Why Welsh Archers Were The Most Feared In Europe
Updated: May 23
North Wales exploded into open revolt against an exploitative English elite. Countless towns were laid waste, their populations massacred. Henry IV’s retaliatory expedition was humiliated and sent packing back to England. Conwy Castle — that glittering jewel of royal might — was captured. And a new Prince of Wales was declared: Owain Glyndefrdwy, or Owain Glyndwr for short.
Now in 1401, Glyndwr moved on. Huge numbers flocked to his banner raised in the mountains of west Wales, outside Aberystwyth.
But not only Welsh. The Gower peninsula, near Swansea, included a substantial colony of Flemish traders. They followed news of the rebellion with increasing fear for their livelihoods, and noted how it was spreading south. Unable even to appeal to the English king for assistance, they concluded in their councils that only they could organise their defence, and the best defence would be a preemptive attack to take the Welsh by surprise.
At Mynydd Hyddgen, they certainly did surprise the Welsh, who, having established there were no English in the countryside, were not expecting any offensive columns to approach. But Glyndwr’s archers simply seized their bows.
Thousands of razor-sharp shafts poured from the sky. The untrained Flemish merchants saw their friends and relatives crumpling around them. Those with shields held them aloft as they tip-toed through the multitudes of shafts stuck in the ground. Those without shields were going nowhere but down.
Within minutes, all discipline collapsed as the terrified wholesalers turned and fled. Those who could not run were abandoned to an agonised, lonely death. There was nothing more for the Welsh to do but to leap into their saddles, pursue the running vendors, and cut them down.
Deadly Welsh Archers
Welsh archers were deadly, and all of Europe knew it.
Compelled by law to attend archery practice every Sunday from the age of seven, many of them had been seasoned in the battles of the Wars of the Roses.
Their bows were made of European yew (British yew didn’t work as well), imported as staves and shaped by bowyers. Such was the demand that by the end of the 1500s, mature yew trees were almost extinct in northern Europe.
The staves were cut from the centre of the tree, comprising about half sapwood and half heartwood. The sapwood performed best under tension, and so was carved into the front of the bow. The heartwood worked best under compression, so was carved into the back of the bow.
The arrow shafts were made of ash, with a nock at the back for the bowstring. Fletchlings were feathers, always from the same wing, cut to size and carefully glued and tied to the shaft to make the arrow spin as it flew. It improved the accuracy. A minimum of three was needed, but four would improve the accuracy, at the cost of reduced range.
The arrowheads, called “points,” were glued or attached with a pin. The most basic type, that a skilled blacksmith could bang out in about fifteen minutes, was the bodkin (1). Little more than an iron pyramid no wider than the shaft, this basic, all-purpose arrow was capable of penetrating basic padding and sometimes chain mail. Penetrating plate armour required a specialised bodkin (2), one whose elongated profile and acute angles preserved the arrow’s momentum as it struck its target.
These were probably the arrows that the Welsh used to such devastation against the Flemish, but broadheads were also deployed for specialist purposes.
The broadhead in the image above, incorporating a small cage in its design, is a fire arrow (3). We’ve all seen them in the movies. The cage could be packed with wool, soaked in oil, and ignited prior to firing. They could be used to burn down wooden defences and gates. But while they were present in most campaigns, their complexity to forge meant they were rarely used unless something needed to be burned.
The forked head (4) is commonly found in archaeological digs; nevertheless, its purpose is unclear. Some have suggested it was a maritime weapon, intended to rip the sails of enemy ships. None were found aboard the Mary Rose, however.
Others have suggested they may have been used to sever the tendons of enemy horses, although this would have demanded a tremendous aim. A hunting website suggests that bodkins cause a clean puncture wound that an animal is not always immediately aware of, and that a forked head, on its spinning shaft, would cause such a terrible wound, inflicting such pain on the poor horse, that it would throw off its rider.
Barbed broadheads (5) were sharpened all along their leading-edge, secured to the shaft with a pin, and came in different sizes. The larger of the two above was too expensive to pepper a battlefield with. It was intended primarily for hunting. On August 2nd 1100, William II was accidentally shot through the lung by an arrow while hunting, probably by one of these. Small wonder that he died.
A small barbed broadhead (6) sliced through the target’s flesh and blood vessels, in a similar manner to a dagger, but the barbs wedged into the muscle, making it difficult to remove before the patient bled to death. The shaft could be snapped off, making it less inconvenient, but the head would remain in the body. When Henry of Monmouth was shot through the right cheek at the battle of Shrewsbury during the Glyndwr Rebellion, he remained on the battlefield with the arrowhead still lodged in his jaw. Only once the battle was won did he have it removed, the surgeon constructing a special device specifically for the purpose.
It is a myth, however, that this was all done without anaesthetic. It’s barely conceivable that a surgeon could have kept his patient still while inflicting that much pain on him. Hemlock, opium, henbane and mandragora could be used to render the patient unconscious — at a price.
Surgeons — at a price!
The surgeons were always at a price. Armies included no medical corps in the fifteenth century. People claiming to be doctors followed the expedition with the baggage train, along with all the other camp followers: cobblers, seamstresses, saddle makers, cooks, brewers, bakers, washerwomen and whores.
The aftermath of any battle saw wanderers picking through the dead and dying: thieves, many of them, but also doctors offering healing to those who could pay. We may assume they typically demanded a high price of those begging for their lives. If the wounded man couldn’t afford it, certainly, another wounded man would be able to.
And after the glory — the dirty work
Archers had one further task, one that is rarely mentioned, because they themselves rarely talked about it. After the battle, as the army pursued the fleeing enemy, it was the archers job to join the wanderers on the field. One purpose was to retrieve the thousands of arrows sticking up from the ground. Another was to identify the wounded. Enemy wounded of rank could be rescued, nursed back to health, and held for ransom. The rest would be murdered: with a dagger through the skull into the brain, or a knife across the throat. Enemy foot soldiers were of no value. This almost certainly accounts for a large number of the french dead at the battle of Agincourt.
The end of Glyndwr
For nearly ten years, the Glyndwr Rebellion raged, reducing Wales to cinders. Despite evicting English rule from almost the whole of Wales, Glyndwr hadn’t the resources to secure his gains after the death of his ally, Henry Hotspur, at Shrewsbury.
Slowly, the movement crumbled, the king’s authority was reimposed, the rebellion’s leaders killed or executed. Glyndwr’s wife and daughters were dispatched to the Tower of London, never to be heard of again.
Owain Glyndwr himself disappeared. Legend has it that, like King Arthur, he sleeps, awaiting a time of crisis to return.
The Welsh archers, though, were surprisingly quick to join Henry V’s expedition to France just a few years later. Their living standards destroyed along with the Welsh countryside, the prospect of plunder offered the sharpest improvement in their lifestyles they were ever likely to see.
They distinguished themselves at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, where, as at Mynydd Hyddgen, their torrents of razor-sharp arrows devastated the French knights (which included a handful of Welsh irreconcilables). So feared were they that a captured archer could expect to have his right index and middle fingers cut off, preventing him ever drawing a bowstring again. As they jeered the retreating French, Henry V’s archers waved their index and middle fingers in the air, an insult that survives today. Then they trudged in among the wounded.
Source - Flying With Dragons