Human bodies remodeled for war

English bowmen

7 August 2019

A man with a bow and arrow

Come rain or shine this weekend (and it’s looking like a mix of both) you can join in with our Indoor Archery event (King Richard III Visitor Centre, Leicester UK) and take aim to see how many points you can score.

As it’s all about archery this weekend we asked Joe from our Visitor Services team to look back on one of the most famous types of soldier and weapons in English history – the longbowman and his bow:

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about longbows and their users and just as many interesting bits of trivia that our visitors might not know! Here’s a few facts about longbowmen to whet your appetite in time for the weekend…

Longbow Power
English longbows were powerful. You may have already assumed that but it’s hard to emphasise just how powerful they were. If you have ever had a go at archery before, you’ll be familiar with Olympic bows. They tend to have a reasonable “poundage” of about 50lbs, meaning it requires 50lbs of force to draw the bow. This is also reduced by modern technologies and mechanisms that make them easier to draw. In addition, modern bows have sights and rests to make aiming much easier.

No such luck with medieval longbows! Every aspect of using an English longbow was manual – your knuckle was used to rest your arrow as you drew it back and aiming was done largely through muscle memory and practice. Couple this with draw weights of anywhere between 100 and 200lbs and you can see why the longbow was such a devastating weapon!

Longbowmen skeletons
The skeletons of English archers were deformed from years of archery! The high poundage of war bows, coupled with years of training in their use from a young age, led to skeletons having over-developed shoulder and arm bones to compensate for the growth of muscle around those areas.

Below is an image of a reconstruction of the skeleton of an English longbowman. Notice how the arms are slightly bowed, the shoulders unusually hunched and that the right shoulder, the drawing arm, sits higher than the left.

The ‘English’ Longbow
The English longbow is legendary. It is known as the weapon that brought France to its knees and saw English domination of the medieval battlefield, a weapon that is quintessentially English… Except it isn’t! The ‘English’ longbow was in fact a weapon of Welsh origins.

It was first encountered by the English during William the Conqueror’s invasion of Wales in the 11th Century and impressed the Normans so much with its effectiveness that they adopted it for themselves. In fact, throughout much of what is considered the golden age of the longbow, a large proportion of longbowmen deployed in English armies were Welsh, the Welsh still being considered the best longbowmen in the land!

The Professional Archer
To this day there is a prevailing idea of the longbowman being a peasant soldier; a man forced by law to train in archery all the time and plucked from his farm to fight on foreign soil.

This has led to many of our ideas of the cream of the French nobility felled by a rabble of barely trained peasants. The truth is more complicated. Whilst it is true that a royal edict demanded that able bodied men above the age of 14 practice archery for two hours a week, the truth is that most archers in service to the king were professional soldiers.

The majority of the peasantry wouldn’t have been skilled enough with the minimal amount of training decreed by law (a law that was rarely enforced) and probably wouldn’t have even been able to afford bows powerful enough to use as war bows.

In reality, most archers were professional soldiers from what could be seen as a sort of early middle class and were paid a wage on par with a trained tradesman, such as a stonemason. They certainly weren’t nobles and there were definitely peasants amongst their ranks but to say that all English longbowmen were peasants is somewhat misleading.

Fire Arrows
One of the most popular images in Hollywood when it comes to archery is of the fire arrow. We’ve all seen the moment in a pitched battle when the archers light the end of their arrows to rain fiery death upon their enemies. This is very much “Hollywood” as it didn’t really happen.

Fire arrows definitely existed, in fact the siege of Oran in 1404 saw extensive use of flaming arrows loosed from low poundage bows to ignite houses. But that was basically their only use, as a siege weapon.

Against infantry, fire arrows would have been woefully ineffective as most medieval armour wasn’t highly flammable, the fire cage arrow had very poor penetration due to its shape and it simply couldn’t be loosed at high speeds from powerful bows without extinguishing the flames before reaching their target.

So, if you see archers in films using fire arrows against anything other than a building, it’s probably fantasy!

Below is a replica of a medieval fire cage arrow head. Cloth would be wrapped through the cage and ignited.

(Thanks to Sabana Grande, c/o Medium)

What We Didn’t Know About Longbows and Archers

British longbows, or “war bows,” were considered a superweapon during the Medieval ages. Despite that, many historians claimed that their power was exaggerated as the results described in old manuscripts could not be reproduced by modern replicas of longbows.

For example, these bows were supposed to be able to pierce even the thickest of steel plate armor. One account by a 12th-century clergyman called Gerald of Wales claimed that an arrow fired from a longbow once pierced a soldier’s armor, went through his thigh, and actually killed the horse he was riding on.

But when historians attempted to make longbows like these, they found that their draw weight of 60–80 lbs simply could not produce enough force to do that. In 1982, they were proven wrong as the 172 bows on the Mary Rose were, in fact, way more powerful than ever imagined.

Their draw weight was an estimated 100–200lbs (45-90kg). Given that the bows themselves were about 6.5ft (2m) in length, it seemed as if they were weapons made for giants or immensely powerful ogres to wield. The greatest archers of the day were able to fire 6–12 arrows per minute. This meant pulling back a weight possibly as heavy or heavier than their bodies with one arm up to 12 times!

To put this in perspective, the bows used by today’s Olympic athletes who trained their whole lives only have a draw weight of about 50 lbs. And many of the archers have lifelong shoulder problems after retiring.

But there was a reasonable explanation for why Englishmen from over 500 years ago could use these powerful weapons.

Everyone Had to Practice Archery by Law — Until Their Bodies Were Deformed

During Tudor times, archery was not only one of the most popular sports, but its practice was actually mandatory for all able-bodied men. Children as young as six years old were trained for 8–10 years before they became proficient at the use of longbows. This led to their bodies becoming deformed.

The first thing they would have noticed was that their left shoulders grew larger and more striated from holding the bow. The right sides of their backs would have similarly been more muscular than their left from pulling the strings.

But the skeletons on board the Mary Rose showed that bodily changes resulting from firing longbows were not limited only to the muscles. Surprisingly, all the skeletons of archers on board actually had their right shoulder sockets further up than their left sockets, meaning that they had one shoulder higher than the other.

Furthermore, their arms were naturally bowed — ie. bent outwards. They literally had twisted bones in their arms. And their backs were also hunched.

Aside from looking quite intimidating from all the muscle they carried back when they were alive, these folk would have looked quite weird.


It was through the discovery of the Mary Rose warship (discovered in the mud in the bottom of Portsmouth Harbor in 1971) that historians realized exactly what it took to fire these weapons. Longbows allowed the English to dominate European wars for centuries.

They were even better than crossbows in several ways. For example, they didn’t take as long to load and fire, and their strings could easily be removed and changed when they broke, while the ones on crossbows couldn’t. They also had a longer range and, for hundreds of years, they were the more powerful armor-penetrating weapon.

The only thing that put the longbows out of use were firearms, as demonstrated by the fact that the longbows on the ship were stored among guns. In other words, they were still considered somewhat useful even then —despite the fact they required a great amount of personal sacrifice to be able to use.

Categories: History, Science and Biography | Leave a comment

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