The Welsh and Scottish Campaigns: The Longbow, the Schiltron and the Return of Infantry to Western Europe

The Welsh longbow was a selfbow, constructed from a single, carefully shaped piece of wood, usually yew. The bow received its name from its unusual length (up to 6 feet 4 inches). It could achieve a maximum draw weight of 185 pounds, though draw weights of between 60 and 160 pounds were a common range. These powerful longbows could hurl small-headed arrows as far as 300 yards, depending on the size and weight of the arrowhead. Moreover, the skill required to shoot a longbow was substantial. To master the weapon took many years and constant practice, and a fully trained longbowman was a formidable military asset capable of piercing mail consistently and plate armour at short ranges, and attaining a rate of fire of up to twelve arrows per minute, far faster than a crossbow. This extraordinary rate of fire, combined with the sheer numbers of archers employed by English monarchs, created a ‘killing zone’ – a narrow fronted area around 200 yards deep into which several thousand arrows could be launched per minute. These ‘killing zones’ were instrumental in English victories in the Anglo-Scottish conflicts and the Hundred Years War against France.

In response to the vulnerability of mounted lancers to the arrows and bolts of light infantry, knights began to use metal plates to strengthen their mail armour at particularly vulnerable points (such as the shin and knee), creating a transitional armour known as plate mail. But as the threat of enemy missiles became more prevalent, heavy cavalrymen added more and more plates until a complete suit of plate armour was worn by the beginning of the fifteenth century. Knightly weapons also changed in response to this new plate armour. Swords became shorter and wider, and often had reinforced, sharp points for thrusting, rather than slashing attacks. There was also a movement away from edged weapons toward contusion weapons, such as the mace, flail and hammer, and piercing weapons, such as the military pick – weapons better suited to attack the flat protective plates encasing the aristocratic warriors.

King Edward I’s campaigns in Wales taught him valuable tactical lessons in how to employ light infantry against a stubborn guerrilla army. Beginning in 1276, he employed southern Welsh longbowmen against their cousins in the north. Earlier attempts by Anglo-Norman kings to quell the Welsh Marches failed because the Norman heavy cavalry was severely restricted in the mountainous terrain of Snowdonia in northern Wales. To overcome the rebellious Welsh, Edward assembled a large force of troops with few cavalry and many bowmen, spearmen, carpenters and diggers. The English king quickly put down the rebellion and initiated an ambitious castle-building project to dominate northern and central Wales, including the spectacular Edwardian castle complexes at Flint, Caernarfon, Harlech, Conwy and Beaumaris. Though over the next two decades Edward would face multiple rebellions by the Welsh, his effective combination of castle building and an infantry-based army would eventually subdue them. With Wales under English control, Edward looked north for his next adversary.

Medieval Scotland, like Wales, was a rugged country with strong feelings of independence. Since the Norman Conquest, the English and Scottish had fought a tug-of-war for the border regions of Cumbria and Northumbria. But instead of local chiefs squabbling over land, Anglo-Norman kings increasingly faced a Scottish kingdom unified and adopting Norman social, political and military institutions. Moreover, the Scots were consistently able to field large armies and carry the war far beyond the borderlands and into England itself (Map 5.2).

The Scottish were fierce warriors who fought in formations called schiltrons (sometimes schiltroms). These battle squares and circles were very similar to the boar’s head formation of the early medieval period, in that both formations were unarticulated and, being a militia formation, inexpensive to operate. The schiltron placed countryman beside countryman, each holding a long infantry spear or pike before him to discourage enemy heavy cavalry charges. The schiltron worked best as a defensive formation, and, like most medieval infantry arrays, its offensive capabilities were limited, though there is evidence that Scottish commanders wielded the schiltron successfully at propitious times. Because Scottish warriors were mostly peasants, the quality of their arms and armour varied greatly. Most likely, a front-line pikeman was protected by a mail hauberk or padded gambeson and wore a kettle helm or iron cap, while his poorer comrades, lacking body armour, stood behind him in the schiltron. The Scots also possessed some Norman-modelled heavy cavalry and light infantry archers, and, as a combined-arms army, they presented Edward with more of a challenge than had the raid-and-ambush tactics of the Welsh.

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Map 5.2 The Anglo-Scottish Border Wars.

The war in Scotland began well for Edward I. In 1296 the English captured Berwick and massacred the Scottish garrison. The next year, while Edward fought the French, the Scots rebelled, decisively defeating an English army at Stirling Bridge and raiding northern England. Edward turned his full attention to Scotland in the summer of 1298, invading the lowlands with a large army consisting of 3,000 heavy cavalry and over 13,000 infantry, of which some 10,000 were light infantry archers.

