Medieval Crossbows


In my current work in progress two English soldiers enter a French castle and discover that the soldiers from the castle garrison are pointing crossbows at them. Surely that was right, I thought. The French used the crossbow, the devil’s own weapon (its use against Christians had been prohibited by the papacy in the twelfth century), and the English used the honest longbow.  The novel is set in 1357, more than ten years after the superiority of the longbow had been demonstrated at the battle of Crécy. Perhaps the French now used longbows, as well.

Things were, of course, not that straightforward. A crossbow was an expensive weapon and the men who were expert with them were well-rewarded. They were elite troops and no medieval king’s personal retinue was complete without them. Often they were foreign mercenaries, so that they wouldn’t get any ideas about rebelling against the king. Most of the crossbowmen used by English kings came from Gascony, in south-west France. For centuries the kings of England were Gascony’s dukes. Some kings were handy with the crossbow themselves, most notably Richard I, who, somewhat ironically, died as the result of being shot in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt. He was also reputed to be pretty accurate with the longbow.

The production of crossbows was limited to a few towns in Europe, the most famous of which was Genoa. Genoa was famed not only for the crossbows it produced, but also for the mercenaries it exported. These mercenaries were very popular with the kings of France who used them both as crossbowmen and as sailors.

Despite its elite status, the crossbow was easy to use and it did not need much skill or experience to shoot one, although it needed both to shoot one well.  A longbow was a much simpler mechanism, but required practice and skill if it was to be used effectively.

It was only in the fourteenth century that the longbow came into the ascendancy in England. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the crossbow was the main projectile weapon used by English soldiers, but in Wales, the Marches and Ireland the longbow was the preferred weapon. By the end of the thirteenth century it was beginning to predominate in the rest of the kingdom. On the Continent the crossbow continued to be the main weapon.

Using a crossbow was not very demanding physically, but using a longbow was. The crossbow was a machine which could be improved so that it would shoot with greater force or for longer distances, and it would have no impact on the man using it. Even a small improvement to a longbow meant that the archer had to be stronger, and there was a physical limit on this. When the skeletons of archers were discovered in the wreck of the Mary Rose (sunk in the Solent in 1545) they were deformed. Drawing huge bows over a long period of time had damaged their bodies.

Crossbowmen needed a lot of equipment as well as support staff. They had to wear armour, as loading a crossbow took some time, and the soldier was very exposed when he was loading it. Their armour was not necessarily plate armour. Some of them managed with aketons (padded garments), mail coats and bascinets (basic helmets).  They also needed someone to carry and hold their pavise (a large shield protecting the whole body). The man holding the pavise usually carried a spear to protect the crossbowman should the enemy come too close. This meant that they could not change position easily. Archers, on the other hand, wore hardly any armour at all and took cover behind bushes, trees and in ditches.

Crossbow bolts were shorter, thicker and heavier than arrows. This was to enable them to withstand the pressure when they were released. They travelled faster than arrows and could pierce mail.

When Edward III fought the battle of Sluys in 1340 he used both crossbowmen and archers to defeat the French. Six years later he had refined his strategy.

The first real test for the longbow against the crossbow came in August 1346 at the battle of Crécy. Philippe VI employed Genoese mercenaries. As usual, they were sent to face the enemy first and they were cut down by English and Welsh archers. In his account of the battle, written within the two years following it, Villani says that the archers fired three arrows for each bolt shot from a crossbow. Villani was a merchant based in Florence who wrote down information received from merchants who had been in northern France at the time. It is possible that his account is partially based on information from participants in the battle. When they tried to retreat, the Genoese were forced forward, trampled or killed by the cavalry behind them who believed that they had betrayed the French. Two thousand of them died, according to the chroniclers.

There are still arguments today about why the crossbowmen performed so badly. One reason was that their pavises had not arrived at the battlefield, so they were exposed to the arrows, but it’s said that the bolts they fired didn’t even reach the front line of the English army. It seems incredible that professional soldiers should fail in such a simple thing as getting the range right.

Even when the English stopped favouring the crossbow in battle, they still used it in sieges, where the speed with which bolts could be shot did not matter.  Crossbows were useful for both attackers and defenders because of the force and accuracy of the bolts.

A crossbow was also useful in hunting. It could be loaded before the beginning of the hunt so that there would be no noise to alert the hunted animal just before it was fired.

In this video the rates of fire of a crossbow and a longbow are compared.



