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THE MILITARY CROSSBOW
THE CROSSBOW was, probably, introduced into England as a military and sporting arm by the Norman invaders in 1066.
Early in the twelfth century, the construction of this weapon, the bow of which was not yet formed of steel, was so much improved that it became very popular in both English and Continental armies.
The wounds caused by the crossbow in warfare were, however, considered so barbarous, that its use, except against infidels, was interdicted by the second Lateran Council, in 1139, under penalty of an anathema, as a weapon hateful to God and unfit for Christians. This prohibition was confirmed, at the close of the same century,. by Pope Innocent III. Conrad III.. of Germany, 1138—1152, also forbad the crossbow in his army and kingdom.
The employment of crossbowmen, nevertheless, again became common in English and Continental armies in the reign of Richard I., 1189—1199, and the death of this king, which was caused by a bolt from a crossbow, (at the siege of the Castle of Chaluz, near Limoges, in France, in 1199,) was thought to be a judgment from Heaven inflicted upon him for his disobedience and impiety in permitting crossbowmen to enter his service.
Richard was an expert with the weapon. At the siege of Ascalon—though prostrated with fever—he is said to have been carried from his tent on a mattress, so that he might enjoy the pleasure of shooting bolts at the defenders of the town. In this case, however, as the enemy consisted of Turks and infidels, his act would have been sanctioned by the Church of Rome. Though among English soldiers, the longbow began to supersede the crossbow and the shortbow, during the reign of Edward I. in the last few years of the thirteenth century, crossbows continued to be held in some favour in our armies. In the list of troops mustered by Edward II., in 1319, for the siege of Berwick, crossbowmen are enumerated as part of the forces. In Scotland and Ireland, the crossbow was almost unknown, and even the bow was sparingly used, though in Wales, as in England, the latter was the common arm of the people in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
For about two centuries and a half (1200—1460) the crossbow was the favourite weapon on the Continent. It was almost equally popular with English commanders and soldiers till about 1290, and several estates in this country were held by the service of delivering a crossbow when the king passed through them.
The Genoese were always famed for their skill in the construction and management of crossbows, and were hired for service by sea and land by all nations on the Continent. They are said to have used these weapons with success, even as early as 1099 at the siege of Jerusalem. In the naval engagement near Sluys, in Holland, where Edward III. defeated the French in 1340, the latter had as many as 20,000 Genoese crossbowmen on their ships, and the largest numbers of crossbowmen ever seen in order of battle on land, were probably the 15,000 Genoese who, according to Froissart, formed the front rank of the French army at Crécy in 1346. It is asserted by numerous historians, all of whom derive their information on the subject from a cursory statement by the second continuator of William of Nangis, that the crossbowmen at Crécy were unable to shoot with effect, because the strings of their weapons were slack owing to the great storm of rain that set in just before the battle. Muratori, the Italian antiquary, declares that the ground at Crécy was so boggy that the crossbowmen could not stand firm when they endeavoured to stretch the strings of their weapons; but as the field of Crécy consists of rather steep downs, and not of lowland, it is not probable that the state of the ground impeded the crossbowmen.
Although much doubt has been thrown on the statement that the crossbows of the Genoese failed to act on this occasion, owing to their strings being slackened by wet weather, it is possible that the incident occurred, without, however, in any measure influencing the result of the battle.
The strings might easily have been rendered less effective than usual by the heavy rain that fell just before the battle, and by the bright sun which is known to have succeeded the rain.
This combination of water and heat would certainly relax in some degree the strings of the crossbows used at the time of Crécy, if they were uncovered, and would make the strings too loose to be of good service, till they could be removed from the bows in order to be shortened by twisting, and then replaced; all of which would entail, of course, time and care.
It should be remembered that the bows of the Genoese crossbowmen at Crécy were doubtless composite ones, made of wood, horn, sinew, and glue, bows of steel being of later introduction.
The composite bow was straight, hence its bow-string was fixed to it in a necessarily rather slack condition; for this reason the threads composing its string, being more or less detached, were liable to absorb moisture.
On the other hand, the threads that composed the tightly strained string of a steel crossbow, lay closely packed together, and as in this case the string was always thickly smeared, both inside and outside, with beeswax to preserve it, it was impervious to water.
To test the matter, I have sunk a steel crossbow in a tank of water for a day and a night and have found no appreciable alteration in the tightness of its string. I have also placed in water a crossbow with a comparatively loose string—such as those which I believe were used by the Genoese at Crécy—and found that after half an hour's submersion, the application of a lever to bend the bow caused the string subsequently to stretch down the stock an inch further than its proper position, its tautness, and consequent effectiveness, thus being lost.
