The English Longbow is a scaled-down version of the mighty War Bows used in the Middle Ages and before. The number of recreational Longbow Archers has exploded in the last decade, and now not only are there many more solely shooting Longbow, an even bigger number of Recurve and Compound Archers also own a longbow which they shoot for sheer enjoyment now and then. After the complexity and fiddling associated with modern bows, Longbows are totally basic and simple, take seconds to get ready to shoot, take up very little space (except for length) and are more fun to shoot.
When mainstream Archery started to develop away from traditional archery, and new forms of bow, new materials, and new gadgets came into use, the archers who wanted continue along the simple route formed the British Long Bow Society, and the Society’s definitions of what constitutes a Longbow, and how Longbow Shooting should be caried out, are the basis of how Longbow Archery is regulated by other Archery Bodies.
A longbow is essentially a simple bow, ideally fomed as a ‘self’ bow from one piece of selected high-quality wood. In practice, due to the rarity of high quality bow woods, particularly of high-altitude-grown Yew which was the favoured wood in the Middle Ages, and which was grown in managed plantations where side-shoots were ‘rubbed-out’ to keep knots to a minimum, for at least 150 years it has been common for longbows to be laminated from several different woods, and now use of Bamboo (which is a grass, not wood) is permitted by most, but not all, Longbow Groups.
Longbows are Long – usually more than the height of the Archer shooting them – not to give extra power, but to control and limit the amount of bending so as not to over-stress the timber, and to reduce the tendency to ‘stack’, which is the fierce increase in draw weight the more the arrow is drawn.
Longbows must be relatively thick compared to their width all the way along the limbs, the thickness must be at least 3/5ths of the width – most ‘proper’-looking bows are quite a bit thicker. The limbs taper thinner towards the ends, the way the taper is formed has an effect on the curve the bow takes on when it’s drawn, and the shape of the curve has an effect on how the bow performs, the bowyer will make subtle adjustments to arrive at a suitable curve. The approximate cross-sectional limb shape is also defined, and follows the ideal shape of a true ‘self’ yew bow, which is ‘D’ shaped, with the flat side (known as back) furthest from the archer and the rounded side (known as the belly) closest to the archer’s belly. This shape is the result of self bows being worked from staves which are split from a bough or trunk of a tree. The splitting process produces triangular staves, with the point of the triangle located at the heart of the wood, and the base of the triangle (which has a slightly convex shape) at the outside sapwood, under the bark. The sapwood of a yew tree has excellent performance in tension, and the heartwood is as good in compression; so bowyers use the sapwood on the back of the bow, which will be the outside of the curve of the bent bow. The heartwood is rounded to remove the point of the triangle, and the shape becomes a ‘D’.
Another requirement for an English Longbow is that the string loops sit in Horn Nocks. The ends of the limbs are formed into sharp cones or spikes (bowyers call them ‘pikes’), and pieces of horn, which are drilled with a matching female-shaped conical hole, are glued on. The horn is filed and rasped and polished to form string grooves and a distinctive shape. Target bows are usually fitted with a hand grip, and quite often a piece of wood called a ‘riser’ is fited to the belly side to thicken up the handle area. Replica War Bows usually have no handle or grip, just a mark to indicate where the bow-hand should be placed.
The form of Bow known as an English Longbow has been around for a lot longer than England has, examples of skillfully-made bows of almost identical form have been found in Europe dating from 5,000 years ago. In modern times very similar bows have been found still in practical use or as traditional sports equipment in Bhutan, Ceylon and East Africa, showing it’s a logical and effective weapon and hunting tool.
History seems to show that Anglo-Saxons weren’t archers, but their enemies the Danes and the Normans were, and there is good evidence in the borders of the Bayeux Tapestry that many of the Norman archers were using longbows. As well as defeating Harold, 72 years later Norman Archers anihilated the Scottish army that invaded England in support of Matilda’s claim to the throne, so it’s strange that when Edward I started to build an army of Archers, two hundred years after Hastings, he had to almost totally rely on Welsh archers who had been his enemies up to that point. By the time of the Battle of Crecy about 80 years later the majority of Archers in the army were English, and from then on the prowess and effectiveness of English Archers (even if a lot of them were still Welsh) became legendary, and an enduring feature of English and British identity.
There was an obligtion for all able-bodied men to practise archery, and the way they practised, shooting up and down between butts at opposite ends of a range, became the basis for Archery Competitions right up to the first Grand National Archery Meeting at York in 1844, and survives with the British Longbow Society and other traditional Longbow groups right up to the present.
Military use of the Longbow fizzled out in the sixteenth century, although some longbows were used in the Civil War in the 1640s, but then archery almost died out altogether with just a handful of bowyers still operating. But there were a number of Romantics around, and some who saw the benefit of the healthy excercise involved, and various groups sprung up: The Honourable Artillery Company, the Finsbury Archers, The Royal Company of Archers, the Woodmen of Arden (three of the groups survive to this day) and there is evidence of various Archery competitions surviving while military archery faded away – for instance, the Antient Scorton Silver Arrow is a competition which started in or before 1673, but the Arrow itself seems to have been much older and won in a different competition some years earlier. Probably the most significant thing about this is that in 1673 a Society of Archers was formed and Rules written down – the fact that modern international Archery has developed out of English Archery rather than, say, Korean or Japanese Archery which have equally long histories, has probably got more to do with the British obsession with regulating and formalising Sports (same applies to Tennis and Football and Rugby and Golf) than anything particular about the Longbow. Usable Longbows are fairly easy and cheap to make and are a ‘People’s Weapon’, but the Sport of Archery kicked off very much as a sport for wealthy Gentlemen who could afford to buy from a professional Bowyer, and in the 19th Century became an even bigger pastime for upper-class Ladies. It was only in the 20th Century that the Sport became accessible to a wider social spectrum.