Archery & the Anglo-Saxons

By David Jones, in Wiðowinde #168 (Winter 2013)

“In July 1346 Edward [III] landed in Normandy…with 3,250 mounted archers…and 7,000 archers on foot…” Strickland & Hardy 2005

“…gave the victory…to the English archers alone, and the magnates and men-at-arms remained idle spectators of the battle.” Thomas Walsingham, Historia Anglicana

“Between them, the English archers were shooting about a thousand arrows every second…” Mortimer 2009

“Indeed I thought…Englishmen most apt for shooting and I saw them daily use shooting…” Roger Ascham, Toxophilus

A very English preoccupation

Such medieval victories as Crecy, Homildon Hill and Agincourt, and the habitual practice with bow and arrow necessary to achieve them, made archery a defining characteristic of the English people and nation, something that persisted until long after the military role of the bow was supplanted by artillery during the later Tudor period.

Much has been written on medieval and later archery; partly because we know much about the military deployment of archery and its practice in this period. Ironically, it is from the Tudor age that we get most of our archaeological evidence for premodern military archery in England: through the dozens of longbows and arrows recovered from Henry VIII’s sunken warship, Marie Rose. This one find essentially provides our baseline for defining the earlier medieval weapon that has come to be known as the longbow; no bows survive from the medieval period, when this weapon reached its apogee in England [13]. But what if we go back further, to the Anglo-Saxon period?

Archery glossary

flatbow: a bow with a high width to depth ratio

stacked bow: a bow with a low width to depth ratio

selfbow: a bow with a stave made from a single piece of material, usually wood

composite bow: a bow made from multiple pieces of material

recurve bow: a bow where the limb tips curve away from the archer

tanged arrowhead: a head with a prong projecting back from the tip, which was inserted into the arrow-shaft to secure the head

The basics of archery

Of course, the innovation of bow and arrow is a technology that goes deep into prehistory, and so a brief summary of northern European archery prior to the departure of the Romans is necessary to place Anglo-Saxon evidence in context. We do have a few dozen bows and bow fragments from pre-Roman northern Europe, together with large numbers of arrowheads. Prehistoric bows did follow any standard design, but came in two basic categories: flatbows and stacked bows [7]. Some of the latter are remarkably similar the weapons later called longbows, such as the Ashcott Heath bow from Somerset [11]. The northern European prehistoric bows discovered to date are all wooden selfbows [4, 11]. Arrowheads from this age were typically flat, often barbed so that they stuck in the wound, made of bone, various rocks and minerals, and, later, iron. They were also tanged [12].

Fifure showing the outlines of different bow froms
Figure1: Outlines of Bow forms

The arrival of the Romans produced a discontinuity in British archery, at least in a military context. The Romans principally favoured a third type of bow: the recurve [11]; these bows were also usually composite bows. The Romans produced a variety of arrowheads, but in military use, often employed heads with a distinctive square or triangular cross-section [13], unlike the flatter heads native to northern Europe at this time.

So what evidence do we have for Anglo-Saxon archery?

Literary evidence

A people’s language reflects how they perceive the world, and the Old English vocabulary relating to archery is sparse, to say the least. There is one word for bow: boga, from which we derive our modern term. There are three nouns that in all recorded contexts appear to denote arrow [3]: arwe, earh, scytel; the former being the ancestor of our modern term. There is also the related word earhfaru for a flight of or the shooting of arrows. Another half dozen or so nouns refer to missiles generically – and contingent on the context may  therefore refer to arrows – together with associated terms for flights of missiles. A couple of verbs are used for the casting of missiles: strælian and sceotan; neither refers exclusively to the shooting of arrows. No word exists for crossbow; the loan word arbalest was used for this [5], suggesting that despite their recorded use on the continent at this time, crossbows were essentially unknown in Anglo-Saxon England. Compare this lexical paucity to the twenty or so nouns for sword [14]. This imbalance suggests that the bow and arrow did not enjoy as prominent a place in the Anglo-Saxon mind as other wargear, but also important is how regularly these archery terms are employed within the Old English corpus.

