The long-bow became elevated above all other weapons of war and, against appalling odds, England subdued enemies of far greater strength by its use … (but within the sixteenth century) the bow was to suffer a long and lingering decline and a battle of words began, unparalleled in the history military writings, between those who wished to retain it and those who wanted its rejection in favour of gunpowder.
E.G. Heath, Bow versus Gun, and introduction to the writings of Sir John Smythe and Humfrey Barwick, The Scholar Press, 1973
In any event, after 1588 bows were generally replaced by firearms.
H. J. Webb, Elizabethan Military Science, Univ. of Wisconsin Pr., 1965
From longbow to matchlocks: The Great Debate
Musketeers with reversed guns and trailing their rests at the funeral of Sir Philip Sidney 1587
As was observed in the section on heavy ordnance, comparisons between the Alderney ship and the Mary Rose of forty-seven years before, are extremely illuminating when it comes to understanding the nature of the military transformation that took place during the sixteenth century. On the Mary Rose, which was heavily armed for close-action fighting, very few firearms were found; on the Alderney wreck, by contrast, firearms were the main weapon find. On the Mary Rose numerous longbows were found; on the Alderney wreck not a single bow or arrow has been excavated. Between the Mary Rose of 1545 and the Alderney ship of 1592, a revolution in weapons, weaponcraft, organization, tactics and strategic thinking had occurred. The revered English longbow that had won great victories upon which history had pivoted, was no more, and the triumph of gunpowder weaponry was complete.
The transition, however, was neither swift nor easy. Few issues in military history have been more bitterly argued. From men of government down to peasant farmers, everybody had an opinion. England’s sentimental attachment to the longbow, and its success at subduing the French, blinded many to the advances that had been made on the continent. It might have been in the hands of yeomen when it destroyed the French at Crécy, Pointiers and Agincourt, but it was also the weapon of kings; Henry VIII had been a bowman, and had issued many proclamations supporting its use and discouraging any precipitous moves towards firearms; Henry’s son, Edward VI had also been brought up on the bow, and later, even Mary Queen of Scots was known to have practiced in a modest way. According to the protestant bishop Hugh Latimer (who, in 1555 was burned at the stake in Oxford), it was ‘God’s instrument’ and ‘a gift … that he hath given us to excel all other nations’. ‘Hand gonnes’ had their place, and were fine for hunting, fowling and amusement, but to protect the realm there had to be a large reserve of citizen archers.
It is difficult to say when exactly the longbow began its decline, but it must have been before 1544, for in that year Roger Ascham (sometime tutor to Princess Elizabeth and the young Edward VI) published his famous book on archery, Toxophilus, in which he argued for the retention of the bow.
In the view of many, the reason for the decline in the bow lay not in the weapon, but in the quality of those who drew it. Rather than long, cold hours at the butts developing their strength and improving their aim and rate of fire, the new generation preferred to spend their time at cards, dicing, quoits, bowls and other ‘new and crafty games’. Well before Elizabeth’s reign, Latimer bewailed the reluctance of the young to train. ‘In my tyme’, opined the Bishop, ‘my poor father was as diligent to teach me to shute, as to learn any thynge, so I thincke other men dyd thyr children … I had my bowes bought me according to my age and strength’. He saw the decline of the bow as part of a social slide into general decadence. In a sermon before a young Edward VI he ranted against how the young men had ‘taken up with whoring in towns, in stead of shooting in the fields’.
Some believed that the reason why the nation was turning away from archery had to do with the growing numbers within the lower classes who were using matchlocks to hunt, and thus had lost their skill and feeling for the bow. Others believed that too many years had gone by without a proper war: ‘The realm,’ grumbled Burghley, has ‘become so feeble by long peace’. Whatever the reason, the decline of the archer was famously satirized by William Harrison (1577); in his Description of England (in Holinshed’s Chronicles) in which he has the French and Germans taunting the English by showing them their backsides and crying ‘Shoote English’. In Edward III’s time, laments Harrison, ‘the breech of such a varlet should have been nailed to his bum with one arrow, and an other feathered in his bowels, before he should have turned about to see who shot the first’.
Simply put, the bow had been overtaken by technology. Not just by the matchlock ignition system, but also by plate armour which had become so effective that it left the wearer relatively immune to arrow strikes. According to Fourquevaux, in his Instructions sur le Faict de la Guerre, published in the 1548 and tanslated into English 1589, the bow was only of any service when it was used against unarmoured footmen. Within England, nobody was more forceful than Sir Thomas Gresham (d. 1579), the great financier of his age, who led a massive overseas arms-procurement program for the Queen. ‘Spare the bows and arrows’, he railed, ‘for they are of no force against an armed (i.e. armoured) man’. There was, noted David Eltis in his Military Revolution in Sixteenth Century Europe (1998), a broad consensus among sixteenth century writers of all persuasions that contemporary armour was equal to any bow. Williams, Fourquevaux, Barwick, Barret, Digges and Gresham, were all agreed that … ‘the armoured gentleman had nothing to fear from a commoner with a crossbow or longbow’.
