CROSSBOWMEN, 12th-13th CENTURIES

An extract from Armies of Feudal Europe 1066-1300
by Ian Heath

[Based on the Liber ad honorem Augusti by Pietro da Eboli, c.1197]


[Based on the Morgan Crusader Bible of Louis IX or Maciejowski Bible]


[c.f. the Histoire d'Outremer, par Guillaume de Tyr, B.L. ms. Yates Thompson 12, Northern France, 1232-1261]
31, 32 & 33.      CROSSBOWMEN, 12th-13th CENTURIES

The crossbow was to become an infantry weapon par excellence in the second half of the period under review, though the skill required in its production, maintenance and use often limited it to regular, therefore chiefly - though by no means exclusively (witness the Italian militias) - mercenary soldiers, with whom it enjoyed considerable popularity throughout Western Europe, Italians, Gascons and Catalans being foremost among its exponents by the 13th century. This was despite its use against Christians being banned by the Lateran Council of 1139. Crossbows were rare in England in the first half of the l2th century, but under Henry II and, particularly, his sons Richard and John, their use became commonplace, though chiefly in the siege and defence of castles; most English crossbowmen were either affluent militiamen (predominantly from London but also, at least in 1277, from Bristol, Gloucester and Winchester) or else mercenaries, mainly Gascons but including some Poitevins. It was King Richard to whom contemporaries generally attributed the reintroduction of the crossbow in Western Europe following the papal ban, and his death as a result of a crossbow wound received at the siege of Châluz was regarded by the Church as divine judgement. His contemporary Philippe Augustus was likewise deemed responsible for be widespread introduction of the crossbow in French armies (under Richard's influence according to William le Breton), and despite he papal ban being reconfirmed at the end or the 12th century and on further occasions in the 13th century the crossbow thereafter became the predominant missile weapon of French infantrymen. In Italy too the crossbow predominated by the second half of the 12th century, crossbowmen receiving higher pay and being fined three times as much as archers if they failed to attend a muster.

In the 11th and 12th centuries the bow itself was a simple self bow of wood with a span averaging about 28", but by the end of the 12th century composite crossbows had begun to appear, being first adopted under Eastern influence during the Crusades. Various sources record principal materials as Spanish yew, hazel, whalebone and horn; not until the 14th century did the steel bow appear. The bolts, called quarrels (quadrelli or carrieaux, from the French carré) because of their 4-sided heads, were chiefly of wood, though steel bolts were in use by the end of this period. A French charter of 1256 records crossbowmen carrying 50 bolts each and Gascon crossbowmen in England in 1283 similarly each had 40-50 bolts, though these figures may include spare ammunition carried in the baggage train, as is later recorded by Guiart. A supply of 18 bolts seems to have been the norm.

During the 11th century the bow was cocked by both feet being placed within the curves of the bow itself to either side of the stock and the string being drawn back with both hands until it caught on a latch. From the second half of the 12th century at the latest an iron stirrup was added to the end of the stock to assist loading. The method of cocking the bow, depicted in figure 33, was now to put one foot within the stirrup, bend over and catch the string on a hook attached to the belt and then straighten the leg, the belt-hook drawing the string back until it caught on the latch. The hook is usually shown in the sources with only one claw but it could have two. Note that for cocking the crossbow is turned so that the string is nearest to the loader. In the mid- and late-13th century respectively the windlass and pulley-and-cord methods of cocking made their first appearance, though the former remained rare until the 14th century and the latter never gained particular popularity; however, even at the beginning of the 15th century simple belt-hooks outnumbered windlasses. It is also by the 13th century that classification of the crossbow into two distinct categories seems to become generally commonplace, these being the arbalista ad unum pedem and the arbalista ad duos pedes (literally the 'one-foot crossbow' and the 'two-foot crossbow'). The former was probably loaded as per the second method described above, and the latter as per the first method, though the alternative explanation is that these two types fired 12-inch and 24-inch bolts respectively. Either way, it is clear that the latter was regarded as the more powerful weapon of the two, with a draw weight of about 460 lbs compared to a maximum of 320 lbs for the 'one-foot crossbow'.

Figure 31 dates to c.1197 and is taken from the 'Carmen de Rebus Siculis'; he wears a helmet but, unusually for a crossbowman, no armour. 32 is from the 'Maciejowski Bible' and wears a mail haubergeon with three-quarter length sleeves and a hemispherical bascinet. 33 comes from a copy of William of Tyre's chronicle dating to c.1280.



34. MOUNTED CROSSBOWMAN, 13th CENTURY