From 1337 to 1453 England repeatedly invaded France on the pretext that her kings had a right to the French throne. Though it was a small, poor country, England for most of those “hundred years” won the battles, sacked the towns and castles, and dominated the war. The protagonists of the Hundred Years War are among the most colorful in European history: Edward III, the Black Prince; Henry V, who was later immortalized by Shakespeare; the splendid but inept John II, who died a prisoner in London; Charles V, who very nearly overcame England; and the enigmatic Charles VII, who at last drove the English out. In battle after battle, French knights were mowed down by English longbowmen who fired arrows capable of piercing armor. By war’s end, knights were obsolete thanks to English longbows and guns. Castles proved worthless because cannons could take down their walls. The entire feudal system broke down as people developed loyalties to their countries rather than their local lords. I thought that I would highlight the military tactics and changes in weapons that occurred during the course of this war.
The origins of the English longbow are disputed. The longbow may have been invented by the Celts in Wales around 1180 C.E. but was not really used by the English military until the 1300s. There is also evidence that the longbow evolved from the Vikings. The longbow is an incredibly strong piece of wood roughly 6 feet tall and 5/8 inch wide. The wood would be preferably yew, which was hardened and cured for 4 years for best results. The curing helped protect it from the elements, which later proved to be a greater asset than thought before. The curing process was used on regular bows but perfected by the longbow. The longbow had a draw weight (the force needed to pull back to ear) of 200 pounds. The bow could shoot over half a mile with enough force to knock a knight off his horse. The arrows shot commonly from the longbow were called bodkin arrows and were roughly 3 ft long with a tip designed for breaking through chain mail but with the force of the longbow behind it, it was capable of penetrating plate mail of all but the best quality. One story states that an arrow shot from a longbow pierced an oak door 4 inches thick.
The English longbow was the best weapon of its time. The crossbow was weaker and slower than the longbow, with only 2-3 shots a minute while an experienced longbowman could loose 20 shots per minute. In effect, the longbow was a medieval machine gun. The longbow was also stronger than a regular bow, due to its length, and the cured yew it was made of. It was the difficulty in using the longbow that led various monarchs of England to issue instructions encouraging their ownership and practice, including the Assize of Arms of 1252 and King Edward III’s declaration of 1363 that every male should become proficient in its use. The earliest longbow known from England, found at Ashcott Heath, Somerset, is dated to 2665 BC, but no longbows survive from the period when the longbow was dominant (1250–1450 AD), probably because bows became weaker, broke and were replaced, rather than being handed down through generations. More than 130 bows survive from the Renaissance period, however. More than 3,500 arrows and 137 whole longbows were recovered from the Mary Rose, a ship of Henry VIII’s navy that sank at Portsmouth in 1545.
The trade of yew wood to England for longbows was such that it depleted the stocks of yew over a huge area. The first documented import of yew bowstaves to England was in 1294. In 1350 there was a serious shortage, and Henry IV of England ordered his royal bowyer to enter private land and cut yew and other woods. In 1470 compulsory practice was renewed, and hazel, ash, and laburnum were specifically allowed for practice bows. Supplies still proved insufficient, until by the Statute of Westminster in 1472, every ship coming to an English port had to bring four bowstaves for every ton. Richard III of England increased this to ten for every ton. This stimulated a vast network of extraction and supply, which formed part of royal monopolies in southern Germany and Austria. In 1483, the price of bowstaves rose from two to eight pounds per hundred, and in 1510 the Venetians obtained sixteen pounds per hundred.
Gunpowder was invented in China. From the earliest times, gunpowder has been composed of a nitrate salt, sulfur, and carbonaceous matter. The Nitrate component is the oxidizing agent, Sulfur is a low melting reducing agent and serves to aid in the transfer of heat through the gunpowder mass, and Carbon is a reducing component producing hot, high pressure gas. The utility of gunpowder lies in its ability to accelerate a projectile by the explosive expansion of gas. Potassium nitrate is the most important ingredient in terms of both bulk and function because the combustion process releases oxygen from the potassium nitrate, promoting the rapid burning of the other ingredients. The current standard composition for the black powders that are manufactured by pyrotechnicians was adopted as long ago as 1780. Proportions by weight are 75% potassium nitrate (known as saltpeter or saltpetre), 15% softwood charcoal, and 10% sulfur. Saltpeter was known to the Chinese by the mid-1st century AD and there is strong evidence of the use of saltpeter and sulfur in various largely medicinal combinations. By the 9th century Taoist monks or alchemists searching for an elixir of immortality had serendipitously stumbled upon gunpowder. The Chinese wasted little time in applying gunpowder to the development of weapons, and in the centuries that followed, they produced a variety of gunpowder weapons, including flamethrowers, rockets, bombs, and land mines, before inventing guns as a projectile weapon.