But the armoured gentlemen had everything to fear from firearms. The Spanish, who had embraced firearms long before the English, realized that within a certain range, average plate armour could not withstand a round of shot. Diego de Alaba y Viamont, in his El perfecto Capitan of 1590 said that none of the soldiers he knew had any faith in the ability of body armour to protect a soldier against a harquebus hit.
The slowness of English military authorities to adopt ‘weapons of fyre’ is a curious matter. Quite apart from the nation’s already mentioned deep-rooted sentimental attachment to the bow, there was also a worry within government and the upper classes that, if firearms were put in the hands of the common people, they might be used to undermine public order or be exploited by papists to promote revolt. But there was also a more practical rational – cost. While bows were cheap, firearms were expensive. A good yew-wood bow and a set of arrows each ‘a clothyard long and fletched with the wing of a grey goose’, was significantly cheaper than a harquebus. According to the historian C. G. Cruickshank, in 1566 a high quality bow of imported yew cost 6 shillings and 8 pence, a bow of second quality was 3 shillings and 4 pence, while a bows of English yew cost a mere 2 shillings. During the latter part of the Queen’s reign, calivers ranged from 12 to 30 shillings and muskets from 18 shillings to £2. With the average cost of a bow being 3 shillings, and a firearm 30 shillings (not including all the associated items that went with musketry), then the cost of refitting a company with gunpowder weapons was very considerable indeed. Something that would not have escaped a notoriously parsimonious queen was also well known for her dislike of soldiers.
It was cost which confounded the first attempt to modernize the nation’s fighting capability. In 1567, with the arrival of Alva’s Spanish army in the Low Countries, William Pelham (Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance Office) wrote to Burghley proposing the formation of a special unit of harquebusiers. At that time firearms still had a certain mystique and Pelham proposed to pay for the new corps by charging the public to watch them train. Two years later (by which time the Spanish presence had become a serious threat), the government made a similar proposal of its own for the formation of a harquebusier and caliver corps with wages set at 9 pence a day, shooting practice to be held once every two weeks, and arms to be held at an arsenal. But, as with the first proposal, it also foundered on the issue of finance.
Despite governmental foot-dragging, nothing by then could stop the rise and spread of small-caliber gunpowder weaponry. The first professional firearms training program began in 1572/73, and by the 1580s, though perhaps few at the time realized at the time, the ascendancy of firearms was complete. That is not to say that the bow was finished, for it still had a presence (though a fast diminishing one) within the army. In the mid 1580s, for instance, there was a company of archers serving with Leicester in the Netherlands, and in 1590 the Essex foot (which totaled 3,577) still had 1,177 archers and billmen. It is a truly remarkable feature of English military history that the bow persisted as long as it did.
Although in the field the matter had been all but settled, the purely polemical side of the issue continued to rage, reaching a crescendo at the time of the Alderney ship. The passion with which it was disputed can be seen in the rather lavish titles of two opposing publications, one that came out in 1590, just two years before the loss of the Alderney ship, the other just two years after. The first, a defence of archery, was by the stubborn, highly choleric and very querulous Sir John Smythe, courtier, diplomat, traveler and for twenty years a mercenary in various foreign armies. His work was entitled Certain discourses written by Sir John Smythe, Knight: Concerning the formes and effects of divers sorts of Weapons, and other verie important matters Militarie, greatlie mistaken by divers of our men of warre in these dates; and chiefly, of the Mosquet, the Caliver, and the Long-bow; As also, of the great sufficiencie, excellencie, and wonderful effects of Archers: With many notable examples and other particularities, by him presented to the Nobilitie of this Realme, & published for the benefite of this his native Countrie of England.
Like Shakespeare’s Fluellen, Smythe had studied the ‘martial feats’ of classical antiquity and it was upon this that he largely based his argument for the pre-eminence of the bow. In his dislike of modern practices, and in his devotion to Livy, Tacitus and Vegetius, Smythe was following in the footsteps of Machiavelli whose Art of War was known to him through Whitehorne’s translation of 1560. On 14 May 1590, Smythe’s book was suppressed by royal warrant. The reason is not entirely clear, but presumably it had to do with the way he impugned certain prominent army officers and criticized the military in general for the way it provisioned, appareled, armed, ordered and governed its men.