Marching overnight from Edinburgh into Stirlingshire, scene of the 1297 disaster, Edward’s vanguard attacked a Scottish muster point at Falkirk on 22 July (Map 5.3(a)). As the majority of the surprised Scottish cavalry fled, William Wallace, the Scottish commander, ordered the remaining infantry into four schiltrons and positioned them on a hill behind soft, swampy ground, braced for the inevitable English cavalry charge. Wallace then arrayed his light infantry bowmen between the schiltrons and on their flanks.

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Map 5.3 The Battle of Falkirk, 1298. (a) Phase I: Advance elements of Edward I’s army attack a Scottish muster site at Falkirk (1), scattering most of the Scottish light cavalry (2). William Wallace orders the infantry to form four schiltrons (3) on a hillside fronted by some marshy terrain and deploys his archers on the flanks and in the intervals between the schiltrons (4) in anticipation of an English heavy cavalry charge. (b) Phase II: The English vanguard charges (1). Unable to shake the tightly packed ranks of the schiltrons, the heavy cavalrymen succeed in driving off the Scottish archers (2). Edward arrives on the field (3) and stops his knights from mounting a second charge. The king orders his archers forward (4) to soften up the bristling pike circles with missile fire. (c) Phase III: Subjecting the schiltrons to a deadly hail of arrows, the longbowmen soon open gaps in the Scottish formations (1). Edward orders his heavy cavalry to charge through the openings (2) and the slaughter begins. (d) Phase IV: The unarticulated Scottish infantry are quickly destroyed, unable to resist the armoured horsemen assailing their flank and rear from inside their formerly invulnerable formations. Without the cohesion afforded by the tight ranks of the schiltron, the Scottish survivors are slaughtered (1), while Wallace manages to escape into the woods with a few of his followers (2).

The English vanguard did charge, dispersing the Scottish light infantry but failing to tear the four schiltrons (Map 5.3(b)). As the English knights were forming up for a second charge, Edward arrived and called instead for his longbowmen to come forward and fire on the enemy battle circles. Under a deadly rain of arrows, the Scottish lines gaped, creating openings for the armoured horsemen. English knights penetrated the schiltrons, and slaughtered the Scots with lance and sword (Map 5.3(c) and (d)). Wallace and a few of his men escaped into the woods. Edward’s men relentlessly hunted down the Scottish rebels, and Wallace himself was finally captured at Glasgow in 1305. He was hanged, then drawn and quartered at Tyburn. But although Scotland was under foreign occupation, the people remained unconquered. After Wallace’s martyrdom, Robert ‘the Bruce’ (later King Robert I of Scotland) rallied his countrymen and continued the war.

King Edward I’s victory at Falkirk was reminiscent of the earlier battles of Hastings and Durazzo, where heavy cavalry and archers worked together against dense heavy infantry positions. But the unusual aspect of the battle of Falkirk was the steadfastness of the Scottish infantry formations. Here the Scottish schiltrons held their ground and withstood repeated English cavalry charges, only to be finally defeated by a combined-arms attack by English light infantry and heavy cavalry. Falkirk stands as a harbinger of battles to come in the fourteenth century, where heavy infantry alone in a defensive posture held its own against the mounted aristocracy and other infantry formations.

The high Middle Ages (c.1000–c.1300) saw close co-operation between heavy cavalry and the subordinate arms of heavy and light infantry, a co-operation that brought victory to medieval commanders time and time again. But the late Middle Ages (c.1300–c.1500) witnessed a closer co-operation between heavy and light infantry against the dominant weapon system of the age, heavy cavalry. In England and Scotland and on the continent, heavy infantry increasingly provided the defensive backbone to light infantry’s deadly counterpunch or took a decisive offensive role in combat.

One example of heavy infantry’s ability to meet and defeat enemy heavy cavalry and light infantry attacks can be seen in the later campaigns of the Anglo-Scottish Wars, specifically the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. After the death of Edward I in 1307, his ineffectual son and heir, Edward II (r. 1307–1327), abandoned the war against Scotland. During the next seven years Robert the Bruce united Scotland under his rule and forced the English out of all castles north of the Tweed River, except Berwick and Stirling. When the latter English strongholds came under siege, Edward II marched north with a strong army of over 20,000 men, including 2,500 mounted knights, 3,000 light infantry longbowmen and nearly 15,000 foot soldiers.

