“We find no record of any great or memorable battle, or, any battle where great and contending armies were placed in array one against other…no battles seem ever to have taken place in Wales, properly so called, that is Wales within the Marches, and it seems rather to have been the constant practice of the Welsh people to have retreated as their foes advanced, and to have contented themselves with annoying them from the hills and fastnesses in which they secreted themselves.”
There are a lot of contemporary accounts of warfare; none seems to mention the Longbow. The most quoted is Geraldus Cambrensis, in his book Description of Wales he says the Welsh are “Fierce rather than strong, and totally dedicated to the practice of arms.” They care for their horses and weapons and exercise in weapon training. He also says they seize booty.
Wales at this time was not a single entity but 6 kingdoms, three of significance, Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth and three far less significant. The population was not all Welsh. There were Viking, Irish, Danish and Saxon settlers as well.
The Normans having conquered England decided to try their hand in Wales. Initially they did well pushing well into Gwynedd in north Wales until at one small exchange they lost Robert of Rhuddlan. He was the driving force and with his loss the Welsh regained what had been taken. The Normans now concentrated on those smaller 3 kingships in the south taking control as far as St. David’s. This area became Marcher land and was settled by imported Flemings.
With not much written evidence of poor Welsh military ability Sam now looked to archaeology and physical evidence. There are over 140 castles in Wales. Castles in 11th and 12th century were a sign of Norman occupation. If the Welsh were such poor fighters why were there so many castles needed to control them? Only three were found to be of Welsh construction.
The next area to consider is weaponry, firstly the Bow and arrow. There is not much mention in contemporary accounts . One incident involves two mounted men retreating into a castle fired on by bowmen of Gwent. One took an arrow through his thigh, leather coat, saddle and into his horse which was killed. Other bow incidents were in mostly hunting. Archers appear as low status not the sort of person to be described in an epic poem. Archaeology has produced 377 arrow heads they divide into three main groups – bodkins, warheads and multi-purpose. The broader type i.e. leaf or diamond shapes were mostly used in hunting, the larger head making a bigger wound causing more bleeding. The bodkin type was more suited to piercing mail. These were believed to have been invented for use against plate armour in the 14th century. In fact they were in use by the Welsh two centuries before as the more numerous finds in north Wales and around those 3 Welsh castles seem to indicate. Modern tests show that bodkins are no more use against plate than any other arrow form.
The oldest form of weapon used was the spear; the spear has been in use since prehistoric times in one form or another. They appear in poetry and Geraldus has a vivid account of the death of Robert of Rhuddlan who was taken down by a shower of spears rendering his shield useless enabling him to be killed by more spears. Sam discussed various spear shapes very similar to arrow, needle & leaf. As the spear can be used in so many ways each method brings its own shape, the Pike was used for thrusting, for throwing the javelin was favoured and on horse the lance was used. Examples of these were found all over Wales.
Now comes the most documented of all weapons the sword. It appears in poetry of the Welsh, Saxon and Norman not only as a weapon but also as a symbol of power. There are not too many samples in the archaeological record Sam had only 9 one of which was clearly not a weapon more a symbol, it was 2 metres long from Slebech. The sword always appears in the hands of a Hero or Lord not the tool of the common soldier.
The common soldier was more likely to carry a dagger or knife and it is difficult to separate them in the archaeological context, but later references put knives in the hands of Welsh and Cornishmen dispatching fallen enemies.
Rarely seen in the archaeological record but appearing on stone carving and seals are Axes and Maces the former may have historic connections to Viking Saxon settlers, the latter although showing signs of use seem mostly symbolic of power.
In conclusion Sam felt that the Welsh soldier did not seem any worse than soldiers of the time. Their choice of weapon seems to have been spear and the bow was used but not especially the longbow. They do seem to have favoured the bodkin arrow as a weapon of war, which might account for the bow given more credit in their hands.
The blackening of their character in the literary record could well be due to the bias of the author, Gilbertus was writing for Norman sponsors.