Edward The Black Prince
by Terry MacEwen
Edward of Woodstock was born in – unsurprisingly – Woodstock, on June 15th 1330. He was the eldest son of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, but alas he never actually became king, dying one year before his father on 8th June 1376, at only 45 years old. Edward’s limited years did not limit either his prowess or his progress however, as he was a prolific and successful medieval warrior and remains famous for his achievements even to this day.
Arguably he is most notorious for his brutal ‘Sack of Limoges’, and some would have us believe that it was this supposed ‘massacre’ that led to Edward being known as ‘The Black Prince’ however all may not be what it seems. In fact, he was only known as ‘The Black Prince’ from Tudor times onwards, over one hundred and fifty years after his own death. During his life he was simply known as ‘Edward of Woodstock’.
The exact reason for his sinister sounding reputation is still debated by historians to this very day; there are several theories from his armour to his attitude. Edward grew up the quintessential medieval prince, being taught the duties of both a soldier and a knight from early childhood. He was instructed in the codes of chivalry and was an avid jouster, so avid in fact, that James Purefoy portrays the character of Edward The Black Prince in the classic medieval romp ‘A Knight’s Tale’.
Edward was just seven years old when negotiations for his betrothal began. Edward married his father’s cousin Joan of Kent in 1362 and had two legitimate children, the eldest of whom died at the age of 6 of plague, but the younger son Richard went on to become King Richard II on his grandfather’s death in 1377, only a year after his own death. The marriage of cousins was certainly not unusual for royalty in Medieval Europe, and indeed even later. An array of mistresses had already provided him with several illegitimate children by the time of his marriage and this was also not unusual for the time.
The Black Prince at the Battle of Crécy.
Edward was only 13 years old when he was made Prince of Wales, and a mere 3 years later he had already proven himself in battle. The battle in question was Crécy in North Eastern France in August 1346. It was a total victory for the English and devastating to the French. Edward frequently fought the French during the Hundred Years’ War. Another decisive victory for Edward came in September 1356, when he defeated the French at Poitiers and even took the French King prisoner! However, it was for Limoges that he is remembered. England ostensibly owned the town of Limoges and Edward ruled over the town as Prince of Aquitaine. However, Edward was betrayed by a turncoat Bishop, Johan De Cross. He welcomed a French garrison into the town and they promptly took it from the English in August 1370.
Edward was swift to retaliate and this is what some historians argue bred his pejorative misnomer. One contemporary chronicler put the number of civilians slaughtered in Edward’s revenge as high as 3000, which undeniably contributed to Edward’s chilling moniker. However recent historical discoveries, particularly a letter from Edward himself and other evidence from different contemporary chroniclers puts the number at more like 300. This is not to dismiss the atrocity however: some 300 dead in just one medieval town, would still have felt like an enormous slaughter for the time. Regardless of how many actually died, Edward took the town back for the English in October of the same year.
Setting Limoges aside, there are several other theories as to how Edward earned the name of ‘The Black Prince’. The first being his general cruelty to those he defeated in battle, although there is little specific evidence that he was any more cruel than other contemporary medieval princes. Furthermore, when French King John ‘The Good’ surrendered to Edward at Poitiers, he was treated with the respect and courtesy due a royal. He was taken to the Tower of London and then ransomed back to the French and no mistreatment was recorded.
Some argue it was as simple as the fact that Edward was known to wear black armour into battle. Others postulate that perhaps it was due to the bronze armour of his effigy in Canterbury Cathedral turning black over time, that led to the Prince being known as ‘Black’, for his battle dress as opposed to his temperament. A more likely possibility is that his coat of arms, consisting of three ostrich feathers on a black background led to his name. This would have been visible at his jousting matches (of which he was an avid and successful participant) and also on the battlefield. It was after his success at Crécy that Edward adopted the ostrich feather sigil below, which bore the words ‘Ich diene’, meaning ‘I serve’.
After his military successes in France, Edward’s attention turned to Spain where he helped the deposed King Pedro the Cruel of Castile defeat his illegitimate brother Henry of Trastamara, who had challenged him for the Spanish throne in 1367. Edward defeated him at Nájera in Castile and was awarded the ‘Black Prince’s Ruby’ by the Spanish King. The ruby remains in the Imperial State Crown as part of The Crown Jewels to this very day.
Edward was also one of the 25 founding knights of the Order of the Garter. He was clearly a successful and impressive man with a number of achievements to his name.
How Edward died is in dispute as he suffered from many illnesses. The causes of his death range from dysentery to old war wounds; some attribute his death to cancer, others to sclerosis, or nephritis. The exact cause will probably never be known, but what is known is that he died before he was able to ascend the throne.
Upon his death he was interred in Canterbury Cathedral, where a space was kept beside him for his wife, although sadly she was actually buried next to her first husband.
He was very particular as to what was to happen after his death. One instruction was that the inscription below be visible to all those passing by his final resting place. There are theories that his choice to be buried in Canterbury Cathedral was almost a death bed confession of his sins, as Canterbury Cathedral is considered a place of repentance and penance. His motivations for this were never made explicit, but perhaps the epitaph below sheds some light.
‘Such as thou art, sometime was I.
Such as I am, such shalt thou be.
I thought little on th’our of Death
So long as I enjoyed breath.
On earth I had great riches
Land, houses, great treasure, horses, money and gold.
But now a wretched captive am I,
Deep in the ground, lo here I lie.
My beauty great, is all quite gone,
My flesh is wasted to the bone”
By Terry MacEwen, Freelance Writer.
Published: November 8th, 2019.