The battles between the Song and the Jurchens in China spurred the invention and use of various gunpowder weapons. The fire lance, one of the earliest ancestors of the firearm, was used by the Song against the Jurchen siege of De’an in 1132. The weapon consisted of a spear attached with a flamethrower capable of firing projectiles from a barrel constructed of bamboo or paper. Later fire lances used metal barrels and were able to fire projectiles farther and with greater force. An early rudimentary bomb called the huopao, filled with gunpowder and propelled with a trebuchet, was also in use as an incendiary weapon. The huopao was used by the defending Song army during the first Jurchen siege of Kaifeng in 1126. In 1127, huopao were employed by Song forces against the Jurchens in Hebei. At the Battle of Tangdao in 1161, the Song navy fired huopao against the Jurchen fleet of 600 ships. A bomb cast with pig-iron called the tieuhuopao was used by the Jurchens in 1221.
In the Battle of Kai-fung-fu in 1232 the Chinese used bamboo casings loaded with gun powder mixed with iron shrapnel, aimed as projectiles against an invading Mongol army. From an eye-witness account: “When the rocket was lit, it made a noise that resembled thunder that could be heard for five leagues–about 15 miles. When it fell to Earth, the point of impact was devastated for 2,000 feet in all directions.” Image by Charles Hubbell. (Needham)
The Mongol invasion of China spanned six decades in the 13th century and involved the defeat of the Jin Dynasty, Western Xia, the Dali Kingdom and the Southern Song, which finally fell in 1279. Historians have suggested that the Mongol invasion had brought Chinese gunpowder weapons to Central Asia and Europe. Whole regiments entirely made out of Chinese were used by the Mongols to command bomb hurling trebuchets during the invasion of Iran including over 1000 Chinese during the Seige of Bahgdad in 1258. Several sources mention Chinese firearms and gunpowder weapons being deployed by the Mongols against European forces at the Battle of Mohi in 1241 in Hungary. Professor Kenneth Warren Chase credits the Mongols for introducing into Europe gunpowder and its associated weaponry. Concurrently the Muslims acquired knowledge of gunpowder some time between 1240 and 1280, by which time the Syrian Hasan al-Rammah had written, in Arabic, recipes for gunpowder, instructions for the purification of saltpeter, and descriptions of gunpowder incendiaries. Certainly gunpowder and guns were used in the Battle of Ain Jalut of 1260, between the Mamluks and the Mongols although there are disputes as to who used them.
In Europe, one of the first mentions of gunpowder use appears in a passage found in Roger Bacon’s Opus Maius from 1267 in what has been interpreted as being firecrackers. The Liber Ignium, or Book of Fires, attributed to Marcus Graecus, is a collection of incendiary recipes, including some gunpowder recipes. Partington dates the gunpowder recipes to approximately 1300. A major advance in manufacturing, called corning, began in Europe in the late 14th century when the safety and thoroughness of incorporation was improved by wet grinding; liquid, such as distilled spirits was added during the grinding-together of the ingredients and the moist paste dried afterwards. It was also discovered that if the paste was rolled into balls before drying, the resulting gunpowder absorbed less water from the air during storage and traveled better. The balls were then crushed in a mortar by the gunner immediately before use, with the old problem of uneven particle size and packing causing unpredictable results. Gunpowder production in Britain appears to have started in the mid 14th century AD with the aim of supplying the English Crown. Records show that gunpowder was being made in England in 1346 at the Tower of London.
