Following the Arrows: Discovering the English Archer in Medieval Communities during the Hundred Years War

In 1337, the Hundred Years War began. A conflict that would plunge England and France into a war that would last for over a hundred years and radically change the nature of these two Medieval societies. In the beginning, this rivalry of these two monarchies culminated in the Battle of Crecy in 1346 – a battle in which it saw victory pass to the English. France, the great military power of Medieval Europe, was beaten and humbled by a much smaller English Army – an army with a less prestigious military history and yet, on the battlefield in Picardy this smaller and technically weaker force beat the flower of the French Army and raised the military prowess of England significantly. The secret to the English success was the English longbowman: an English Archer armed with a six foot long bow stave, with a draw weight within the region of 100 to 170lbs that could fire up to ten arrows in a minute, accurately, up to 200 yards. Though documentary figures vary, conservative estimates suggest that the English utilised 7000 longbowmen at Crecy which was enough to defeat a French army at least twice as large as the English force. With further victories at Neville’s Cross in 1347 against the Scots and Poitier in 1356 against the French again, the longbowmen dominated the battlefield and brought the English archer to a mythical status.

Elliot's blog post

Archery practice depicted in the Luttrell Psalter, 1325. (Wikimedia Commons).

Yet despite the longbowman’s importance to the English Army, information regarding who these archers were, where they came from and the lives they had before, during and after war is remarkably vague. This is not to say that it is impossible and non-existent. Research by Matthew Strickland, Robert Hardy and Richard Wadge has managed to paint a picture of the type of person an English archer was and the sort of society they lived in. There is also the question of the ‘professional soldier’: research conducted by Andrew Ayton and others indicate that during the Hundred Years War, there was a Medieval Military Revolution in which the Medieval English Army transitioned from a conscripted Commission of Arrays force into a ‘professional’ army whereby the men who fought in it were serving and fighting as a professional occupation. This is exemplified by the rise and prominence of the Mounted Archer and his incorporation into the English Army at this time. This rise in ‘professionalism’ also coincides with the changing social status and reputation of the Medieval Archer as his military importance in English Armies became more apparent – this indicates that not only was the English Archer important to military affairs but that the increase in reputation indicates an increase in wealth as English nobles and commanders were willing to pay for the very best. This is supported by the taxation records. However, there are gaps in this research. Information regarding English archers are primarily drawn from the documentary record in the form of legal proceedings, decrees, rolls, tax records and chronicle and literary record. This is all highly useful but also limited. During the Hundred Years War, the tax records – the main source for accessing wealth during the Medieval period and the main indicator utilised by military historians for accessing the rise of the professional soldier – are scant and in poor condition. For the latter part of the period, the records are more complete and it is from this that historians, like Gary Baker, have been able to assess the increased wealth and social status of the English Archer as well as identifying individual archers. It is, then, argued that an assessment of the rise of the professional soldier for the earlier period is too difficult a subject to hypothesise. However, this may not be the case. It is possible that the archaeological record can reveal what the taxation records do not.

Strictly speaking, an increase in personal wealth – from an increase in pay to serve as a soldier as well as accumulated wealth on campaign from chevauchees, looting and pillaging from battlefields – would have an impact on life back home in England. After a campaign season was over and after garrisons were placed to defend new acquisitions, the army would be discharged and return to the communities they came from. Though there is documentary evidence to suggest that not every retinue and soldier did this when a campaign was over, there still would have been a proportion of archers and men-at-arm that would return home to continue the lives they had before. The question is: what would an archer do with his money? From studying the social backgrounds and military behaviour of archers and soldiers from across history, the conclusion can be drawn that no matter the time period, soldiers act and respond the same way regardless. An example would be a comparison of the Siege of Caen in 1346 and the Siege of Badajoz in 1812 – first-hand accounts for both sieges show the soldiers in both sieges performing the same way: in a wild manner, looting, raping and causing chaos. The same can be said for their recruitment into the army and how they perform during battle. It could be concluded that soldiers would have spent money in the same way ergo, money would have been spent on food and drink but money could have potentially been spent on their homesteads. From this, is it possible to show an increase in wealth and social status in the archaeology of medieval peasantry homes and can they be directly linked to longbowmen who served in the English Army during the Hundred Years War? Essentially, can archers be identified based on what physically remains? In correlation with this, an examination of the archaeology of churches may prove useful. During the medieval period, it was common practice to donate to the church in order to save your soul in the afterlife. To which end, extensions and renovations were usually paid for by those who could afford it. From this, is there any evidence of churches undergoing renovations in the fourteenth century and can they be linked to a wealthy archer endorser?

A main feature of this research will be investigating medieval villages and communities and using them as an archaeological case study to find any evidence of medieval archers. A prime case study will be Wharram Percy: a thoroughly excavated medieval site that shows evidence of social and economic change during the fourteenth century, but also has evidence for archery in the form of arrowheads. By investigating this site and its potential connection with archers, it is hoped that these methods can be transferred to the researching of other medieval sites in order to find more evidence that will enable more conclusive answers to these questions.

Elliot Brindle


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