In poetry, archery is certainly mentioned, but not focussed upon to quite the degree that the use of other weapons is [13]. It’s important to remember though, that Old English poems were not the objective reporting of impartial war correspondents, but the romanticised compositions of oral artists, known as scops in Old English. Moreover, Old English poetry was typically written in alliterative verse, and whilst a skilled scop could doubtless manoeuvre deftly around this compositional constraint, specificity may have been sacrificed for generality for the sake of an effective aural result. However, some of the better known apparent references to archery in Old English poetry are worth scrutinising. The translations below are my own fairly literal efforts.

The poem commemorating the Battle of Maldon is often cited as including several references to archery. This piece details the confrontation between a group of East Anglians, led by Byrhtnoð, and a group of Vikings. Initially, the tidal river Panta separated the two  forces, and so

“Ne mihte hyra ænig oþrum derian,

buton hwa þurh flanes flyht fyl gename.”

“One could not any of the other harm,

save someone, through missile’s flight, seized death.”

The noun flan means missile, and since we don’t know what distance separated the two forces, it is difficult to determine whether it refers to arrows or javelins. A javelin can be thrown a considerable distance. However, later in the battle:

“…bogan wæron bysige…”

“…bows were busy…”

So there were some bowmen present! Frustratingly no indication of which side’s bows were busy. Certainly at least one individual on the Anglo-Saxon side was:

“He ne wandode na æt þam wigplegan,

ac he fysde forð flan genehe;

hwilon he on bord sceat, hwilon beorn tæsde,

æfre embe stunde he sealde sume wunde,

þa hwile ðe he wæpna wealdan moste.”

“He did not falter at that warplay,

but he drove forth oft a dart:

he shot now onto a shield, now a warrior he injured,

ever and again he gave some viking a wound

while he might have hold of a weapon.”

The ‘weapon’ referred to here is often translated as ‘bow’, and this may well be the poet’s intention. The fact that this individual is shooting repeatedly would argue for this interpretation, as it is easier for an individual to transport a large number of arrows than a large number of javelins. In the poem commemorating the battle of Brunanburh, where Æðelstan successfully fought a combined Scottish, Welsh and Northumbrian force and was consequently acknowledged as the first king of all lands that now form England, the generic missile term gar is used, so this may be what the warriors have been shot with, rather than arrows:

“…þær læg secg mænig

garum ageted, guma norþerna

ofer scild scoten…”

“…there lay many a warrior

with missiles strewn, northern fighters

over shield shot…”

The epic poem Beowulf has one passage referring unequivocally to archery:

“Nu sceal gled fretan,

weaxan wonna leg wigena strengel,

þone ðe oft gebad isernscure,

þonne stræla storm strengum gebæded

scoc ofer scildweall, sceft nytte heold,

feðergearwum fus flane fulleode.”

“Now must fire devour

Waxing dark flame a warriors’ lord,

he who oft endured an iron squall,

when missile storm, by strings impelled,

shot o’er shield wall; a shaft fulfilled,

eager in feathered garb, an arrow obeyed.”

Strings and feathers? It can surely mean nothing else! The references to an iron squall and a missile storm are also noteworthy, suggesting massed archery. Of course, in an age when a group of fifty might be considered an army, ‘massed’ may refer to a equivalently light shower. A solution to one of the riddles of the Exeter Book is also likely to be ‘bow’, with foga described as an early form of boga [2], or perhaps simple scribal error.

“Agof is min noma eft onhwyrfed;

ic eom wrætlic wiht on gewin sceapen.

þonne ic onbuge, ond me of bosme fareð

ætren onga, ic beom eallgearo

þæt ic me þæt feorhbealo feor aswape.

Siþþan me se waldend, se me þæt wite gescop,

leoþo forlæteð, ic beo lengre þonne ær,

oþþæt ic spæte, spilde geblonden,

ealfelo attor þæt ic ær geap.

