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The Rise of the English Longbow

Excerpt from How Wars Are Won: The 13 Rules of War—From Ancient Greece to the War on Terror, by Bevin Alexander, pages 54-55

The longbow was not an English invention. It was developed by native Celts in Wales, and first aroused attention in 1182, during one of the numerous English attempts to subdue the land, when Welsh arrows penetrated an oak door four inches thick. Edward III’s grandfather, Edward I (1239-1307), was the first ruler to recognize the importance of the weapon, and he began pushing English yeoman farmers to wield it. The longbow was made of a six-foot length of elm or yew; its three-foot arrow could penetrate two layers of a knight’s armor at 250 yards. It was not as powerful as the Eurasian compound bow, used by the Byzantines, but compared to the crossbow, the main stringed weapon in use in western Europe, it could shoot twice as fast, twice as far, and had equal power.

Edward I used the longbow effectively in wars in which he tried to conquer the Welsh and the Scots, but an obscure battle in 1332, twenty-five years after Edward I died, first displayed a radical new way to employ the weapon. The battle was at Dupplin Muir in Scotland. After virtually destroying an English army at Bannockburn near Stirling in 1314, the Scots slowly drove the English out of their country. According to peace terms in 1328, a few Scottish noblemen who had sided with the English were entitled to recover their Scottish fiefs or manors, but the Scottish people considered them renegades and refused. The only way the nobles could get back their land was by force. So with a hired English detachment of longbow archers, they advanced into Scotland, and at Dupplin Muir on the river Earn near Perth encountered a large, closely packed body of Scottish foot soldiers armed with pikes and swords. This body advanced on the enemy, who had pulled up on a hillside with the armored Scottish knights dismounted, their lances leveled, in a single mass in the center. Longbow archers were drawn out in a thin line on either flank, thrown forward, so that the whole invading force resembled a half-moon.

The Scots advanced up the hillside, ignored the archers on either flank, made straight for the knights in the center, and struck them so hard they were driven back in places. But the knights barely managed to hold. As the opposing forces stood pressed together, their spears locked, the English archers closed in on either side, pouring deadly shafts into the Scots, and driving them in toward the middle. The Scots, crushed together, unable to wield their weapons, at last broke and ran away.

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