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Did “snipers” exist before firearms?

Did “snipers” exist before firearms?

Did "snipers" exist before firearms?

Question: When we read about military archery, generally we only learn about archers firing mass volleys in the general direction of an enemy army. Are there any examples from any culture of specialized military archery units tasked with taking precise aim at specific targets at long range? There are plenty of stories of individual archers accomplishing such feats under various circumstances, but I’m not aware of any purpose-built precision archery forces from history. It’s possible to reliably strike human-sized targets at 100 yards or more with primitive archery tackle, surely this would have come in handy from time to time, such as when a high ranking enemy came within range or a politician needed defending during a public appearance, etc.

The short version is no, they didn’t really, at least not during the Middle Ages. The medieval battlefield wasn’t particularly well suited to long-range precision archery – once everyone was in a melee there wasn’t much opportunity to engage in specifically targeted shooting without a huge risk of friendly fire.

Archers in fact would often be armed with melee weapons of their own and might join in the fight once things got particularly intimate, leaving their shooting to either covering the advance of the army, forcing a repositioning or disadvantageous attack by enemy forces or covering a retreating force (although retreating in good order wasn’t particularly common in the Middle Ages so this was probably the rarest of all).

In essence, they were more of a support weapon than one suited to specific deadly killing – despite what some in the longbow-fandom might have you believe.

As for assassinations, that raises a more interesting question. I’m going to limit my answer a bit by focusing on the crossbow because it’s arguably the weapon better suited to this task.

The crossbow was generally more accurate, much easier to aim, and had the advantage of being able to be loaded held ready while the archer lined up the perfect shot (in theory anyway). The crossbow was also used in a few famous assassinations and assassination attempts, a few of which I’m going to discuss below.

Probably the most famous person ever to be killed by a crossbow is King Richard I of England. On the twenty-fifth of March 1199, King Richard I of England decided to patrol the walls of the Château de Châlus-Chabrol. He had been besieging the castle for some time and he may have decided that evening to inspect the progress of his sappers in their attempts to breach the castle’s defenses, we can’t know for certain.

Whatever his reason he very quickly would come to regret his decision as that evening he was shot by a crossbow wielded by one of the castle’s defenders. Richard was transported back to his private tent, where the crossbow bolt has removed a process which, thanks to the dubious qualities of medieval medicine, badly mangled his arm.

The wound soon became gangrenous. While the king lay dying in his camp his forces successfully completed the siege and put the defenders to the sword. Richard died on the sixth of April, just over a week after he had been initially wounded. His heart and entrails were buried in the castle’s chapel and his body was transported to Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou, where his father had been buried almost a decade earlier.

While King Richard has left us nothing in terms of a description of how he came to be mortally wounded the same cannot be said for contemporary historians. There are numerous accounts of the death of King Richard I – after all a king dying in a battle or siege was a fairly rare event even in the Middle Ages– from which we should be able to reconstruct the events of his death in greater detail.

Unfortunately for historians, these accounts often disagree on major details and are often filled with errors – making constructing a single coherent narrative of the death of the king a difficult task. There are many interesting things to be learned from these accounts, though, and it is worth spending time here exploring a few of the more interesting and informative ones.

Remarking on his death, the French chronicler William le Breton found a certain poetic irony to his fatal wounding by the crossbow, as he accused the vile Richard of having introduced this most sinful weapon to European warfare in the first place, making it only fitting that it be the tool to relieve Europe of his presence. This theory for the origins of the crossbow is patently false.

The crossbow, along with the bow, had been banned in inter-Christian warfare at the Second Lateran Council in 1139, nearly twenty years before Richard was born. The ban obviously was not very effective, Richard’s death is a pretty clear testimony to that, but the Lateran ban adds further confusion to the French chronicler’s statement. It seems unlikely that he would be entirely ignorant of the decrees Council of a major papal council.