To meet the English invasion, King Robert followed the example of Wallace at Falkirk and deployed his 5,000–6,000 heavy infantrymen in three schiltrons echeloned to the left behind a marsh and on a hill (Map 5.4(a)). Robert anchored his left flank in a patch of dense woods and his right flank on a bend in the stream. For a reserve, the Bruce held back a force of 500 heavy cavalry.

On the morning of 24 June, Edward II offered battle. To attack the Scots the English had to bring their much larger army across the burn, or brook, and a marshy area dotted with pools of water. Just as the English completed this task but before Edward II could deploy his cavalry or infantry across the 2,000 yard front, Robert changed his mind and ordered an attack on the still forming English formation, ‘executing that rarity in war, an infantry attack on cavalry’ (Map 5.4(b)).

As the three Scottish schiltrons steadily advanced over the mile that separated them from the English cavalry still forming up in front of their own infantry, one group of English lancers broke away and countercharged the Scottish schiltrons. In the words of the Lanercost chronicler: ‘The two hosts came together, and the great steeds of the knights dashed into the Scottish pikes as into a thick wood; there arose a great and horrible crash from rending lances and dying horses, and they stood locked together for a space.’ The English cavalry, halted in front of the pressing Scottish pikemen, proved incapable of effecting anything.

Meanwhile, as the other Scottish schiltrons came up to engage, Edward sent his longbowmen around the Scottish left flank. But King Robert, who served at Falkirk and knew well the potential of longbow fire to destroy the cohesiveness of his schiltrons, committed his 500 reserve cavalry to the task of dispersing the English archers (Map 5.4(c)). With no longbowmen to menace them, all of the Scottish pikemen joined battle, pressing the English cavalry back into their own immobile infantry hemmed in between the retreating English horse and the marsh pools they had to cross to reach attack position (Map 5.4(d)). With the rear infantry ranks useless and the spears of the Scots creating havoc among the cramped men and horses of the invaders, the English army finally broke. Although Edward himself barely managed to escape capture, his army suffered greatly. Exhausted by their attack and bogged down in the marshy ground along the burn, the English were cut down or drowned by the victorious Scots (Map 5.4(e)). It was the greatest loss ever suffered by English knighthood in a single day. The Scots reportedly lost only two noblemen, but a large number of pikemen.

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Map 5.4 The Battle of Bannockburn, 1314. (a) Phase I: Preparing to meet Edward II’s English invaders, King Robert deploys his heavy infantry in three schiltrons and his horse as a reserve (1). Edward’s army crosses the Bannockburn (2) and must pick its way through a marshy area dotted with pools of water (3) before it can deploy to face the Scottish forces on the hillside. (b) Phase II: Robert reconsiders his battle plan and decides to attack the still-deploying English. The Scottish schiltrons slowly advance down the hillside towards Edward’s position (1). One group of English cavalry charges the oncoming pikemen (2) and the two forces collide, splintering lance and pike, but the infantry continue their inexorable approach. Edward dispatches his archers around the Scottish left flank (3) in an attempt to check the enemy. (c) Phase III: Recognizing the threat to his flank, Robert orders his cavalry reserve to charge the English archers (1) who are quickly dispersed (2). The schiltrons press forward and the English cavalry begin to slowly give ground, unable to shake Robert’s infantrymen. (d) Phase IV: Confronted by the slowly moving walls of bristling pikes, the English cavalry is pressed to the rear (1), but their withdrawal is hampered by their own infantry (2) who are unable to retire quickly because of the marshy pools along the Bannockburn. The English formations rapidly lose cohesion because of the terrain and the crushing weight of the Scottish infantry. (e) Phase V: Although the front ranks of Robert’s schiltrons are thinned by the desperate English cavalry, the Scottish formations cannot be checked, pressing the invaders deeper into the swamp (1). The English army finally breaks and attempts to flee the field (2), but many are cut down or drowned in the attempt, though Edward manages to escape (3).

The battle of Bannockburn is unusual in the annals of medieval western European warfare in that cavalry served as a subordinate arm to heavy infantry. By dispersing the English light infantry and removing the very real threat of a rain of wooden shafts, the Scottish heavy cavalry allowed their pikemen to successfully move against the English lancers. At Bannockburn, the English erred by placing themselves between a determined enemy and dangerous terrain, presenting the Bruce with an opportunity to change the tenor of the battle with an offensive charge. But in the next major battle it was the Scots that suffered from overconfidence and a refinement in English tactics.

