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Norman Bows and Crossbows at the Battle of Hastings
Archers from the Bayeux Tapestry

There are no illustrations of crossbows or crossbowmen in the Bayeux Tapestry, so we have to use the information found in the contemporary chronicles.

From the Carmen:
Apulia, Calabria, Sicily! Whose flying darts swarm!

He sent archers before the infantry to start the battle
And placed the crossbowmen in the centre.
He commences battle with arrows to confound the English infantry

The first of the infantry attack the opposing archers
At a spears throw away and pierce the bodies with javelins
And crossbow bolts like a hailstorm dissolve shields

From Orderic Vitalis:
The Normans made the first attack with ardour and gallantry, their infantry rushing forward to provoke the English, and spreading wounds and death through their ranks by showers of arrows and bolts.

From Henry of Huntingdon:
Is it not shameful, then, that a people accustomed to be conquered, a people ignorant of the art of war, a people not even in possession of arrows, should make a show of being arrayed in order of battle against you, most valiant ?

Then the ranks met; a cloud of arrows carried death among them; the clang of sword-strokes followed; helmets gleamed, and weapons clashed.

Duke William also commanded his bowmen not to aim their arrows directly at the enemy, but to shoot them in the air, that their cloud might spread darkness over the enemy's ranks; this occasioned great loss to the English.

Meanwhile, a shower of arrows fell round King Harold, and he himself was pierced in the eye.

From Master Wace:
The archers came forth, and touched land the foremost; each with his bow bent, and his quiver full of arrows slung at his side. All were shaven and shorn, and all clad in short garments, ready to attack, to shoot, to wheel about and skirmish

They are all well armed, and come on horseback, and will trample our people under foot ; they have many lances and shields, hauberks and helmets ; glaives and swords, bows and barbed arrows that are swift, and fly fleeter than the swallow.

The Norman archers with their bows shot thickly upon the English ; but they covered themselves with their shields, so that the arrows could not reach their bodies, nor do any mischief, how true soever was their aim, or however well they shot.

Then the Normans determined to shoot their arrows upwards into the air, so that they might fall on their enemies' heads, and strike their faces. The archers adopted this scheme, and shot up into the air towards the English ; and the arrows in falling struck their heads and faces, and put out the eyes of many ; and all feared to open their eyes, or leave their faces unguarded.

The arrows now flew thicker than rain before the wind ; fast sped the shafts that the English call 'wibetes' Then it was that an arrow, that had been thus shot upwards, struck Harold above his right eye, and put it out. In his agony he drew the arrow and threw it away, breaking it with his hands : and the pain to his head was so great, that he lean ed upon his shield. So the English were wont to say, and still say to the French, that the arrow was well shot which was so sent up against their king; and that the archer won them great glory, who thus put out Harold's eye.

There Harold had remained, defending himself to the utmost ; but he was sorely wounded in his eye by the arrow, and suffered grievous pain from the blow.

From the above we learn that the Saxons had some archers in front of the 'Shield Wall' and a javelin attack destroyed them.

There were a large number of Norman archers as the descriptions describe showers of arrows.

And that the archers originally fire at the 'Shield Wall' and then start firing overhead to cause the most head damage

We also find that Harold was injured by an arrow but not killed by one.

The crossbows appear to come from the South of Italy and Sicily(See later section on Byzantium) and were powerful enough to penetrate the Saxon shields and ring mail Armour of the Housecarls.

Archers from the Bayeux Tapestry

Characteristics of early bows
The early crossbows were called footbows to distinguish them from the normal handbow (as you had to put your feet over them to pull back the bowstring), but these are now known as crossbows. There is also the alternative Roman word arcoballistae which has been used in medieval texts to describe the footbow.

The European record of crossbow usage appeared in 947AD during the siege of Senlis, in 984AD at the siege of Verdun, and made a significant impact at the Battle of Hastings in 1066AD.

A normal handbow would have about a 60-80lb pull during this period, whereas the footbow could be about 170lb so let us assume its twice as powerful (source Wikipedia ).

The footbow quarrel was a much heavier item so its kinetic energy is high close up, but it looses energy quicker over distance, so its range is less than a bow but its destructive power is much more when firing close to the enemy.

