The Arbalest, or Crossbow

by Unknown


MONGST the weapons used in early English times, there was hardly one so deadly and effectual as the crossbow. It is not familiar to us now, being different from the ordinary bow and arrow, which we still see sometimes. It gets its name because it has the appearance of a cross, and is a very interesting old weapon, for with its trigger and spring it led to the invention of the musket.

Loading a Military Crossbow. Loading a Military Crossbow.
Crossbow and Arrows used for Sport. Crossbow and Arrows used for Sport.

The Normans used the crossbow, and had also a sort of machine, not unlike it, that threw out showers of arrows, or even stones.

Another name for the crossbow was 'arbalist,' and its arrows were called quarils, or bolts. These were made of various sorts of wood; about a dozen trees were used for the purpose, but ash-wood was thought to be the best. Generally the arrows had a tip of iron, shaped like a pyramid, pointed, though for shooting at birds the top was sometimes blunt, so that a bird might be struck down without being badly wounded. One old writer says that a great difference between the long-bow and the crossbow was, that success did not depend upon who pulled the lock—a child might do this as well as a man—but with the long-bow strength was everything. In fact, during the Tudor times, the kings specially encouraged the archers to practise shooting with the long-bow, and people were even forbidden to keep crossbows. The crossbow, however, when it had reached perfection, carried much further than the ordinary long-bow.

The crossbow is said to have been invented in Italy, but it seems that the Saxons had this bow, though it was not used much until long after, when the Normans came over. According to an old tradition, it was by a bolt from a crossbow that King Harold received a fatal wound at the Battle of Hastings, For some reason or other crossbows were condemned by a Council in 1139, and Christians were forbidden to use them, but during the wars with the Saracens they were again made serviceable, by command of King Richard I. Strange to say, Richard himself was killed, we are told, by a bolt shot from the ramparts of the Castle of Chaluz, which he was besieging.

A Contest with the Longbow. A Contest with the Longbow.

The pay of a crossbowman in the reign of Edward II. was sixpence a day, probably equal to three or four shillings of our money. There are old houses in England where crossbows are still to be seen; one among them is said to have been Robin Hood's. During England's wars with France the bow was an important weapon. At the famous Battle of Cressy the English had about three thousand archers, mostly armed with long-bows; the French had arbalists, or crossbows, and, on the whole, they were less successful, as, again, at Agincourt. During the reign of Elizabeth, however, the crossbow was once more popular, owing to an improved kind being invented in Holland. It then became the chief weapon of the Artillery Company of London, which still exists.