The supposition that the crossbows of the Genoese at Crécy had bows of wood, or of wood and horn, is confirmed in a curious way by David-ap-Gwilym, a famous Welsh bard and archer of the fourteenth century. In one of his poems, the bard refers to a soldier who had sailed with Edward III. to fight at Crécy, and whom he had cause to hate, as he had supplanted the poet in the affections of his mistress. The poet calls upon the enemy to shoot his more fortunate rival, with the 'arbalest' or short stirrup stick. The translation of this passage, as rendered by A. J. Johns (the italics are mine), runs:
And thou crossbowman true and good,
Thou shooter with the faultless wood,
Haste with thy stirrup-fashioned bow
To lay the hideous varlet low.
As further proof that at Crécy the Genoese did not use the powerful steel crossbow which was bent by a windlass, I quote the following extract from Viollet-le-Duc (Dictionnaire raisonné du Mobilier français. Paris 1868—75). 'John II., King of France (the Good), issued in 1351 a military regulation which ordered that the crossbowman who had a good crossbow, strong according to his strength, should receive three sous tournoise wages per day.' This plainly shows that the military crossbow of the time of Crécy was bent either by the hands alone, or, as was more probable, by a thong and pulley, a claw fixed to the girdle, or by means of a goat's-foot lever. If the crossbowmen referred to in the regulation given above had steel crossbows with windlasses, such as were commonly used towards the end of the century, the question of regulating the power of the bow to the strength of the soldier would not have arisen, as with a windlass a boy could bend the thickest of steel bows.
The Genoese at Crécy (they were in the first line and were the only troops of the French army who advanced towards the English in fair order) were probably checked, and thrown into confusion, by showers of arrows, before they could approach their assailants sufficiently near to discharge one crossbow bolt with effect. All contemporary and later evidence tends to prove, that the crossbows carried by the Genoese at Crécy had not steel bows; thus they could not compete at all with the English longbow, as they had formerly done with the old shortbow.
The Genoese became, therefore, a large and helpless target for the English bowmen, and very soon scattered and fled, for they were unable to inflict any loss upon their opponents, though struck down in numbers themselves.
This, in itself, was sufficient to throw these unfortunate mercenaries into a state of panic, even had their small crossbows been in proper condition, as indeed they may have been, notwithstanding tradition and surmise to the contrary.
When the crowding mass of horse and foot, which for several miles had been pressing in disorder on the heels of the Genoese, came up, they found the crossbowmen in hot retreat, either by reason of the deadly hail of English arrows they had just encountered, or because of the uselessness of their weapons.
The cavalry, however, in merciless manner, galloped furiously over the luckless crossbowmen and hewed them down with their swords, as cowardly knaves whose broken ranks blocked the way to the front. Whether the alleged incident of the crossbow-strings occurred or not, or whether it was said by the Genoese to have taken place as an excuse for their discomfiture, we shall never know. At all events one thing is certain, and that is, that at the time of Crécy the longbow must have excelled considerably the crossbow in range and penetration.
Even when the powerful steel crossbow with its windlass was invented, it was rightly considered to be less efficient in open warfare than the longbow, which was light, portable, and inexpensive, and could be discharged five or six times to the crossbow's once.
Whilst the crossbowman was occupied in stretching the string of his bow, the archer with a longbow could be assailing him with a succession of arrows.
For this reason, the crossbowman was often attended in battle by a companion, who sheltered him from the arrows of the enemy by holding before him a thick shield of wood and hide, whilst he was pulling up his bow-string.
Sometimes the crossbowman carried a small shield himself, which he slung on his back on the march, and propped up before him as a protection when shooting, or when bending his crossbow.
The crossbow may be described as the blunderbuss of archery, and the larger sort was much employed in the defence of fortresses, as behind the shelter of turrets and loopholes a heavy crossbow could be conveniently rested, and the weapon could then be aimed in safety at a besieging force. It was also a favourite weapon on board ships of war.
It was certainly superior to the longbow in some respects; for besides its much heavier missile, and its accuracy and power as an instrument of offence or defence in fortified positions, it could be used from any position of concealment demanded by the exigencies of war, as, for instance, through the peepholes and slits of low basement rooms, or through the small loopholes that were pierced in the walls of the flanking towers of a fortification to enfilade the approach to its gateway. A crossbow could be strung in, and discharged from, a room not 6 feet high to the ceiling, whilst a longbowman required a height of at least 7 feet in order to shoot an arrow with effect.
Excerpted from THE BOOK OF THE CROSSBOW by Ralph Payne-Gallwey. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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