The fiercest advocate of the longbow during the period of the Elizabethan bow vs. gun debates was John Smythe, a nobleman and a cantankerous soldier of long experience. Smythe had first served in France during the short reign of Edward VI, and afterwards had fought in the Netherlands (on the side of the Spanish) and against the Turks in eastern Europe. The first book Smythe wrote in defense of the bow, titled Certain Discourses, based much of its authority on the historical triumphs of archery- biblical, classical, medieval, and a few from Smythe’s own time. Those from the 16th century are the only ones really of interest to us.
Let’s take a look at some of the victories of longbowmen over harquebuzers and musketeers Smythe presents, and then see if we can reconcile them with the historical record.
The first is an incident that took place during Kett’s Rebellion, a 1549 peasant uprising that saw the rebels successfully occupy the city of Norwich until they were ultimately driven out and destroyed on the field by the Earl of Warwick.
During Warwick’s assault on Norwich, there was some confusion with the baggage train and artillery which caused it to be captured by the rebels. Here’s what happened, according to Smythe:
For confirmation [that longbows are superior to firearms], there be divers moderne examples, with verie honorable testimonie of such as are yet living, verie honorable by birth and parentage, as also by titles of honor and worthines, of the which that noble Gentleman Ambrose Earle of Warwicke is one, that accompanied the Duke of Northumberland his father (then Earle of Warwicke) a man of great valour and sufficiencie for the governing and conducting of an Armie, who in the yeare 1548. was sent by King Edward the sixt, as his Lieutenant generall with an Armie of horsemen and footmen, to suppresse the rebellion of Ket in Norffolke, who at that time lay encamped with a great power of notorious and hardie rebells by the Citie of Norwich, uppon a high hill called Mount Surrey, to the which Citie the Duke with his Armie being come, he with great order did encampe and lodge himselfe and his Armie on the other side of the citie and river, & the next day he entred the towne and brought in foure and twentie field peeces, to the chiefe charge whereof he appointed the Coronell Courpenick an Alman and a great soldier, with his regiment of Almans, which was twelve hundred, the most of them brave shot, and all old soldiers, with divers other English bands and valiant Captaines of our owne nation for the gard of the same; but before they could throughlie entrench themselves, those furious Rebels contrarie to all expectation, descended downe their hil with such a furie of shot of arrowes, being al Bowmen, Swords and Bills, that they gave such a terror and feare to our people both strangers and English, as they were faine to runne away with the losse of the Ordinance, and slaughter of a great sort of soldiers, and before the Duke could make head against them, they had recovered eighteen field peeces, and carried them up to their hill even with verie force of men.
Smythe, of course, was not present at this supposed victory of a rabble of bowmen over experienced harquebusiers. This story is supposedly a verbatim account from Warwick himself.
The Chronicles by Raphael Holinshed give a very different picture of this event:
Shortly after, the carriages belonging to the army, were broughte into the Citie by the same gate, and passing through the Citie by negligence and want of order given to them that attended on the same cariage, they kept on forward till they were gote out at Byshoppes gate towards Mousholde, whereof the Rebels beeyng advised, they came downe, and setting uppon the Carters, and other that attended on the cariages, putte them to flighte, and drove away the cartes laden with artillerie, powder, and other munition, bringing the same into their Campe, greately rejoysing thereof, bycause they hadde no great store of suche things among them: but yet Captayne Drury with hys bande commyng in good tyme to the rescue, recovered some of the Cartes from the enimies, not withoute some slaughter on eyther side.
The artillery and baggage was indeed captured by the rebels, as Smythe said, but Holinshed doesn’t attribute that rebel victory to the archers. To the contrary, Captain Drury, leading the well-trained London militia of 200 pikemen and harquebusiers, is given special attention for managing to recover some of what was lost. Drury’s harquebusiers were effective against rebel archers inside Norwich as well:
The Earle of Warwike advertised heereof, passed forth with all his forces to remove the enimie, and comming to Sainte Andrewe in Johns streete, was receyved with a sharp storme of arrowes, but Captayne Drury hys Harquebusiers, galled them so with their shotte, that they were gladde to give place, and so fledde amayne.
An eyewitness, Alexander Neville, gives the same description of the events.
The enemy (unlooked for) with his Bowmen discharged upon us a mighty force of Arrowes, as flakes of snow in a tempest.
