The History of Medieval Crossbow
The History of the Crossbow dates back to 600BC in Ancient China. The Greeks and the Romans were also known to use this deadly weapon. The Medieval crossbow was reintroduced to England by William the Conqueror and the Normans in 1066. The correct term for a crossbow is an Arbalest. The crossbow range was 350 – 400 yards but could only be shot at a rate of 2 bolts per minute. The crossbow was easy to use, requiring minimal training and required little strength to operate. The medieval Knight was the most powerful and effective warrior and said to be worth 10 foot soldiers, who were regarded with the lowest esteem and considered expendable. The crossbow could be used by an untrained soldier to injure or kill a knight in plate armour. The crossbow, itself, was therefore viewed as an inhuman weapon which required no skill and had no honour. It was even banned by the Pope! The Crossbow was, however, a very useful weapon which could be used by the young, the old and the infirm! The crossbow was used throughout the Middle Ages. Richard the Lionheart's army had both crossbows and longbows. King Richard died as a result of gangrene after being shot by a crossbow bolt at Chalus-Charbrol near Limousin, France, on 26 March 1199. The threat of Mercenaries flooding England from the continent, willing to fight for the highest bidder, led to one of the clauses in the Magna Carta (1215) seeking to banish all foreign crossbowmen. All attempts to apply a weapon ban on crossbows failed and all such requests were ignored...
Description of the Medieval Crossbow
The crossbow applied engineering to the short bow.
- A crossbow had a wooden stock generally made from yew ash, hazel or elm and coated with glue or varnish
- The 'bow' was made of made of wood, iron or steel
- The bow had a span of two to three feet
- The string of the crossbow was made from hemp as it was the strongest and least elastic fibre available
- The string was then soaked in glue as some protection against moisture
- The string was pulled back by using a lever or winding a crank on a ratchet
- By this mechanical method of 'drawing' the string far more tension could be gained than be muscle power alone. The crossbow was therefore an ideal weapon for a young boy, an old man or a sick soldier!
- The bolt or quarrel was laid in a groove on the top of the stock and the trigger pulled
- There were two or three notches to rest the thumb which could then be lined up with the bolt forming the crossbow sight
The crossbow bolt, unlike a light flying arrow, was short with a deadly point. The crossbow range was 350 – 400 yards but could only be shot at a rate of 2 bolts per minute. The crossbow was easy to use, requiring minimal training and required little strength to operate. A maker of bows, arrows, and other archery goods was called an Artillator.
Medieval crossbowmen were little more than peasants. They wore ordinary clothes which were reinforced with leather patches, strips of metal or quilted cloth. The simple use of the crossbow as a weapon led to groups of crossbow men being formed for the protection of towns. The Medieval crossbow had several advantages as a Medieval weapon:
- An untrained soldier could operate a crossbow
- The Crossbow could be carried ready loaded with a bolt (unlike a Short or Longbow)
- A crossbowman could kill a Knight in full armour
- Crossbows were easier to aim than short bows or longbows
- Crossbowmen required less upper body strength to operate the weapon
The main disadvantages of the Medieval crossbow were the expense and time to manufacture and the slow firing rate. From the crossbowman's point of view its main disadvantage was his vulnerability whilst reloading the crossbow. He needed protection and tall shields called pavises were developed.
The Pavise - the Shield of the Crossbow men
On the battlefield the Medieval crossbowman was particularly vulnerable while reloading his crossbow. Crossbowmen therefore protected themselves with a tall shield which was known as a pavise. The crossbowman would duck behind the pavise to re-load his crossbow during a battle.The pavise was a a large convex shield, some 4 to 5 ft. high and sufficiently broad to cover the entire body. The word 'pavise' originates from Pavia, in Italy, where pavise shields were originally made. A pavise would be carried slung on the back of the crossbowman. It was then propped up in front of him, in a permanent position, before the battle commenced. The pavise of the crossbowman could also be used as defensive screen formed by linking pavises together. Such a defensive screen was known as a 'Pavisade'. The Medieval era was strongly religious. Crossbowman would have fought in crusades, as well as battles in England. Many Pavises were therefore painted with religious scenes. The Medieval crossbow men hoped that the enemy would believe that they were committing a sacrilegious act if the Holy image was damaged.
The Medieval Crossbow is Banned!
The Magna Carta sought to ban foreign crossbowmen in order to defend the realm but a Pope had tried to ban this weapon even before this time! The devastating effect of the crossbow and the wounds it could inflict were reflected by these Medieval weapon bans. Article 51 of the Magna Carta stated the following:
" As soon as peace is restored, we will banish from the kingdom all foreign born knights, crossbow men, sergeants and mercenary soldiers who have come with horses and arms to the kingdom's hurt."
In 1139 Pope Innocent II and the Church of the Lateran Council issued a judgement against the use of the crossbow by Christians against Christians. The Medieval crossbow was referred to as "the deadly art, hated by God, of crossbowmen..."
The Medieval crossbow was viewed as an abomination but the weapon bans failed to stop the rise of crossbows, they were simply ignored, and the crossbow continued to remain a favoured weapon across both Europe and England.
The Medieval Crossbow is used for Sport
The Medieval crossbow is strongly associated with Medieval warfare however use of this weapon was a very popular sport. The crossbow was used for target shooting and hunting. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and King James I (1603-1625) were expert hunters with the crossbow!
Medieval Crossbow - The Crossbow and the Longbow
The Medieval Crossbow was supplanted by the longbow. The crossbow range was 350 – 400 yards but could only be shot at a rate of 2 bolts per minute. The crossbow was easy to use, requiring minimal training and required little strength to operate. But it shot too few bolts! The longbow launched arrows faster than any previous bows. A skilled longbowman could release between 10 - 12 arrows per minute - but required considerable training.
In Europe, the Medieval crossbow persisted as the favoured weapon until the end of the 15th century. We are reminded of the crossbow even today whenever the phrase "a bolt out of the blue" is repeated. This meaning of this saying implies a sudden event and is derived from a fast crossbow bolt arriving without being seen.