The Great Warbow – Matthew Strickland, Robert Hardy

Edward III and the Triumph of England – Richard Barber

The Battle of Crécy – Andrew Ayton, Philip Preston



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Hundred Years War

16 responses to “Medieval Crossbows

  1. Great post…I don’t know why but I always assumed the crossbow was developed after the longbow…I have also imagined archers as lithe, tall elven like creatures not mad, squiggly people!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I would have expected an even higher rate than 3:1. I’d say those guys were pretty quick reloading those crossbows. Very interesting read. Thanks !

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hmmm… it seems the use of this similar weapon seemed to be very different in the eastern context. Crossbowmen were employed in very large numbers in China and usually in large formations but not in the frontline though.There was also the invention of the “automated” version which supposedly fired 10 shots in 15 seconds!

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  4. Interesting video. I always understood that the crossbow had a longer range, but was slower to reload and fire than the longbow. Therefore ranks of longbow men, firing turn and turn about could have put so many arrows in the air that advancing against them was fatal.

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    • There’s a lot of discussion, apparently, about how powerful longbows were. So there’s also disagreement about their range. The archers’ speed would have made the stream of arrows terrifying.

      Welcome back 🙂

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  5. Pingback: How to become a squire | A Writer's Perspective

  6. Oooooh! Just found this while Googling crossbows! Nice research & video.

    Wonder about the “castle crossbows” which were so hard to pull that they required a crank. Saw examples in San Marino that were so heavy they required a stand. The bolts could pierce an armored body straight through.
    Heavy artillery!

    While they were easy enough to crank, the demonstrator said if the crank slipped & a finger was in the way — bye-bye digit! Said there were perils about metal and wood fatigue that could injure the user if they gave out.

    I suppose there’s no weapon that couldn’t injure the unwary user.

    Look forward to finding more discoveries by you! Darn WP is back to not letting me “like”. I like it all!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Philip Andrews

    The ultimate pre- gunpowder weapon was the Central Asian recurve/composite bow on horseback…the nearest the ancient/medieval world came to the fire and movement of armoured forces. 10,000 Mongol horseback archers, or the Parthian horseback archers that defeated the Romans at Carrhae. The Mongols almost conquered Europe with those horseback archers…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hergrim

    ” /In his account of the battle, written within the two years following it, Villani says that the archers fired three arrows for each bolt shot from a crossbow.”

    There’s a lot of nuance to Villani’s statement that’s been overlooked by English language historians who favour the longbow and are looking for justifications for the rate of fire argument.

    1) Villani believed that there were 30 000 archers on the English side, outnumbering the Genoese crossbowmen 5:1.

    2) Villani says that, because the English were behind wagons in a field fortification and the Genoese were being pushed forward by the French cavalry, they were only able to shoot one bolt for every three they received.

    In other words, Villani is making the point that because the English outnumbered the Genoese and had protection from field fortifications, they were able to both shoot more arrows as a whole and shoot with more confidence as they were receiving much less return fire.

    Bertrand Schnerb has made a solid argument that there were fewer than 2000 crossbowmen at Crécy, based on trends in French numbers, and he’s partially supported by the fact that just 1400 Genoese were hired for the massive army besieging Aiguillon in 1346. Even accounting for an unknown number of Aragonese crossbowmen hired at the same time, the equally large and much less hastily put together army likely had fewer than 3000 crossbowmen in it.

    The Chronique Normande, interestingly, says that there were only 2000 crossbowmen present. It’s a later source, but the author was likely a Norman knight and gives a few plausible numbers for the campaign (eg: the force at the Blanchetaque is smaller than English estimates, the English are estimated at around 10 000). Other elements, such as the fact that the pay records from the Genoese galleys indicate that their crossbowmen weren’t present at Crécy and that several accounts drawing on eyewitnesses indicate that a large number of infantry went in behind the crossbowmen, also suggest a lower number of crossbowmen.

    Another thing to note is that crossbow production was much higher than you suggest, albeit mostly of the wooden type. Several thousand crossbows, for example, were produced for the French fleet in 1297 and again in 1339/1340, and hundreds could be found in any major town. It was a widespread weapon and commonly used by urban militias right across Europe, with most major towns having at least one official crossbow maker.

    Finally, it’s also worth noting that by the mid-1350s professional crossbowmen in France and Italy were universally wearing a coat of plates/brigandine, along with a mail collar, plate gloves, bascinet with aventail and sometimes greaves. The pavisiers were equally well equipped, with greaves being universal and sometimes even additional arm armour. From memory Spanish crossbowmen were generally similarly well armoured, although sometimes wearing a quilted collar rather than a mail one. Gascon crossbowmen I haven’t been able to find out as yet.


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