If we believe that King Arthur was a medieval English monarch, and some people of course do not believe that, then we know he had a secret weapon. The weapon that made England great, and maybe put the "Great" in Great Britain, was not the knight in armor, or the foot soldier with a pike, it was the English archer. The victories at Agincourt and Crecy were due to the English and Welsh archers and their long bows. The armies of European monarchs had committed themselves to the crossbow which did not have the range of the long bow. However, almost any soldier could shoot a crossbow, whilst it took a lifetime of training to pull a longbow. In fact the skeletons of medieval English archers are still identified by their deformed shoulders and arms.
A skeleton was found on Henry VIII ship the Mary Rose. It is believed that this man was an archer. This is deduced from the shoulder bones which show different development in Longbow archers, because of the colossal strength required to pull the English Longbow. It has been said that Longbow training began at the age of 10 or 11 because if you left it any later you would not be able to develop the necessary strength to pull the string back and release the arrow. Tests have been done to show the effect of using very powerful longbows on the musculoskeletal system, which made some bones almost 50 per cent bigger on one side of the body than the other. No wonder the English archers were feared throughout Europe.
The long bow was made of yew and was at least the height of the archer, sometimes as tall as 6ft. It could shoot a bodkin that would pierce plate armor at 400 yards. This bow was the medieval equivalent of the machine gun, accurate, rapid fire and deadly even over a long range. The English army required so many bows that English forests were decimated and in 1294 England began importing yew from Europe. Later the shortage of yew became so acute that every ship entering an English port was required to pay a toll in the form of bow staves. The English monarchs were so determined that their armies should be supplied with archers that every able bodied man was required to train in archery and compete in contests.
The melee was the high point of the medieval tournament, and the joust was the time for knights and nobles to show off their skills but the archery contest was the place where the average man could win a great prize. This is where we can point to the story of Robin Hood. The legend always tells of Robin Hood entering an archery contest and winning a golden arrow. While many people will dispute that Robin Hood ever existed at all, no one will dispute the fact that archery tournaments were highlights of medieval life. While the knights battered each other in the melee, or poked each other with sharp objects in the joust, the English yeoman with his trusty bow could prove that he was obeying the law and learning to be an archer, and maybe win a handsome purse. Did Robin Hood exist? Probably not, but people, living under the rule of tyrannical monarchs, wanted him to exist and wanted to believe that someone would right their wrongs. Just as they wanted Robin Hood to exist, so they wanted to believe that King Arthur had existed.
Robin Hood's Oak, is a protected tree in Sherwood Forest. The tree is believed to be over a thousand years old and legend says that it once sheltered Robin Hood and his Merrie Men.
Did King Arthur use archers? According to Nennius the historian, Arthur fought twelve major battles, not including the Battle of Camlan in which he either died, or was mortally wounded and taken away by the Lady of the Lake. Archers were the artillery of ancient warfare and there is no doubt that Arthur would have used them. When we think of Arthur's heroic knights, we should spare a thought for his archers. They went into battle without armor or protection, they carried the simplest of weapons, a bow made from the branches of a yew tree, and arrows fletched with white feathers. They were not noblemen, they had no great titles, but it was archers who won the battle at Agincourt and Crecy. We have no record of their names only the record of their victories.
Learn more about King Arthur's 21st Century return in Excalibur Rising. Buy Book One here