In 1333 Edward II’s son and heir, the brilliant young King Edward III (r. 1327–1377), took advantage of a civil war in Scotland and laid siege to Berwick. On 19 July a Scottish relief army of perhaps 14,600 men encountered the twenty-year-old English monarch’s army of 10,000 troops besieging the castle at Berwick. The Scots, under the command of Lord Archibald Douglas, the regent for young King David II, seized the nearby high ground at Halidon Hill.

Aware of the numerical superiority and superior position of his foe, Edward III positioned his troops across from Halidon Hill on flat ground in a concave formation, placing his heavy infantry in the centre, and his light infantry longbowmen on the left and right flanks and in the gaps between his infantrymen (Map 5.5(a)). He then dismounted his knights ‘against the ancient tradition of their fathers’ to reinforce his infantry, creating for the first time what would be called the English defensive tactical system, a combined-arms formation that mated the superior defensive capabilities of heavy infantry with the powerful offensive potential of light infantry archers.

The Scots, emboldened by their earlier success at Bannockburn and recognizing that Berwick could not be relieved until the English were defeated in open battle, took the offensive and marched down Halidon Hill toward the English formation (Map 5.5(b)). As the Scots descended the hill, Edward ordered his archers to fire on the massed Scottish infantry, creating disorder in their ranks and aiding in their slaughter (Map 5.5(c) and (d)). The Lanercost chronicler writes: ‘Now the Scots approaching in the first division were so grievously wounded in the face and blinded by the host of English archery … that they were helpless, and quickly began to turn away their faces from the arrow flights and to fall.’ Still, many of the Scottish infantry reached the English lines, where fierce hand-to-hand combat ensued, but in the end, the Scots were unable to break the English line (Map 5.5(e)). As the battle continued, more Scots pressed from below, only to be targeted by Edward’s longbowmen. Finally, the Scottish infantry routed and Edward ordered his knights to remount and pursue the fleeing troops as far as 8 miles (Map 5.5(f)). Perhaps as many as 10,000 Scotsmen lost their lives at Halidon Hill, including the general in charge and regent, Archibald Douglas. English casualties were paltry in comparison, estimated at under twenty men, including only one knight and one man-at-arms.

Throughout the high Middle Ages close combined-arms co-operation between heavy cavalry and light infantry served Norman and English commanders well. Successes at Hastings, Durazzo and Falkirk all demonstrated the effectiveness of shock and missile tactics against static infantry defensive positions. But the return of light infantry and the emergence of disciplined infantry formations and the revival of aggressive infantry tactics gave medieval commanders new tools to fight with. The battle of Halidon Hill marks the beginning of the English defensive tactical system. Edward III and later English monarchs would perfect this tactical system in the Hundred Years War and help break the back of the dominance of heavy cavalry. Edward’s use of the longbow at Halidon Hill, with its outstanding range, rate of fire, and impact power, also illustrated the possibilities of combining light infantry bowmen with dismounted knights and heavy infantry in a purely defensive capacity. Using this combined-arms approach, Edward won all his major land battles against France and Scotland, including Halidon Hill (1333), Crécy (1346), Neville’s Cross (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Najera (1367), and in each case against numerically superior forces.

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Map 5.5 The Battle of Halidon Hill, 1333. (a) Phase I: Marching to the relief of Berwick, the Scottish regent, Lord Archibald Douglas, seizes control of Halidon Hill, just west of the castle and city (1). King Edward III recognizes the threat from the numerically superior Scots and arrays his forces carefully, interspersing archers with his infantry (2), moving his knights into a supporting position (3) and ordering them to dismount (4). (b) Phase II: Recognizing that he would have to defeat the English in battle to assist the beleaguered fortress garrison, Lord Archibald orders his Scottish infantry down the hill at the English line (1). (c) Phase III: Edward orders his archers to open fire on the densely packed infantry approaching across the plain (1). The Scottish ranks are disrupted (2) as men begin to fall, but they press on. (d) Phase IV: The deadly rain of arrows continues (1) and the Scottish formations begin to lose cohesion (2) as the dead pile ever thicker upon the ground, and some begin to seek survival (3) rather than share the fate of their comrades.

(e) Phase V: A still sizeable number of Scottish infantry manage to close with the English line (1) but are unable to make any impression on Edward’s troops. The archers continue to fire (2) and more and more Scots begin to rout (3). (f) Phase VI: The remaining Scottish infantry break and rout (1). Edward orders his knights to remount (2) and the horsemen pursue the fugitives across the plain (3). The regent is killed (4), as are some 10,000 Scotsmen.

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