It is also interesting to note that this anecdote about Richard introducing the crossbow appears in only one of William le Breton’s two accounts of Richard I’s death. In William’s Gesta Philippi, a prose chronicle about the life of King Philip II, he nearly exactly copies the version of events presented in the work of Rigord, another French chronicler who was writing a few decades before William.

Rigord’s account is not particularly in-depth and describes how Richard besieged the castle because he desired a recently discovered treasure – a treasure which Rigord describes as a golden figure of a Roman emperor – before he was shot and killed by an unknown crossbowman.

It is in his Philippidos where William really lets his imagination run wild and the death of Richard I is a 200 line literary set-piece that closes out Book V of this panegyric written to praise King Philip II of France in celebration of his victory at Bouvines in 1214. The relevant passage mentioned above comes as part of a 31-line speech delivered by one of the three Fates who has decided that while her sisters are still weaving Richard’s life she feels it must end.

She guides Lord Archard of Chalus – the lord of the castle and person who we are told found the treasure in the first place – to discover a hidden crossbow bolt because: “This is how I want Richard to die, for it was he who first introduced the crossbow into France. Now let him suffer the fate he dealt out to others.”

This speech must be seen within the broader context of the work – the Philippidos is a work meant to praise Richard’s long-time rival Philip II and as part of that work, it frequently and vehemently condemns the English king in no uncertain terms. We are told that Richard I was killed because of his greed in demanding the treasure for himself despite no claim to it and that he had no respect for God, broke treaties, and violated holy days.

No crime is beneath Richard in this work, and so the suggestion that he was responsible for introducing the crossbow is just another exaggerated crime of the English king.

The English chronicler Roger of Howden wrote what is probably the most famous account of Richard’s death and his confrontation with his killer. Roger of Howden was an English chronicler probably best known for accompanying Richard on the Third Crusade and providing a detailed account of the expedition.

Roger tells us that Richard was outside Chalus Castle preparing for the imminent assault when he was shot by the crossbow, and upon being shot Richard rode back to camp and told the captain of his mercenaries to begin the assault without him. Roger tells us that Richard was shot by a man named Bertrannus de Gurdon and that when Richard learned that he would not survive he had Gurdon called before him – the castle had fallen by this stage and its defenders captured.

We are told that Richard asked him: “What wrong have I done to you that you should kill me?” To which Gurdon responded: “You killed my father and my two brothers and you wished to kill me. Take what vengeance you like. So long as you die I shall willingly suffer any torments you may devise.”

Roger says that Richard forgave Gurdon and ordered him to be released, but upon the king’s death the captain of his mercenaries, a man named Mercadier, had Gurdon captured and flayed alive. This narrative is probably the closest we come to having a clear assassin who was determined to specifically kill King Richard.

The historian John Gillingham has suggested there are reasons to doubt Roger’s account of events, however. While Roger has generally been regarded as an impartial and reliable source, Gillingham draws a distinction between what Roger was writing in the 1170s and 1180s from his work in the 1190s.

While in his younger years Roger had been intimately involved in Anglo-French politics, by the late 1190s he had retired to Howden in Yorkshire and seems to have primarily concerned himself with regional matters in and around northern England. As such, he probably is not a particularly informed source about events in central France during this period.

So while we know Roger was writing very close to the event – he only outlived Richard by a few years – Gillingham suggests there is reason to interpret the Bertrannus de Gurdon story as a myth.

Another reason for Gillingham doubting Roger’s account is that a different chronicler credits Richard’s death to a completely different crossbowman. This account comes from another English historian: Bernard Itier. Bernard was based in the great abbey of St. Martial in Limoges from 1199 and has librarian there from 1204 until his death in 1225.

This places him much closer to the center of the action than Roger, even if he only took up office the year Richard died. Chalus Castle is only a few miles from Limoges and Bernard as a librarian would have had access to all sorts of regional chronicles, annals, and other accounts to bolster his own knowledge.

