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The Black Prince
By David Green
The History PressCopyright © 2011 David Green
All rights reserved.
Edward, prince of Wales and Aquitaine, duke of Cornwall, earl of Chester, founder knight of the Order of the Garter, hero of Crécy, victor at Poitiers, the Black Prince, died on 8 June 1376, Trinity Sunday, the feast day for which he had particular reverence. It was recorded that the news was received in England and across the Channel with great sadness and mourning and not only for the sake of form. His life and death exemplified many of the incongruities of the political milieu in which he lived and his career mirrored the triumphs and disasters of the nation that he represented. Much of his brief life was characterised by war, and as the term 'Hundred Years War', the conflict to which the prince dedicated himself, has been misapplied to a punctuated confrontation that lasted at least 116 years, so likewise the name by which Edward of Woodstock is most commonly known is uncertain in origin and in meaning. It was in common usage by the end of the sixteenth century. Leland named him as such in his Itinerary, and Holinshed used the term in his Chronicles, which may have been a source used by Shakespeare. The idea that the name derived from a penchant for black armour remains unsubstantiated, as does the theory that the name was of French origin, brought on by the brutal raids and his victories in battle. Nonetheless, the prince's reputation in France was certainly 'black' and is, for example, apparent in the Apocalypse tapestries Louis of Anjou commissioned in 1373 and which are said to depict Edward III as a demon followed by his five sons. In a subsequent panel, the primary horseman is said to represent the Black Prince. In this series of images, the war perpetrated by the prince and his father 'is rendered monstrous, a virulent plague sent by the heavens to punish mankind' with the Plantagenets a dark instrument of divine (or diabolical) judgement. According to Shakespeare, King Charles VI of France (1364–1422) counselled his knights to fear Henry V because
he is bred out of that bloody strain That haunted us in our familiar paths:
Witness our too much memorable shame
When Cressy battle fatally was struck,
And all our princes captiv'd by the hand
Of that black name, Edward, Black Prince of Wales;
While that his mountain sire, on mountain standing,
Up in the air, crown'd with the golden sun,
Saw his heroical seed, and smiled to see him,
Mangle the work of nature and deface
The patterns that by God and by French fathers
Had twenty years been made.
Such comments, made over 200 years after the death of the prince, may be seen as a mark of the impact made by both Edward III and his eldest son on the collective memory and imagination of the country. Politically and in terms of 'national' reputation – although such a concept was probably alien to the prince – the years 1346–67 were unquestionably triumphant, and by contrast with the collapse of English power in France and the fractures of the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century, there was undoubtedly an Edwardian 'Golden Age' to which those in the sixteenth century could look back.
His reputation, contradictory still, was set by the sixteenth century if not earlier, and perhaps before his death. That reputation was indicative of the troubled times through which the prince lived and the stark contrasts between his triumphs at the battles of Crécy, Poitiers and Nájera, and the debacle of the failure of the principality of Aquitaine and loss after 1368/9 of nearly all that the English had gained in the years since the war had begun. The contrast was intrinsic also in the prince's health and character, and furthermore was evident in the changing nature of the chivalric ethic with which the prince was associated from a very young age and of which he had become an exemplar by the time of his death.
The England of 1376 was not so very different from the England of 1330, but her star had risen and fallen a very long way in the intervening years. She had suffered the ravages of the Black Death, been subjected to heavy financial and military burdens, and many of her southern coastal towns had been raided. She also lost the man who had seemed certain to be her future king.
Edward was born at Woodstock on 15 June 1330, the eldest child of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. There is no reason to believe that the future Black Prince had a troubled childhood, but the country was certainly suffering the consequences of the reign of Edward II. The story of the deposition (often with grisly embellishment) is well known and the shadow of the event stretched over the English monarchy and, deeply influenced the career of Richard II, the prince's son, who became the second English king to suffer the fate in the fourteenth century.
