From the Stone Age there is evidence of flat bows and "D" section longbows in UK and on the Continent.
In the 12th Century, the longbow was developed by the Welsh and used against the English. By the time of the 100-year war with France, the longbow archers outnumbered the men at arms in almost every major conflicts.
In some battles longbow men formed as much as 90% of the fighting force. The later part of the 16th Century saw the decline of the longbow as a military weapon. Skills to shoot the longbow to weapon standard needed regular and intensive practise, which was compulsory in England in the Middle Ages. Longbowmen were in essence a combination of infantry and artillery. The Honourable Artillery Company was formed to encourage “the science and feat of shooting long bowes”. This may explain why the longbow became known as the English bow.
Traditionally archers began training at the age of seven. The training was mandatory from that age onwards and was backed up by a system of fines for violations. Sports such as football were banned to prevent people being injured and hence not able practice the longbow. Local tournaments were organized to choose the best archers for military duty. Archers were considered as craftsmen and were well paid. In 1569 the Government forbade trained archers to learn the use of firearms.
The loyalty to the bow over the firearms lasted several reigns as the performance of the first firearms was greatly inferior to the longbow. Nevertheless, it was a question of time before the longbow became obsolescent. In 1589 the Council decided that archers were no longer required in the standard company organization but could formed into their own companies.
In France King Charles VII formed “les Companies d’Ordonnance” in 1439, each composed of 100 knights supported by 2 valets and 3 archers on horseback. In 1448 “les Francs-Archers” were established. Their name came from the fact that they were exempt from certain taxes. In 1535, King François I took away the privileges of the Francs-Archers but kept the companies. In 1790 the Legislative Assembly dissolved the companies. However, even the French Revolution did not extinguish the companies, which regrouped as early as 1820, keeping their original traditions.
Originally the longbow was made entirely of Yew, mainly from Spain and Italy. Because of the wetter climate English yew was coarser-grained and therefore generally less suitable. To obtain yew for longbows staves, duties for wine were set as a given ratio of number of staves of yew for each barrel of wine imported. Nowadays it is difficult to find yew of the same close grained quality that was available in Europe during the Middle Ages. The best source of yew is now from Oregon in the United States.
The physical evidence of the longbow and arrows original characteristics can be seen in Portsmouth in the items recovered from the Mary Rose. More than 3,500 arrows and 137 longbows were found. The bows were made of a single baulk of yew. This was cleft into triangular billets (using the sapwood layer to preserve the natural laminate of the wood). The heartwood performs better under compression and the sapwood under tension. The bow were shaped in a D-section with a flat back of sapwood and a rounded belly of heartwood.