheart, Joan of arc, and many others. There are arrows flying across the entire battlefield, but I have never seen a knight holding a bow during a battle. Have you? Historians and filmmakers have always placed knights over horses, with long spears or swords. So that raised the question in my head… did they even knew how to shoot a bow?
Archery was popular among European nobility, so yes, knights did practice archery. Knights practiced archery for hunting reasons and not for war. Their fighting style was mostly fighting on horseback as shock cavalry or on foot with swords.
It is always fun to learn something new, that is why I dug further on the topic and here is what I found.
Did medieval knights use bows?
Yes they did, but it was more for hunting; and I mean hunting for fun. They all learnt how to shoot a bow, but it was almost never the weapon of choice on the battlefield.
Let’s remember that most knights come from nobility, they had an all-around military instruction but never the need to go out and find food, this why they did archery as a hunting hobby. Also, it wasn’t their weapon of choice since they had a chevalier implicit code. Knights had to fight an armed opponent, while shooting an arrow is a more common way to eliminate lighter armed enemies from a distance. Knights would rather be in the front line, make soldiers watch their bravery, inspire them and stand alone in some fights.
There are some examples of famous archers throughout history. However, many considered archery to be an effective but cowards’ way of doing war. By reducing the enemy’s army before the battle could even begin, archers became a really important part of every medieval army. Specially as part of the defensive system in cities since they had an advantageous position at the walls.
What were archers called in medieval times?
Most of them were called archers or bowmen. In places like England, where they developed one of the most famous bows in history, The Longbow; the men in charge of this weapon were called “Longbowmen”.
During this time, countries like France developed the crossbow, which lead to them replacing bowman for crossbowmen in a considerable part of their armies. Although the crossbow showed to be extremely powerful and able to pass through the strongest armors, many countries preferred the bow because it was cheaper, and faster to reload.
Why was archery so important in medieval times?
Archers became a key factor in every medieval kingdom for offensive and defensive reasons. They were so important, that several kingdoms made archery training an obligatory requirement for every peasant and lower-class men.
First of all, when in a campaign, archers are excellent hunters to feed the army. They were used as hunters while encamped to use the land resources rather than their supplies, or to restock.
On second hand, archers became a great supportive unit before, during and as the battle ends. Most armies used archers before sending the footman or cavalry to diminish the enemy numbers. Some got killed and some get hurt, nevertheless it would be one less man to fight. During the battle, archers were great to counter enemy cavalry trying to flank your army. A man on a horse is a huge target even for a new archer, can you imagine an archery team shooting in a single volley against them, they would drop like flies. At the end of the battle, they were also used as a retreat tactic. Archers were long distance support; so they could prevent your army from been chased down by and emboldened enemy army.
Here is an example of an archery team volley from an English recreation:
Commanders made defensive positions at the highest ground, giving their archers and advantage. An arrow coming down hill will catch a lot more strength. Even if you drop a rock from some height, it will cause a lot more damage falling from height than if you throw it at someone next to you (don’t try at home!)
Archers were deadly from city walls or small wooden defenses. Giving them a strategic position to shoot from a safe place and giving arrows a grater speed. They were also crucial to shoot fire arrows to try to destroy enemy siege equipment, preventing them from destroying the gates or climbing the walls. Soldiers armed with swords were normally required when the enemy army reached the walls. It was up to the archers to prevent and damage the enemy before they get in position to fight hand to hand.
The presence of archers in a defensive role during siege battles made armies require huge numbers since they knew they were going to lose many men before they are able to fight. Archers and good fortifications made any defense a great one, but still not unbreachable.
How effective were archers in medieval times?
Archers were important, but it is not like in movies where you see archer fire take down an entire army. Even less like Legolas and his Elves army killing orcs in the Lord of the Rings as if they were precise machine guns. This is not even close to their actual effectiveness.
First of all, archers had to be in large groups to be really effective. They had to make a large group of arrows come down like rain over the enemy army. When they did this, they made it almost impossible for soldiers to avoid arrows, making them rely on their shields size and strength. For example, the romans practiced many years ago a formation called “Testudo”. They raised their shields and form like a turtle shell, the man on the front kept their shields forward so the formation could advance against incoming enemy rocks, arrows and javelins. Here is an example of the roman testudo done centuries before medieval times:
In medieval times, soldiers began using smaller round shields to have more movement capability on the battlefield, that’s why arrows became more efficient, especially against soldiers with poor armor. Even when forming a shield wall like in the TV Series Vikings, some men will be still be struck, destroying the formation. Here is an example of the Shield Wall formation:
Truth is that archers found their strength in numbers. A standalone archer can cause some damage from mid range with a straight shot. But at long range, only a full team of archers can make arrows rain over the enemy.
There were no European armies formed only of archers, they alone can’t take a cavalry charge, but they were an essential part of every successful kingdom. I studied a lot of medieval England, their army tactics; and their longbowmen with a huge range and excellent training, became a nightmare for many competing forces and kingdoms. It is fascinating how they realized the power of an arrow rain coming over men with small shields and shiny armors. Of course, England is my favorite medieval faction to use in videogames. And yes, I do use a lot of archers, but never an entire army. They play a support role, and when used by a great commander, they can change the course of the battle.
I really like medieval battles; this is all I was able to learn from my research and some good history books. There is still a lot more to investigate and learn about the archer and their use during battles as I’ve mainly focused on the English and European use of archers. Nevertheless, it is amazing to see the important role archers played in forming modern history. Although none of these archers are remembered as the great knights, we all know they were crucial in every battle, and they probably saved many knights.
I hope you enjoyed this history topic and run straight to Netflix to watch a medieval movie, or to buy a longbow and a shiny suit of chainmail.
Happy shooting everybody!