The Bannockburn Archers

by Robert Aitken 11th March 2008

There has been a long running argument among historians about archery and its effect on the outcome of the two-day battle at the Bannock burn in the midsummer of 1314. Historians study sources and search for evidence and hard facts to form an opinion of what happened at a particular historical event. Maybe this approach does not tell the whole story. The archers who took part in this battle were there for one reason and one reason only. Money! Why do I say this? Archers were a special type of infantry. Why? The draw weight of a typical bow was much higher than modern bows, so much so that if an archer survived into middle age the constant practice produced marked deformities such as an enlarged left arm with bone spurs both in the arm and shoulder. Twisting of the spine and bone spurs on the right fingers was also common. Most archers who fought and lived would carry scars from battle; from minor cuts and infections to surprisingly large wounds and even bone damage, which had somehow healed.

Therefore I think people would only take such risks if they were hungry for riches.
What did they look like? Well the 14th century archer would wear linen underclothes, socks and boots, leggings or trousers (discarded in times of illness or fright to prevent soiling) and a jack or gambeson (a padded jacket) a wrist bracer to stop chafing by the bowstring and gloves to protect the fingers. Most important of all a cap and a bascinet or chapel de fer (iron hat) to protect the head would be worn. A belt would complete the outfit.

Weapons were of course a bow, best of all made from yew and heavy arrows carried in a cloth bag. A short sword or an axe was carried for close quarter fighting or to dispatch the wounded before looting. Personal equipment would consist of a dagger, rosary, flint and steel and possibly a pair of dice for gaming and money pouch probably left in safekeeping or buried before the battle.

During a battle the archers were well commanded and trained (they had a year to do so) and for defence would form an open formation to lessen casualties, arrows were stuck in the soil to ensure rapid fire and if the archer was killed or wounded the nearest fellow could use the ammunition, they of course would shoot at a high rate of fire to try to kill or disable as many opponents as possible to increase their own chance of survival. As with most medieval battles it is certain that archers took part and the weight of opinion is that Edwards archers were unsuccessful, maybe they ran out of arrows, maybe they were pushed out by the knights eager for glory or the Bruce’s men got in first, let us say Bruce had only 500 archers to begin with and had massive casualties and a low strike rate.

Even so in the eight minutes the ammunition would have lasted around 20,000 arrows would have been spent, fired into a massed target, a low 10% killing or disabling rate would result in 2,000 casualties in the first 8 minutes for a loss of 500. From the other side a possible 3,000 archers would have destroyed the Bruce’s army entirely! Of course this is only conjecture but it does show the difference archers could make. Edwards’s archers failed for whatever reason and the Bruce’s soldiers were left to murder the wounded and loot what they could, even in the worst case a soldier on the winning side would at least gain better clothes and equipment, albeit in need of a wash or repair, as sensibilities were easily buried in this time of shortage of materials, blood and holes were of little importance to these remarkable men and women of both sides.

P.S. As the song says those days are past now, and in the past they must remain.

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