Ne togongeð þæs gumena hwylcum,

ænigum eaþe þæt ic þær ymb sprice,

gif hine hrineð þæt me of hrife fleogeð,

þæt þone mandrinc mægne geceapaþ,

fullwered fæste feore sine.

Nelle ic unbunden ænigum hyran

nymþe searosæled. Saga hwæt ic hatte.”

“Wob is my name, reversed.

I’m a strange beast, in battle shaped;

when I am bent and from my belly flies

a poisonous point, I am all eager

that I drive afar that deadly bale.

After my wielder, who wrought for me that pain,

loosens limb, I am longer than before;

’till I spit the deathblended,

all fell poison, that ‘ere I swallowed;

it does not leave any warrior

easily, that I here speak of

if that which fiercely flies from me feels him;

so that through the banedrink

he buys quickly full atonement for life;

I will not, unbound, any man heed

only when skilfully tied. Say what I am called.”

In prose, Ælfric provides a third hand account of the famous ninth century death of Edmund, king of the East Angles, at the hands of the Vikings:

“Hi scuton þa mid gafelucum, swilce him to gamenes, oð

þæt he eall wæs beset mid heora scotungum…swa swa

Sebastianus wæs.”

“They shot [Edmund] then with missiles, as if a game to

them, until he was all beset with their missiles…just as

Sebastian was.”

If gafelucum refers to arrows here, it seems to be the only recorded example in the entire Old English corpus; in all other contexts, gafeluc means javelin [3]. However, Ælfric writes in alliterative prose, and he may have used the term simply as a pleasing match for the subsequent gamenes. Scotungum simply denotes that which is shot or thrown, and provides no further specification on the nature of the missiles. We know Edmund fell during a conflict with the Vikings, although whether in such personal circumstances is open to debate. The distance of Ælfric from the event provides some concern for the accuracy of his account,  and the reference to Sebastian, the 3rd century Roman executed for his faith, possibly by massed arrowshot, raises the ever-present spectre of classical imitation [13].  Unfortunately, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles make no mention of the manner of Edmund’s death.

There are other scattered references to archery in prose: Aldhelm provides a couple.  However, bows and arrows are not attested in Anglo-Saxon wills, and are not included in death duties [13], probably because they were neither as valuable nor, because of their wooden composition, as enduring, as other weapons, such as swords. Once beyond use, they would have been recycled or broken up as firewood, rather then handed down the generations as treasured possessions.

Visual evidence

When considering visual representations from this period, it is important to remember that artists at this time were far more preoccupied with symbolism than realism, and that emulation, particularly of classical models, was considered a virtue, rather than plagiarism. Bearing that in mind, what can the occasional representations of archers tell us?

The Ruthwell Cross, an 8th-9th century Northumbrian sculptured cross, features an  apparently decorative archer [5, 13]. An 11th century pectoral cross as walrus ivory, includes an archer, possibly Ishmael [13]. The whalebone Franks Casket from c. 700 has a figure on the lid panel defending itself with a bow and arrows; possibly Egil, brother of Wayland [5, 13]. These representations all serve merely to confirm that Anglo-Saxons were familiar with archery, but their comparative rarity probably supports the conclusion drawn from literary evidence that archery was not an activity that greatly preoccupied the earliest English.

The Bayeaux Tapestry provides our most comprehensive visual record of archery during the Anglo-Saxon period, portraying the only battle of this age where the role of archery can be examined. We must again be wary, because there are no literary accounts of archers at the Battle of Hastings [5], and it is likely that none of the individuals involved in Tapestry’s creation, from its commissioner, Bishop Odo, to the seamstresses who did all the real work, had any extensive military experience, and did not experience the battle itself first hand. This probably explains why many of the featured military details are known to be incorrect [5]. With these caveats in mind, what can the Tapestry tell us?

There are 29 archers on the Tapestry: 28 are Normans, one is English [5, 13]. Symbolically, this suggests that the Normans had a greater archery corps and / or placed more emphasis upon archers [11]. The lone English bowman is depicted as half the stature of the infantry, and is not helmeted or mailed. Again, this suggests English bowmen were of lower rank, and / or of less important in Harold’s force [5]. The fact that the Normans employed cavalry extensively and largely with impunity, the very units that were to prove so vulnerable to archers in the later, medieval period, demonstrates that the English bowmen were certainly not being deployed as they would be several hundred years later.