But while they were yet shooting, intending to mixe heaven and earth together: On the sudden came Captayne Drury the second time with his charge of Harquebusiers, yong men, and of an excellent courage and skill, who payed them home againe with such a terrible volly of shot (as if it had beene a storme of hayle) and put them all to flight as in a moment, trembling.
The rebels drew up in battle array three days later. German mercenaries numbering 1,400 had arrived to reinforce Warwick the previous day. Drury’s London militia and the German landsknechts together demonstrated the effectiveness of the modern weapons:
Captaine Drurie with his owne bande, and the Almaines or Lansqueners, whether ye lyst to call them, on foote, getting neare to the enimies, hailled them with their Harquebuse shot so sharpely, and thrust forwarde upon them with their Pykes so strongly, that they brake them in sunder.
Again, Smythe’s account is at odds with Holinshed and Neville:
And within two or three daies after, those gallants did not let to abide the battaile against the Duke & his whole Armie in the plaine field, where the battaile was so manfullie fought on both sides, that it could be hardlie iudged by the best soldiers that were there, which side was like to prevaile, but in the end, God giving the victorie, it was seene by that battaile that arrowes were a most noble weapon.
The chronicles mentions one interesting story that happened during Kett’s Rebellion. When the rebels were attacking Norwich for the first time, the citizens of the city repulsed them with bows and “other weapons”. The rebels sent out boys to collect the arrows which had stuck in the ground. When they were pierced with arrows shot from the walls, the boys pulled them out of their own bodies and delivered them back to the rebel bowmen. It is almost hard to believe that the arrows inflicted so little hurt, except that the story is collaborated by Alexander Neville in Norfolkes Furies:
it is reported also, that some having the arrowes sticking fast in their bodies (a thing fearefull to tell) drawing them out of the greene wounds, with their owne hands, gave them (as they were dropping with bloud) to the Rebels that were about them, whereby yet at the least, they might bee turned upon us againe
Perhaps arrows really did inflict such slight wounds. Even John Smythe only claimed that archers could drive musketeers off the field when they had received “three or foure arrowes in their bodies, faces, armes or legges”.
Smythe alleges that rebel archers were also very effective against experienced mercenary harquebusiers during the Prayer Book Rebellion, which also took place during the summer of 1549.
The Archers of the Rebells did so behave themselves with their volees of arrowes against divers old bands Harquebuziers Italians and Spaniards, that they drave them from all their strengths, as from bancks, ditches, hedges, and other advantages of ground, to the great mischiefe of manie of those strangers.
Again, other sources show the opposite.
Thanks largely to Spinola’s arquebusiers and the steadiness of the local billmen gallantly led by the gentlemen, he [Russell] got the better of the insurgents who, armed only with bows and bills, stood little chance against the accuracy and penetration of the professionals’ disciplined fire. Russell’s own archers were not very effective; far too many of their shafts flew wide, and the rebels retrieved them and shot them back.
Smythe further alleges that, when Warwicke arrived in Newhaven in 1562, the English snatched victory from the jaws of defeat thanks to eighty archers of Hampshire, who inspired their comrades to rally and drove back the French with their volleys of arrows. The incident is mentioned in Holinshed’s chronicles, sans any mention of archers.
Humphrey Barwick, one of Smythe’s contemporary critics, says that he couldn’t find any evidence of the eighty archers at Newhaven either. Barwick suggests that (supposing the archers weren’t an invention of Smythe) the circumstances of the battle were such that the French would have retired from the skirmish even if the archers hadn’t arrived.
Smythe claims that his accounts of Kett’s Rebellion and Newhaven are verbatim from Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick. Perhaps they were. Warwick was not around to contradict him, as he died February 21st, 1590, less than three months before the publication of Smythe’s Certain Discourses. Ambrose Dudley’s younger brother, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who had an intense dislike of Smythe, had died in 1588.
If Warwick has left behind any written record showing that he favored the longbow as highly as Smythe claims, I’ll eat my words, but until I find one it seems like Smythe can’t be trusted to give an unbiased historical account.
Unfortunately, Smythe provides us only hearsay evidence for the longbow’s effectiveness. Despite his own lengthy military career, Smythe offers no anecdotes from his personal experience. Perhaps Smythe had never actually seen the bow used in combat. That would be strange, since Smythe had served against the Turks, who still heavily utilized archery, but it could explain why his opinion of archery was so much higher than most of his contemporaries.