Bowmen of England

by Donald F. Featherstone

I was pleasantly surprised just how much I enjoyed Donald Featherstone’s book on the Bowmen of England. Before reading I thought, how can you make an entire book about the medieval bow? You pick it up and fire an arrow…. Oh boy how very wrong I was! I found myself so enthralled with Featherstone’s book that once I picked it up, I didn’t want to put it down again.

The book starts by exploring the history of the English longbow, where it came from, what it was made out of and how it was made. The reasons for the use of the bow were explored as well as the class of people that used them. It was fascinating to learn how the importance of the longbow grew as its military significance was realized. When King’s realized the huge damage the longbow could do within battles it became law that each man between a certain age own a longbow and arrows as well as compulsory practice on Sundays. So important was the longbow that it became ingrained within the English way of life. Trading and imports were controlled around the use and the need of the longbow and the value of a man who could wield a bow effectively increased rapidly.

Featherstone details the type of men that would have used a longbow, the strength and skill they would have needed to use such a huge weapon efficiently. I had always thought that an archer was simply that, an archer. He fires his arrows and then when they were used he went to the back of the army to let others fight. However, Featherstone showed that this was often not the case. Not only was an archer skilled at how best to use a longbow, depending on the weather conditions, the distance of the army, the type of armour they wore etc. but they were also skilled at wielding swords and blades. After their arrows were spent archers would go into the battle, unencumbered by heavy armour they were agile and could maneuver themselves with greater ease and speed than a man fully clad in heavy armour. These men became highly dangerous to the enemy for a nimble archer could plunge a blade into the weak spot of armour before the enemy even had time to turn around. These were men that could wield both blade and bow.

Featherstone then details just how the longbow was used throughout history in war and the strategies employed from the first use in the 13th century right though to perhaps its final use in the Second World War! Specifically, he examined how having archers skilled in using the longbow were essential to many English victories against Scotland and France. What truly surprised me is that over a hundred years, from when the first archers were used against the French armies to the Hundred Years War, the French did not change their military tactics. Instead of realizing just how devastating a shower of arrows could be they continued to march, quite literally, to their deaths!

The visual imagery Featherstone uses when writing is both vivid and detailed. As I read, I could imagine a volley of thousands of arrows raining down, turning the bright blue sky to darkness before the shattering sound of arrows hitting and piercing heavy armour erupted.

For a book that appears to be just about the bow and arrow Featherstone’s Bowmen of England is so much more. With a rich and intriguing history, the longbow was a vital piece of equipment that helped to shape the very foundations of England’s history.

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