Four of the Norman archers are portrayed together, perhaps symbolising a corps, although in this group stands the only Norman archer in mail, possibly a captain, the remainder being of comparable low status to the English bowman [5]. Details such as the length of bows relative to the archers and the style of drawing the bow varies greatly, and despite Bradbury’s [5] attempt to wring information from them, probably cannot be relied upon as useful, and are generic images based on other sources.

Perhaps the most significant role archery played in the battle was when King Harold received an arrow in the face. The reality of this incident has been questioned, and the insistence on a hit specifically to the eye does nothing to aid its plausibility. Left to the ministrations of contemporary medicine, one is unlikely to walk away from receiving an arrow square in the face; it need not be a perfect eye shot. Regardless, if the figure being cut down by cavalry in the immediately following section is also Harold, then his fate was sealed. The loss of the English leader is one of the key factors that influenced the outcome of the battle; some would argue the main reason for the English defeat [15].

Archaeological evidence

Two essentially complete bow staves of Anglo-Saxon age are preserved from of northern Europe [5, 11, 13] The Hedeby bow is from the southern Jutland peninsula, is probably Danish, made of yew, and differs in form from the Marie Rose specimens only by having enlarged knock points (where the string is attached at each end of the bow stave). The Ballinderry bow, found in a crannog in Ulster, has been interpreted as Norse, given its context, and is almost indistinguishable from the classic selfbows from the Marie Rose. From an Anglo-Saxon (or perhaps more likely, Jutish) context, we also have outlines of bows 160 cm or more in inhumations, for example from cemeteries at Bifrons in Kent, and Chessell Down on the Isle of Wight [13].

The albeit scant archaeological evidence therefore suggests these bows differed at most only in degree from later medieval and Tudor bows. This makes sense: the combination of depth and length gives these bows their effectiveness. The depth of the cross-section allows two

types of wood to be effectively incorporated: the heartwood on the belly of the bow, facing the archer, which is best at accommodating the compressive forces occurring there when the bow is strung and drawn; sapwood on the back of the bow, facing away from the archer, best at handling the tensile forces occuring there. However, a larger cross-section also increases the force needed to draw the bow [9]. The long limbs compensate for this,  providing a longer lever and thereby making the bow easier to draw [9]. The long limbs also store more potential energy, converted to kinetic energy when the arrow is loosed, and allow a greater draw length and hence range [4, 6]. Whether used in war or hunting, it is likely that people would gradually develop and use this efficient design if they could. All this suggests that bows from the Anglo-Saxon period were predominantly, if not exclusively, the style of stacked selfbow that later came to be called a longbow. The term longbow did not come into widespread use to describe these stacked selfbows until the sixteenth century, and then probably to distinguish it from the crossbow [5]. This produces the idea, only recently and seemingly still not fully debunked, of a much shorter, weaker precursor during the early medieval and Anglo-Saxon period. Regardless, the absolute length of the stave is not the diagnostic characteristic of these stacked selfbows. Certainly, such bows are long relative to the archer’s height, but there are short and tall archers, so there are shorter and longer bows. What defines such bows is length relative to the archer, and the deep rounded or D-shaped cross-section.