The rebuttal to Smythe’s work, which came out in 1594, was entitled A breefe Discourse, Concerning the force and effect of all manuall weapons of fire, and the disability of the Long Bow or Archery, in respect of others of greater force now in use. With sundrye probable reasons for the verifying thereof: the which I have doone of dutye towards my Soveraigne and Country, and for the better satisfaction of all such as are doubtfull of the same. Written by Humfrey Barwick, Gentleman, Souldier, Captaine y’ anchore plusultre.
Though temperamentally very different to Smythe, Barwick was just as qualified to comment. Like Smythe, he had been brought up on the longbow. His career as a soldier had begun in 1548 (just three years after the Mary Rose) during ‘the second year of that good and godly King Edward VI, at which time our English archers were in force and greatly used, and harquebusiers not as then common’. In other words, he had lived through the period of transition and thus had seen the battlefield transformed. Barwick was completely dismissive of the bow, favouring in particular the caliver, the principal weapon on the Alderney ship.
Others who wrote in favour of the bow included Fourquevaux, a brilliant observer of Renaissance warfare who many modern scholars consider to be ‘the personification of military genius’, and the English mathematician Thomas Digges who, in 1590, claimed that 10,000 archers could deliver 100,000 arrows before the same number of musketeers could manage a single volley. Other influential military commentators who spoke out or wrote in favour of firearms, included Sir Thomas Gresham and, more particularly, Norreys’ bitter rival, Sir Roger Williams, who many believe to be the model for Shakespear’s Fluellen. In his Breefe Discourse of Warre (1590) Williams wrote, ‘Touching bow-men, I perswade my selfe 500 musketers are more serviceable than 1500 bow men … let them be in the field 3-to-4 monthes, hardlie find … 500 able to make anie strong shootes … time and ill weather weakeneth the bowes as well as the men …’. Another treatese favouring firearms was Garrard and Hitchcocks’s Arte of Warre (1591), which ignored classical models and argued for the tactical deployment of shoulder arms.
Although the ink-slinging continued, the real situation at the time of the Alderney ship was well summarized by Lindsay Boynton:
The surviving archers in the militia had grown to be something of an embarrassment. Sir Henry Coke told Burghley in 1590 that among Hertfordshire’s 1,500 trained men there were 100 archers who for want of practice had grown very unfit to pass muster. At their last inspection he had suggested that they should be converted to musketeers but, though some agreed, most were fearful of the financial cost … Sir Henry even proposed the abrogation of the archery laws to Burghley, in order to save expenditure on men who ‘for lacke of use are but as Cyffers’, yet expected as much pay as their fellows. He knew of bows being replaced by firearms in London and Lincolnshire. Although the government did not repeal the laws, it followed the lord-lieutenant’s suggestion and quietly dropped the use of bows in 1595-96. At the Chevington, Suffolk, muster in 1595 it was explicitly recorded that archers and billmen were not summoned and that it was not intended to summon them in future …
The same year the Privy Council passed an ordinance which declared that archers should no longer be enrolled in the trained bands, only harquebusiers, calivermen and musketeers. This key date was obscured somewhat by the governments continued encouragement of archery as a pastime. Since Richard II, almost every statute enforcing archery was linked to the prohibition of what were considered degenerate ‘unlawful games’ (these, at different times, included quoits, dicing, cards, bowls and tennis) that might encourage brawling and social unrest or lead to riots, or worse, papist plotting against the Government.
Finally, mention must be made of the domestic small-arms industry for it also played a part in the demise of the bow. Although it had got off to a slow and shaky start, there was steady improvement throughout the Great Queen’s reign, and although in civil weapon production it could never compete with what was coming out of Brecia, Milan or Dresden, it was by the time of the Alderney ship, producing reliable military matchlocks at an affordable price (but in what quantity is not clear). By 1600 (according to Boynton, 1971) the Gunmaker’s Company was claiming expertise in the manufacture of calivers and muskets. A catalogue of this time claimed that their muskets were ‘double proofe, draw bored, and in goodnes extraordinary, the stocks walnut tree with the rest, worme screw, mould & bullet bagge’. In 1618, Edward Davies, a military officer, wrote in his Military Directions on the Art of Training that ‘Our English Peeces approach very neere to them (i.e., the firearms from Milan) in goodnesse and beautie’.
Even though the ‘great debate’ was over, there remained occasional lone voices arguing for the reintroduction of the bow. In 1634, for instance, Gervase Markham wrote of the need for bows in the trained bands, and as late as 1776 we find no lesser figure than the great American patriot Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Major-General Lee, giving his six reasons for the reinstatement of the bow.