When Edward III came to the throne in 1327, the country had been wracked by civil strife and war with Scotland. The rule of Edward II, characterised by the overbearing influence of the king's favourites, Piers Gaveston and later the Despensers, and the rebellion of Thomas of Lancaster, paved the way for opposition from an unlikely quarter. For much of her reign, her husband and his courtiers treated Queen Isabella abominably. As a French princess, she lived under constant suspicion of treason, her lands were seized and servants dismissed. Only when the opportunity for making a peace treaty arose did her position as sister of the king of France make her valued. The agreement that resulted from her negotiations stipulated that, like his father and grandfather, the king should do homage and fealty for the duchy of Gascony, the main area of contention in Anglo-French relations. Edward refused but sent his son, the future Edward III, in his place. Once out of the direct influence of the king and his supporters and with control of the heir, Isabella refused to return to England until and unless the Despensers were removed from power. Isabella was not the only person the king had offended and she sought allies among the English exiles abroad. Of these, Roger Mortimer was the most notable but they also included the earls of Richmond and Kent and the bishops of Hereford, Winchester and Norwich. Additional support was gained by marrying the future king to Philippa, daughter of the count of Hainault, in exchange for a small band of soldiers who accompanied the rebels on their return to England. Once Isabella landed, support for the king dissolved, most significantly in London. Edward II was abandoned by most of his officials and household, he fled to Wales with the younger Despenser and was captured in Glamorgan by Henry of Lancaster. Despenser was executed after a trial at Hereford in which he was convicted of being a heretic and sodomite; his genitals were hacked off and burned in front of him.
The king was summoned to parliament inJanuary 1327, but refused to attend. Opposition grew further and feeling hardened against him. The Archbishop of Canterbury declared that as the magnates, clergy and people no longer regarded Edward as such, he was no longer king. Edward, greatly distressed, received the news at Kenilworth where he resigned the throne in favour of his son. The question remains as to whether he was deposed or abdicated.
The last days of Edward at Berkeley castle have been told many times since the story and manner of his murder originated with the chronicler, Geoffrey le Baker. Perhaps more interesting is the tale told by a Genoese priest, Manuel Fieschi, who claimed to have met Edward after his supposed death and heard his confession. According to Fieschi, a papal notary, Edward had escaped from Berkeley castle, travelled to Ireland, France, Cologne and then to Italy, where he became a hermit. In 1338, whilst in Cologne himself, Edward III met a man calling himself William le Galeys who claimed to be his father. The claim was not taken seriously, but Edward's reaction to his father's 'murderers' was muted, and many of them and their families found favour in the 1330s and 1340s. Perhaps the king needed to use such resources as he had in terms of manpower and influence in the localities, and had witnessed the folly of losing the support of his nobles. Perhaps he had not cared for his father, or perhaps there was no need to victimise those who were guilty of no crime since his father was still alive.
Edward III was 14 when crowned, and as a result of his minority, a regency council was established initially centred around Henry of Lancaster. However, it was not long before the king's mother and Roger Mortimer made their influence felt. Mortimer was created earl of march with the estates of the elder Despenser and the earl of Arundel, and in his arrogance and avarice outdid Edward II's former favourites. The new administration was not a success either at home or abroad. The 1327 campaign against the Scots was a disaster and resulted in the 'Shameful Peace' of Northampton. Opposition against Mortimer and Isabella grew, first under the leadership of Lancaster, the earls of Kent and Norfolk, but it was quickly and brutally stamped out. The blind earl of Lancaster was forced to come to terms and Kent, after abandoning his former allies, was executed for his pains. In the event, just as opposition to the former king had come from within the palace, so too did the most significant challenge to Mortimer and Isabella.
In October 1330, the Council was summoned to Nottingham. It was there that the young king decided to make his move. His conspirators, including William Montague and Robert Ufford, made their way up through the labyrinth of tunnels that led into the castle, seized 'gentle' Mortimer despite the protestations of Isabella, and with that, the coup was effectively over. Mortimer was taken to London, tried for treason and executed in a manner not unlike that accorded the younger Despenser. Isabella retired from private life and Edward III began to rule in fact as well as name.
The Black Prince was, of course, unaware of all this but it may be that his birth on 15 June 1330, combined with Mortimer's increasingly antagonistic and threatening attitude, encouraged the Nottingham coup and thereby brought an element of security to the realm that had been lacking since the death of Edward I. In addition to the domestic upheavals of the reign of Edward II and the disruption of the minority of Edward III, conflict with Scotland and France presaged the hostilities that would shape the prince's life and career. Those conflicts prepared the English for the war in France. The long shadow of the defeat at Bannockburn exacerbated trends that had been evident since Edward I's wars in Wales and Scotland and led to the creation of an increasingly professional army recruited to implement a range of particular strategic and tactical plans. Such plans would be further developed and the army tempered for the French wars when Edward III sought to undo the indignity of the treaty of Northampton in the early years of his personal rule.
