English longbow archers are certainly one of the most overrated things in world history. It was by no means a critical innovation that instantly won the war against the English (although the fact that for half of the Hundred Years’ War a clinically insane man under English tutelage was on the French throne was a little more decisive, even if we are interested here in the political side of things).
Militarily, the archers were units well known to all and did not bring any revolution to the battlefield. The French did not need to produce any particular innovation to defeat them. No matter what Hollywood thinks, the armor of the knights was resistant to arrows. In the worst case, they could be buckled or wounded at the ends, where the metal thickness is thinnest, but even then they could still fight with their feet on the ground. In famous battles such as
The majority of the losses occurred in hand-to-hand combat, as a result of disastrous tactical errors on the part of the French. During the battle of
The legend of the longbowmen, which forged the legend of the longbowmen, many French knights were captured in close combat, after having suffered a veritable shower of arrows without damage, and ended up murdered as prisoners of war. In reality, the main function of the archers was to wound the horses, a tactic that could not be more classical, but used with great efficiency by the English in some battles that are famous today only because we are immersed in history books of Anglo-Saxon origin, and not because they were really decisive.
It is true that during the Hundred Years’ War the armour grew thicker and thicker, but this was in continuity with thousands of years of evolution and not in reaction to the English longbowmen. Moreover, the armour continued to thicken for several more centuries, until firearms made it definitively obsolete.
The French, to counter this English tactic, simply made the English longbow archer’s body disappear entirely at the battle of
(1429). And how do they do it? By a charge of heavy cavalry. Exactly what longbowmen are supposed to have made obsolete, and exactly what is described in the film “The King” as “just charging blindly”. In truth, of course, there was nothing blind about it, and the much-mocked cavalry charge survived archers for centuries as a convincing military tactic. The only difference with previous battles was that at Patay the French did it properly, without charging their own crossbowmen as at Crécy, without giving the English time to build defensive lines as at Azincourt, and the terrain was not turned to mud by heavy rains as in each of these two battles. It worked so well that the English archers were annihilated and never recovered.
The French, for their part, made major military and political advances throughout the Hundred Years’ War. They were even more innovative than the English. They renovated their tax structure to make it much more efficient; they used guerilla warfare; they created the first permanent professional army in medieval Europe and the most powerful artillery in the world (the same one that turned the English army into swill during the one-way battle of
But none of this was a particular reaction to the English longbowmen, simply because no adaptation was necessary.
I received a comment today which, although immediately deleted, was still visible in my mailbox. I am taking the initiative to publish it here, not to stigmatize the commenter (who will remain anonymous), but to address the issues raised in it. Here is the comment:
Here are two other commonplaces about the Hundred Years’ War:
The idea that the French were inexorably losing the war until Joan of Arc appeared. Only then a kind of divine intervention took place that somehow won the French over.
That the English did something (or that the French were really stupid) to stay so long in France, when it was a much bigger and more remote country, was not a matter of chance.