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