Anglo-French hostilities had been endemic from at least the reign of Henry II. The relative positions and the disparity in feudal authority between the king of England, who happened also to be duke of Gascony, and the king of France were unclear, and the subject of protracted legal wrangling after matters were formalised, if only theoretically, by Louis IX and Henry III in 1259 at the Treaty of Paris. In the intervening years the duchy was confiscated by the King of France on several occasions, military action had broken out more than once, most notably in the War of St Sardos (1325–5), and relations were barely cordial at the best of times. In this context, the war that erupted in 1337 was merely part of a broader conflict that began much earlier and certainly did not conclude with the fall of Bordeaux in 1453. However, there were differences and distinctions in the nature of the hostilities that involved Edward III and his son from those that had previously transpired. The most significant of these followed from the death of the last Capetian king, Charles IV, in 1328. Edward III and Charles of Navarre both had better claims to the French throne than Philip VI who became first Valois monarch of France, but Edward's was transmitted through his mother and was thus invalidated by Salic law, or at least prevented by Salic law as it was formulated by French lawyers in the years after 1328. Whether Edward seriously expected to sit on the French throne is open to question; it may be that he used the claim to the crown of France as a bargaining tool to re-establish sovereign rule over Gascony. In any case, the English claim to the French throne, although not made formally until 1340, changed the nature of the conflict and moved it onto a level where peace or at least the absence of war was very difficult to maintain.
This was the environment in which the prince was raised: with a legacy of domestic strife, a deposed and possibly murdered grandfather, and a king and father seeking to regain authority and military prestige for the throne after years of disgrace and disruption. The reconstruction of the prince's career must be set before such a contradictory background and perhaps appropriately such a reconstruction is dependent on a variety of not always complementary sources.
These sources are numerous although often problematic. It has long been held that the evidence of chivalric and other chronicles is unreliable if not deliberately mendacious and more recent studies have relied rightly on governmental and administrative documentation as the basis for their conclusions. Nonetheless, the Black Prince's reputation was shaped by contemporary literary sources and those written soon after his death and the popular conception of his character remains bound up with them. Such chivalric characteristics and qualities as the prince was believed to have exemplified were considered worthy and laudable up until at least the end of the nineteenth century, resulting in a plethora of biographies, plays and other tributes. One of the most striking of these being an equestrian bronze unveiled in 1903. It was commissioned for Leeds in 1894, a year after the acquisition of city status. Thomas Brock designed and cast the statue. A noted sculptor who made the statue of Queen Victoria outside Buckingham Palace Brock also designed the queen's head on the coins of the realm. The Black Prince was chosen as he was thought to represent a range of admirable virtues including chivalry, courage, democracy and good governance [see fig. 5].
Edward was therefore destined to become a chivalric icon because the main sources for his character, if not his career, are the chronicles of Jean Froissart and the near-contemporary biography composed by Chandos Herald. That these portraits were flattering, if not encomia, is not in doubt. Nor can it be questioned that this was the milieu in which the nobility and aristocracy wished to be seen to exist, and in some cases did so. According to Froissart, and the anonymous herald of Sir John Chandos, the prince's days both on and away from the battlefield exemplified chivalric virtues and he was the cynosure of knightly skills in hunting, feasting, jousting and 'courtly love'. As such, they were deliberately selective in their choice of information. Chandos Herald makes no mention of Roger Clarendon and John de Galeis; the former was and the latter may have been the prince's illegitimate sons, or the colourful past of Edward's wife, Joan the 'Fair Maid' of Kent. Neither does he discuss the siege (or sack) of Limoges, although by contrast Froissart paints a vivid portrait. Rather, the Black Prince was described as:
This noble Prince [who] ... from the day of his birth cherished no thought but loyalty, nobleness, valour and goodness, and was imbued with prowess. Of such nobleness was the Prince that he wished all the days of his life to set his whole intent on maintaining justice and right.
These were the traits of an ideal prince, an ideal knight and entirely in keeping with those values expressed by such as the author of the probably contemporary tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Arthurian ideal there described further found favour in the court and was developed by Edward III in his putative military organisation, the Round Table, and later found form in the Order of the Garter. This chivalric/Arthurian atmosphere coincided with the revival of alliterative poetry, such as Sir Gawain, and many such works may have been created in the Lancashire/Cheshire region. The palatinate of Cheshire was the first major estate granted to the prince and links with the earldom were evident in the composition of the prince's household and military retinue. In several campaigns, the bulk of his expeditionary forces were recruited from the area and some of his most high-ranking officials and military associates lived or held land there. It thus provided an audience and milieu for chivalrous writing and it has been argued that the works of alliterative revival could have been encouraged by or written for 'expatriate' careerists from Cheshire, such as the professional soldiers Hugh Calveley (see fig. 4 for tomb in Bunbury church), Robert Knolles and Sir Thomas Wetenhale, seneschal of the Rouergue, when they lived and fought with the prince in Gascony and elsewhere.
Excerpted from The Black Prince by David Green. Copyright © 2011 David Green. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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