Somewhat confusingly, Bernard makes no mention of Richard’s death at Chalus in his entry for 1199 in the St. Martial Chronicle, only including the (presumed) name of the king along with a series of others who had died that year – no details or clear identifiers included. However, Bernard was also in the habit of adding notes to other books in his collection and it is in an addendum of sorts to the copy of the chronicle of Geoffrey de Vigeois that we find Bernard’s more detailed account of Richard’s death.

In this account, in which Bernard identifies himself as the author, he provides a fairly standard description of how Richard I was shot by a crossbow at Chalus Castle and died later of infection. The interesting detail is the names of the crossbowman who killed the king as one Peter Basil, not Bertrannus de Gurdon.

Unfortunately, Bernard does not provide any further detail about Peter Basil or his eventual fate, but given Bernard’s close proximity to the location of Richard’s death, it seems more likely that he was better informed about King Richard’s killer than Roger was.

The final account we want to mention is that of Ralph of Coggeshall. Ralph’s account is arguably the most detailed version of the siege of Chalus and the death of King Richard I. According to Gillingham it was probably written before 1202 and the author claims to have vividly remembered meeting Richard I earlier in his life.

Ralph tells us what time of day it was when Richard was shot, it was after lunch, as well as many specific details about the castle and the siege in general. Ralph’s account includes entirely leaves out the dramatic confrontation between Richard and his killer found in Roger. In fact, Ralph claims that the defenders did not even know Richard was personally among the besieging forces and had no reason to expect that the man they shot was the king.

Making this famous regicide almost accidental (or as accidental as deliberately shooting a stranger can be). Ralph’s account includes no details about whoever shot Richard. Ralph does include plenty of gruesome detail about Richard’s wound. He describes how some of the iron from the crossbow bolt got embedded in Richard’s shoulder and his surgeons bled him and then tried to remove the last bits of iron but couldn’t find them.

We are told of how the wound became infected and gangrenous and the various treatments Richard’s doctor tried in an attempt to battle an infection they had no way of curing. Finally, Ralph describes Richard’s taking of final confession at the hands of Milo, abbot of Le Pin, who also delivered Extreme Unction and closed the dead king’s eyes and mouth.

Ralph’s account best captures the horror of watching the king die slowly and painfully while medieval medicine could do nothing to save him. It is the most emotional and intimate account of Richard’s death even if it is told in an impassionate tone.

So this is the most famous death by crossbow and we have major disagreements in our contemporary sources about who shot him, their possible motives for doing so (revenge or just being a good guard on watch), and the details of Richard’s final hours. Given all this confusion you can possibly see why even if Richard was killed by some kind of professional assassin we might not even know about it (although for the record he almost certainly wasn’t).

For a case of more deliberate attempted assassination and regicide with a crossbow let us turn to the reign of Richard’s great-grandfather: Henry I. In February 1119, the Norman noble Eustace de Breteuil petitioned to King Henry I – King of England and Duke of Normandy – for the rights to the castle of Ivry – conveniently located in Normandy.

Eustace made implied threats that he would join a rebellion against the king if he was not appeased, but Henry was unwilling to give him the castle. Instead, to appease Eustace King Henry arranged a hostage swap between Eustace and the current possessor of the castle, a Ralph-Harenc.

Eustace received Ralph-Harenc’s son while he in turn gave over his two daughters. Eustace, possibly under the influence of Amaury de Montfort – one of the nobles in rebellion against Henry I – blinded Ralph-Harenc’s son and sent him back to his father. The father, rightfully appalled and enraged by this mistreatment, petitioned to Henry I to allow him to mete out his own punishment on Eustace’s daughters.

You see, the two daughters were Henry I’s granddaughters as Eustace was married to one of Henry’s illegitimate daughters so Ralph-Harenc wanted to be sure he wouldn’t displease the king by his action. Despite their blood relation, Henry I granted his permission and Ralph-Harenc had the two young women blinded and their noses cut off – a truly horrifying punishment for which they had done nothing to deserve. They were then returned to their parents who were understandably upset.