The two oldest illustrative sources on gun arrows are illuminated miniatures in manuscripts by Walter de Milemete: the ‘Holkham ms’: De secretis secretorum, 1326, Bodleian Library Oxford, ms 458, and the ‘de Milemete ms’: De nobilitatibus, sapientiis, et prudentiis regum, 1326-7, Christ Church Oxford (top attachments).In both depictions we see a vase-like gun (pot de feu), most probably of cast bronze, at the very moment right before the ignition by means of a linstock clamped with a piece of matchcord or tinder, and with an arrow protruding from the muzzle – but not yet leaving it. In the older illustration of the two, a group of people seemingly show great respect to the act of ignition, standing back with their bodies bent backwards; the igniting device seems to be a glowing iron put directly in the touch hole at the rear. A cast-bronze vase-shaped gun barrel very close to those pictured by de Milemete has become famous as the world’s oldest known gun, the so-called Loshult gun, and is now preserved in the Statens Historiska Museet Stockholm, inv.-no. 2891. It is generally dated around 1330-50 and measures 31 cm overall, at a weight of 9.050 kilograms; the bore at the muzzle is 36 mm narrowing down to 31 mm on its way to the rear. It was designed to shoot iron bolts or arrows.
A royal account of 1338 (Edward III) mentions a ship equipped with “iii canons der fer ove v chambre” and “un handgone” (3 cannons of iron with 5 chambers and one handgun). In 1373-5, there is an account for payment for the stocking of guns “ad modum pycos” (in the manner of a pike, ie. with a long stave). By using a separate gunpowder chamber or tankard, the cannon shown above could be fired more rapidly. The cannon itself was built like a barrel, with strips of iron placed together to form a tube and hoops of iron heat-shrunk outside to provide extra strength. The tankard-shaped chambers would be loaded with a measure of powder, a cannonball placed in the barrel, a loaded chamber placed behind it, and then it would be fired.
Concurrent to the development of cannon, handgonnes were developed. All of these are simple tubes of metal, short, of large caliber, and either socketed to accept a pole-stock, or attached to a stock like that of a contemporary crossbow. A third type had a simple metal stock – a rod extending from the breech, sometimes forged into a loop. Gun barrels grew longer as the 14th century rolled on, acquiring a hook, or warring spike, to act as a recoil absorber when rested on a wall or stand, and also as a secondary weapon between loadings, or in case of failure to ignite. To those used to a crossbow, the recoil of a gun, with calibers over 25 mm, even with the weak powder available, must have been fearful. These hooked guns were called Hagbuts or Hackbuts in England, Hakenbusch in Germany, or Harquebus in France. It may be of interest to note that the derivation of the word “gun” is from gyn, an abbreviation of engyn, the old English word for a piece of military material, or machine. Buss is German for an church almsbox, which had a similar shape. Cannon comes from the Latin canna, meaning a tube. Bombard comes from the Greek, bombos, meaning a buzz. And artillery comes from the old French atillement, meaning apparatus, or equipment.
I hope that this post has given you some insights into the Hundred Years’ War and shows you how it became a crucible for the development of radically new military hardware that that made many previous social and military developments obsolete. By the early 14th century, according to N.J.G. Pounds’s study “The Medieval Castle in England and Wales”, many English castles had been deserted and others were crumbling. Their military significance faded except on the borders. Gunpowder had made smaller castles useless. Similarly, knight’s armor became obsolete and ended up in museums like the knight’s armor at the Wallace Collection in London shown above. The longbow decided many medieval battles fought by the English, the most significant of which were the Battle of Crécy (1346) and the Battle of Agincourt (1415), during the Hundred Years’ War. Longbows remained in use until around the 16th century, when advances in firearms made gunpowder weapons a significant factor in warfare and such units as arquebusiers and grenadiers began appearing. Despite losing the Hundred Years’ War, England established itself as a major European power during this period.
Mary Rose Museum: http://www.cnn.dk/2013/05/30/travel/mary-rose-museum/index.html
History of the Longbow: http://margo.student.utwente.nl/sagi/artikel/longbow/longbow2.html
Penetration of Armour: http://www.currentmiddleages.org/artsci/docs/Champ_Bane_Archery-Testing.pdf
Black Powder: http://www.musketeer.ch/blackpowder/homemade_bp.html
Nutty History: http://www.nuttyhistory.com/100-years-war.html