Of course, archery is not just about the bow. The Anglo-Saxons were clearly proficient metal workers, but most of the heads recovered from England dating from early in the Anglo-Saxon period are flat and leaf-shaped, with a diamond-shaped cross-section, probably used for hunting [8, 12]. They make a large, clean cut the maximise blood loss in the prey, and may then fall out, perhaps to be recovered. Early in the period, they were also usually tanged [12]. Tanged arrows do not work so well against armour, because the force of impact against a hardened surface produces a high risk of splitting the arrowshaft [12], diffusing the force of impact and rendering the arrow un-reusable. Vikings also used this style of head, but additionally produced a much narrower form. Although Jessop [8] in the most recent arrowhead typology seems to describe these as multipurpose heads, I would tend to side with Stretton [12] that these were probably more dedicated military arrowheads, because they exhibit design features to aid in defeating armour: a midline ridge, to prevent the head curling on impact with a hard surface; a socket and rivet, to set the head firmly on the shaft and distribute the force of impact more effectively without splitting the shaft; and a narrow, cruciform cross-section to slip more easily between the links of mail armour and provide additonal cutting edges. Subsequently, the English also adopted these narrower, socketed heads [12], which would ultimately develop into the armour-defeating medieval bodkin heads.

A matter of numbers?

“I am of the opinion that the most important thing in the world in battle is the archers, but they must be in thousands, for in small numbers, they do not prevail.”

Jean de Waurin [5]

So by the eleventh century, it seems the English probably had the technological essentials to employ archery effectively in battle. This begs the obvious question: why didn’t they?

Was there a cultural aversion to missile weapons, as somehow being dishonourable compared to hand-to-hand combat? There may an element of this, but it’s unlikely to be the whole story. The Vikings and later the Normans, northern European cultures which both arguably exhibited a more overtly warrior-centric structure than the English, clearly had no compunction about developing archery technology and deploying it on the field. So this concern would perhaps have been important for the highest status English warriors, such as the huscarls, but for the common soldiery, the fyrd? These were mostly farmers, and during battle would surely have been more concerned with survival than honour.

I suspect another key factor was numbers. I would tend to agree with the statement above by de Waurin, a fifteenth century French soldier and chronicler. Certainly, my re-enactment experience in archery is that as part of a small group of archers, when shooting ballistic volleys from a distance, the infantry suffer comparatively few direct hits to the body, even though the arrows may all fall in their vicinity or glance off shields and weapons. From above, they are simply a very small target area. For the archers, this small target area has to be compensated for by a larger number of arrows. Of course, more enemy soldiers will also increase the target area, but then the increase in hits has a proportionally lower impact on the larger overall enemy numbers.

So, you probably need a lot of bowmen to unleash the full lethality of archery on the battlefield. The archery corps alone of Edward III’s force in France was comparable in size to the entire army that any northern European power could place on the field, even early in the eleventh century. Most armies at this time were simply not big enough to include an effectively large archery corps, let alone all the additional infantry required to shield to archers from opposing troops while they went about their business. Concomitantly, I suspect that, having never seen first hand the effectiveness of a large corps of archers on the field, it might never have occurred to an Anglo-Saxon military commander to deploy the archers in great numbers, even if those numbers were available. Therefore, the fyrd would probably muster with predominantly close quarters weaponry: clubs, spears and axes.

Training may have been a final barrier. Acquiring proficiency in combat archery is harder than with a club, spear, or axe. Because, compared to their more martial Viking, Norman and perhaps even Celtic neighbours, the Anglo-Saxon state was relatively pacific, the fyrd was more focused on farming than on the hours of military practice and developing the discpline required to master battlefield archery, even if individuals were adept at using a bow for hunting.

Other factors may well have contributed to the limited use of battlefield archery by the Anglo-Saxons, but whatever the reasons, where deployed, Anglo-Saxon bowmen seem to have been predominantly used as skirmishers, to disorganise and disorientate the opposing side. And although in small groups they could not prevail alone, they could influence a battle, as at Hastings. The technology behind the English tradition of archery was essentially in place by 1066. The final innovations were tactical: the deployment of very large, coordinated and well trained groups of archers [13]. This could only happen as the population increased, allowing larger armies to be mustered, and with the development of an increasingly well trained army.


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10. Mortimer, I 2009 1415: Henry V’s year of glory. Vintage Books.

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13. Strickland, M & Hardy, R 2005 From Hastings to the Mary Rose: the great warbow. Sutton Publishing.

14. Thesaurus of Old English.   Accessed October 2013.

15. Walker, Ian W 1997 Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King. Sutton Publishing