Eustace proceeded to close his castles to the king in an act of rebellion and sent his wife, Juliana, along with a small force to defend the town of Breteuil should Henry I attack it. Henry I in response moved his own forces towards Breteuil and much to Juliana’s inconvenience the people of the town opened the gates to their duke. Juliana sealed herself into the citadel of the town and tried to await reinforcements.

We are told by the chronicler Orderic Vitalis that during this time the “treacherous” daughter sought a conference with her father the king and when they met she fired upon him with a crossbow “but through God’s protection he escaped harm.”

The details just say that she drew her crossbow and shot at him but it is not clear from the text what their meeting was. It is somewhat implied by the fact that Juliana was not captured afterward that they were not meeting in an enclosed space – and given that she had hidden the crossbow from sight (no small feat) the most likely explanation is that she met him from atop the battlements of her citadel.

In any case, with her assassination attempt a failure and Henry I ordering his men to destroy the gate of the citadel Juliana was forced to flee. She lowered herself from the walls of the citadel – falling we are told into the ice-water filled moat – and escaped to reunite with her husband.

After briefly having their lands revoked by the king due to their rebellion, Eustace and Juliana were pardoned by the king and allowed back into his good graces in the Autumn of that year. Eustace eventually died in 1136, the year after Henry I, and Juliana became a nun after his death.

This wasn’t as major an event like the death of Richard so we have far fewer accounts of it, which is simpler in one way but also means we’re less likely to spot places where Orderic might have bent the truth so bear that in mind. We think this case underpins part of the problem with using a crossbow as an assassin’s weapon: it was hard to get close enough to get a clean shot at an important person if you weren’t the person designated to be at the meeting.

There’s no way Juliana was the best candidate for taking that shot, even if she almost certainly had some experience shooting crossbows to even consider this plan she wouldn’t have had professional-level experience – she had other jobs to be doing than just practice shooting a crossbow just in case she ever needed to assassinate someone. However, Juliana was the person who could get into position to take the shot so it had to be her.

Also, the time it would have taken her to pull the crossbow out (it’s presumed she was on the battlements looking down on Henry since that’s the only way she could have hidden the weapon and also it explains why she wasn’t immediately captured) would have given Henry time to try and get away or behind someone.

It was with good reason that the chosen weapon of assassins in the Middle Ages was the dagger. The list of major figures killed by crossbow is relatively short (even shorter if you rule out hunting accidents) but the number of major medieval figures who were stabbed to death is pretty long. John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy; Louis I, Duke of Orleans; John Comyn III of Badenoch; and Conrad of Montferrat (him by the actual Assassins of fictional Creed fame) to name just a few deaths that had major political repercussions.

The list grows even longer if you count survivors, Saladin survived multiple attempts while Edward I was stabbed while on Crusade and recovered. The knife was the preferred weapon of assassins and it’s understandable why. With a knife, you can hide it until you’re up close and personal and that intimacy makes it easier to ensure that your target is really dead or dying.

People survive crossbow wounds – Joan of Arc was famously shot through the leg early in her military career and recovered – but stab someone enough times and they’re very unlikely to get better, especially with medieval medicine being what it was. In many ways Richard I was unlucky, a few centuries later a young Henry V took an arrow to the face and survived to go on and have a very successful military career before ignobly dying of dysentery.

This answer’s a bit rambling but hopefully, it conveys the overall point. There’s no mention in the historical record for dedicated snipers in the Middle Ages and there are quite a few factors underpinning that – not the least being that even being a professional soldier was a rarity at the time, let alone a specialist – but hopefully this brief account of a people what shot at other people in the past helps make clear some of the difficulties with trying to have someone killed by a crossbow.

1. Written by u/Valkine.
2. John Gillingham’s article “The Unromatic Death of Richard I”
3. Josef Alm’s European Crossbows
4. Hardy and Strickland’s The Great Warbow
5. Bradbury’s The Medival Archer
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