Medieval warfare in Britain and Ireland has been greatly championed in the English language for obvious reasons -mainly nationalistic- not only on the part of the English historically but in recent decades on the Celtic part. Most of the popular ideas on the weapons, tactics and units -even the famous victories- are complete rubbish. There are even a set of alternative theories which are supposed to turn the original ideas on their heads and again these are typically nationalistic rubbish.
The longbow for instance is a key instrument in English victories and conquests over Wales Ireland and successful campaigns in France and Scotland. But its origins are usually considered to be Welsh, however their is absolutely no evidence for this whatsoever neither archaeologically nor historically. During the Norman invasion of Ireland welsh archers were used significantly and to great effect but the bows found in archaeology are a little more than half the length of a longbow. Simply put the welsh archers were just archers, what was so devastating was their use in large units.
The longbow was a weapon used by the Norse in Ireland to a great extent, both historical and archaeological sources abound with evidence of its use. We assume it was a feature of Anglo-Danish equipment too, but the fact was they seem to be skirmish weapons and were not deployed with the later strategic mass. Both the French and Scottish opponents of the English fighting companies can be read in the historical accounts repeating with dread the sight of black rain from the masses of archers.
Early English archers practicing on shooting ranges.
On the one hand it is argued that the longbow had no armour penetration value but this seems to be only relevant when placed in context. English longbows during wet weather and long distance shots against armoured professional Frenchmen in the 1300s had little punch, but were still instrumental in wiping out thousands of French knights. Equally the first Norman forays into Wales were met with powerful Welsh shots such that a single missile pierced a lord's armour, his leg, his saddle and his horse.
It was the use of cheap horsemen in Wales that were the real key in the Irish theatre since they could chase down and harass the skirmishers on foot through rough terrain. This tactic was learnt by the Normans in Wales and brought victory in Ireland, it was this adaptability that allowed the English to develop their warfare and create an elite attitude to its techniques.
After the Irish conquest, the Irish combined three arms-light skirmishers with javelins, light pony cavalry, and heavy infantry. Kerns, hobilars and gallowglass were three prongs of a combined force that was possibly native to the Irish in defence against the Normans. Yet no notable Irish victories are recorded using these troops, we must therefore surmise that only in the hands of Norman organisation were these troops fully effective. All three were key to success in France and Scotland in later centuries, in that they were professional soldiers but cheap and as peasants could therefore be kept as prolonged campaign forces, similar to the cheap and effective English longbowmen we see at Crecy and Agincourt.
Irish gallowglass and kern, by Albrecht Dürer, 1521.
Scotland on the other hand was no more backward savages of painted blue than any other European nation. In fact the Scottish dynasty was intermarried with England, Scandinavia, Russia and Hungary, and a great deal of the gentry were drawn from France and Flanders. Interestingly, there are several references to Scottish archers on the field however, in each case they were typically successful only as raiders in the vein of the early Welsh bowmen that resisted the Normans. While there is some reason to believe that Wallace was a bowman and that his raiding base in the gaming forest of Selkirk brings attractive images of Robin Hood to mind, the Scottish archers are always outranked by English longbows. At victories such as Stirling Bridge however they are used alongside large shieltroms and flanked by shock cavalry. The archers were more fluid and it is possibly this resemblance to the old Anglo-Nordic style of free fighting that made the Scottish use of bow inefficient. The Scottish victory at Stanford Bridge was a fluke due to the landscape since the bridge collapsed drowning most of the English, the rest bottlenecked on both sides, Scottish arrows then decimated the English supported by skirmishes of heavy infantry and cavalry.
Scots drive English from the field, at Otterburn 1388
Yet subsequent and continual losses by the Scots reinforce indeed the the classic idea of the inferiority of the Scottish forces, despite the clear capabilities of the much lauded Scottish longspear defensive formations. By the 1400s many European armies were well equipped with the longbow. The Scottish archers at Homildon Hill were repulsed by the English because they couldn't match their range however. Yet Scottish archers like so many soldiers from Britain and Ireland were highly experienced in the continual conflicts there and in respites of peace they served as far afield as Alsace, Iberia and Lithuania as mercenaries. In addition to Scottish archers we have the Irish javelin-throwing kerns which are well-attested, but there are even examples of other military arms such as Welsh knights like Owain ap Thomas ap Rhodri heir of Gwynedd who served in the Gugler War of 1375 in Switzerland for the French. Irish kerns and gallowglass served in the forces of the Irish Earls of Ormonde and the Butlers in the first half of the 1400s against the French at the Siege of Rouen and continued to campaign for the continuing decades.
An Irish horseman circa 12th Cent.
Irish hobelar cavalry were used by the English and Scots on both sides of the Scottish Wars of Independence, yet within a single generation most hobelars were not Irishmen but Englishmen. We can therefore infer that hobelars were characterised by the hobby horse and their fighting style which meant that the English could quickly adopt the feature to become its own. By the time of the Siege of Calais in 1346 the hobelars were joined by a new phenomenon: the mounted archer.
Contrary to amateur historians the English used mounted archers and it is extremely well-evidenced: mounted longbowmen are documented from the early 1330s. The northern county of Cheshire provided over a quarter of the English longbowmen in Edward IIIs Flanders campaign of 1338, all were mounted. Later under John Ward, serving in Scotland, the Cheshiremen formed both mounted units and units of 'King's Archers' whom we can assume were elite marksmen. In all cases the Cheshiremen formed units of 50, 150 and 200. These units are contrasted specifically with the infantry longbowmen of Essex and London. It is these highly paid King's Archers that are an interesting event, since their pay was sixpence a day on campaign, as much as a lancer. We see from Froissart's accounts that the English deployed mounted longbowmen in full plate armour attacking the French lines at full charge. In the 1400s it seems that the French, Burgundian and possibly smaller Italian or German contingents were also capable of fighting in this style.
Froissart showing armoured mounted longbowmen charging the French
Despite the apparent inferiority of the Scots forces, during the Hundred Years War the French allied with Scotland were sent aid in the form of no less than 15,000 troops in the year 1420, roughly 15 years after the disastrous Scottish defeat at Homlidon Hill. We have to wonder then, what was the nature of the Scottish military that within less than a generation and a loss of thousands of men at Homildon, that the country could still provide 15,000 men and transport them over sea? At the Battle of Baugé in 1421, the Scots outnumbered the English almost 2 to 1 and destroyed them on French soil; over ten percent of the English were slain, and dozens of English nobles taken captive. The French king even formed an elite and loyal bodyguard: the Garde Écossaise, formed by knights and their 'lance' retinues which were mainly archers under the name Archiers du Corps. Despite the Scottish and French defeats in the following Battle of Cravant and Battle of Verneuil, which saw the Scottish reinforcements dissolved, they were mainly absorbed into the wider French Ordinances forming new companies and squadrons. The Garde Écossaise organisation continued for centuries.
Due to the English invasions of Wales and Ireland, war with Scotland and the Scots' own internicine wars -all compounded with the Welsh, Irish, Scots and English fighting on both sides of the Hundred Years War: the British and Irish soldiers were some of the most experienced and technically expert in Europe; as is shown by their expansive employment as mercenaries. This pattern was not a new novelty however, Englishmen had fled Britain in the wake of 1066 and joined the Scots, Danes, Hungarians and even made their way to Constantinople where the Varangian Guard was so swelled with English numbers for the next century that it became known as the English Guard.
An English knight, Sir Geoffrey Luttrell circa 1340