Key point: It closed the martial gap between untrained commoners and trained knights.
The crossbow’s use grew by leaps and bounds between the 13th and mid-15th centuries. The reasons for this steady rise in popularity were that the device was inexpensive to make and easy to master. Further, on the tactical level, the use of crossbows proved to be a wise choice owing to the type of warfare conducted between 1100 and 1500.
From the 10th to the 15th centuries battles in Europe tended to be between small groups of mounted knights and their retainers, supported by local levies of peasants armed with spears and bows. Battles were set-piece encounters where both sides had the opportunity to choose their ground, arrange their forces, and either wait to be attacked, initiate their own assault, or leave the scene if that appeared to be the most prudent course. In these circumstances, the crossbow was perfect. Crossbow units were assigned to those parts of the battlefield deemed to need their firepower the most. The ranges would be preregistered to ensure accurate fire at the proper distances. In these situations, the crossbow was equally effective in attack or defense.
But for every field engagement fought during the period, five or more sieges would be carried out. A siege was considered less risky than open battle, and the rewards could be immeasurably greater. Whereas enemy notables could be captured and later ransomed after a military encounter, the taking of a castle, city, or town would yield not only booty and greater ransom prospects, but also new land and subjects to tax. In this type of war, crossbows were even more suitable than on a battlefield. During a siege both the besieger and besieged could site their crossbows where they would do the most damage, and the weapon’s low rate of fire was minimized because the pace of a siege (versus that of a battle) was slow and more controlled by the participants. Also, the power and usefulness of the crossbow were greatly enhanced because the attacker was protected by trenches or the bowman’s pavise (a four-foot shield used to cover the bowman while he reloaded), or by the stone walls and towers of the castle sheltering the defenders.
Use by Mounted Soldiers:
Crossbows were primarily infantry weapons during the medieval period, but on occasion they were put to good use by mounted soldiers. Philip Augustus, King of France, used mounted crossbowmen against King John of England during their war in the early 13th century. In 1238 Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, employed a corps of Hungarian mercenary, mounted crossbowmen as rapid-moving skirmishers. They not only harried with impunity the enemy on the march, but also repeatedly severed their lines of supply. In 1239 Pope Gregory IX successfully used Provençal mounted crossbowmen as part of his mobile defense against incursions by the Lombard League.
Regardless of the snobbish contempt that knights showed crossbowmen, the latters’ participation in support of the high-brow horsemen during battle was essential. Two examples suffice. After the fall of the Moslem fortress of Acre in July 1191, Crusader forces under Richard the Lionhearted moved south toward Jerusalem. Constantly menaced by the trailing army of Saladin, Richard nevertheless favorably completed the two-month trek with his 50,000-man army. His movement owed its success not least of all to a good plan, strict discipline, and counterfire against Muslim archery by Crusader crossbowmen dispersed throughout his moving column.
Sixty years later, when King Louis IX of France battled Islamic forces at the Battle of Mansura (February 8 and 11, 1250), the crossbow was again decisive. Louis and a small force were in a poor situation—isolated and unsupported on one side of a wide canal near the Muslim camp 50 miles south of Cairo—when a Muslim force attacked. Louis and his band of knights were about to be finished off when supporting infantry arrived. Crossbowmen laid down such a a concentrated and deadly hail of bolts on the attackers, that the enenmy fled.
Although underrated and unappreciated by nobles and knights, crossbowmen continued to serve well into the 15th century. Their demise came not from the horsey set that always disregarded and derided them—even while fearing them—but from commoners like themselves who were not covered in body armor and who also plied their trade on foot. These were the longbowmen of England who, by their weapon’s extended reach and extensive firepower—first demonstrated at the Battle of Crécy in 1346—proved that after 400 years the crossbow and its practitioners would no longer have an effective role in warfare.
Originally Published in 2014.
This article by Arnold Blumberg originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.