The quarrel at this time would have been approx 60 grams, whereas the equivalent arrow would have been about 40 grams (please let me know if i am wrong as there is minimal information available).

Hence a heavier bolt at a faster speed(close up) could go through shields and ring mail killing the person behind where an arrow may get through the shield but may not even reach the person behind.

The loading and aiming times for these crossbows was about 2 shots per minute, so were about half as fast as a bow.

The maximum effective range of handbows in this period was about 180 yds/mtrs while that of the footbow about 120 yds/mtrs, but the killing distances were a lot less.

From the medieval records it would seem that a bow quiver would contain about 24 arrows and an archer carried one or 2 quivers (from Mary Rose research - so not really early enough but probably similar), the crossbow on the other hand probably had 20 per quiver as the bolts were heavier.

If you fire a handbow at an enemy and miss, the enemy may pick up the arrow and return it, the crossbow quarrel is less likely to be returnable, as it buries deeper into the target.

An interesting site relating to early Russian crossbows is The arrival of the Medieval Crossbow in Rus'.

Archers from the Bayeux Tapestry

Advantages and Disadvantages of early bows
  • Armor Penetration.
    Footbows have an advantage over a hand bow as they fire bolts at incredibly fast speeds the instant they are fired, whereas arrows fired from handbows reach their peak speed as they are falling. Crossbows are therefore better for close-range armor or shield penetration.

  • Less Effort and Training.
    An archer has to be trained and practice continuously if they wish to be competent, whereas the footbow armed soldier just has to point and fire. Once you've got the hang of the reloading process, and you know how to aim it, you are good enough with the crossbow to be effective in a siege or battle. The loading of a crossbow does not take a lot of strength, whereas the bow requires good muscles to fire.

  • Extended Periods of Fighting.
    Handbow archers can't keep up firing for a long before their arms and their backs become exhausted. Pulling back a handbow string means pulling a lot of weight which is difficult to hold for a long period, whereas a footbow once loaded is ready. The crossbow does almost all the work, thanks to its mechanism, so is better with multiple moving targets.

  • Weather effects.
    Footbows are permanently strung so if it rains or is damp the string gets wet and stretches making the footbow less effective, whereas the handbow can be unstrung, the string put in a waterproof bag and protected from the weather .

Byzantine Empire in pre-Norman times
Byzantium about 867AD
This is a map from Wikipedia showing the Byzantine Empire about 867AD

Byzantium and Crossbows
Byzantium is not believed to have used crossbows, however Apulia, Calabria and Sicily were Byzantine states until the Empire was pushed out of Southern Italy and Sicily by the Normans.

The presence of crossbowmen at the Battle of Hastings 1066AD, all from states that were originally Byzantine imply that Byzantium had been using crossbowmen prior to their removal from Italy.

This also means that the Normans must have controlled the three ex Byzantine areas prior to 1066AD, and probably some time before as these troops would need to be subjugated and ferried to Normandy prior to the Invasion.

A Late Roman Arcuballista
An Arcuballista from Tod's Workshop
This is a reconstruction of a Late Roman Arcuballista from Tod's Workshop which is probably very similar to those used at the Battle of Hastings in 1066AD.

The Norman bowmen and javelin armed infantry destroyed the Saxon bowmen very early on in the battle.

There is a possibility that this was to prevent the destruction of their new shock weapon, the crossbow, of which the Saxons were probably unaware, as it had come from the newly won Norman territories in Italy.

Once the Saxon bowmen had been removed then the crossbows could be deployed to punch holes through the shield wall and through the bodies of the Fyr├░ behind this, which would have been fairly bad for the morale of the Saxons.
(The handbow men had a longer range than the crossbowmen, and could therefore kill the crossbowmen before they could get into effective range)

The other role that the crossbows were likely to take was the destruction of the armoured Housecarls, if they were visible, as the crossbow quarrels would punch straight through the ring mail Armour and kill or seriously injure these troops.

However once the crossbows had shot all their bolts, then there is no way these troops could have been used in further fighting, as they were light troops now with no real weapons except for knives, and there were no Crossbowmen in the Saxon Army to return the bolts.

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Author Simon M - Last updated - 2024-05-06 11:42:06
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