As every good schoolchild knows, the English won the Battle of Agincourt against great odds because their longbows were far more effective than the crossbows of the opposing French forces. What fewer good schoolchildren know is the English had been already enjoying longbow-inspired victories for well over a century so the weapon was hardly a secret. So why were the French not wielding longbows at Agincourt too?
The answer, which as you will see has great resonance with us here on The Value Perspective, is offered by the US economist Peter Leeson. You may remember we recently discussed his thoughts on judicial processes in 13th Century Hungary in ‘Hot iron’ trial by ordeal but now his work takes him – and us – to the Second War of Scottish Independence and, specifically, the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333.
Some 8,000 English soldiers at the top of the hill faced 15,000 or so Scots heading up towards them but the sheer weight of the English longbow firepower carried the day. According to the history books, Scottish casualties were in the thousands while the English lost 14 men and thus really began, says Leeson, a century and a half of military dominance over the Scots, the French and indeed anyone else who fancied a fight.
The effectiveness of the longbow as a weapon was hardly a secret to the other nations and neither was the reason – an archer who knew what they were doing could load, aim and fire the weapon five times as fast as it took anyone to do the same with a crossbow. So, as we asked at the start, why was nobody else in Europe either willing or able to go toe-to-toe – or perhaps bow-to-bow – with the English?
Over the years, various theories have been put forward as to why the English enjoyed a monopoly on the longbow but Leeson dismisses them all – not least because longbows tended to be made from yew, which was very scarce in England and so actually had to be imported from Europe. Instead he focuses on the institutional context – that is to say, what was going on in England that was different to everywhere else.
The longbow may have been easy and cheap to make – costing about a sixth of what it took to produce a crossbow – but longbow archers needed to be well-trained, they needed to practice hard and, to be really effective, there needed to be lots of them. At Agincourt, for example, when 25,000 French were seen off by 5,900 English, no fewer than 5,000 of these were archers.
Edward III, who commanded the winning side at Halidon Hill, seems to have twigged to all this early – putting in place various laws to ensure the nation’s able-bodied men spent their spare time practising with the longbow rather than engaged in more frivolous pursuits. Later measures introduced by the king included archers being unable to leave England unless they had a royal licence.
All this was only possible, Leeson suggests, because 14th and 15th Century England was a relatively institutionally stable place. In contrast, the rather more tenuous grip the rulers of other European countries had on power meant positively encouraging the formation of an army of men who were adept at operating a very cheap, very effective and very easily made weapon was a lot less desirable.
So the answer to our question as to why only England fought with longbows is that, at that time, the country was unique among its peers. The technology may have been easily accessible but England was the only country able to access it because the long period of institutional stability it enjoyed meant it felt comfortable doing so. It then made the most of the situation with some necessarily disciplined processes.
And those two themes resonate very strongly with us, here on The Value Perspective. As with the longbow, plenty of people understand value investing can be a good deal more effective than the alternatives. Yet few enjoy the institutional stability we do that allows us to ride out the inevitable tough years; nor are they willing or able to make the most of the situation by adhering to a necessarily disciplined investment process.