Short Reads

Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince (1330-1376)

Wild Reddit Question Appears!

Why is the Edward the Black Prince so famous?

Since I watched a Knight’s Tale, I was curious about the Black Prince, I learnt that he was never king, so why is he famous? I know he’s called the Black Prince because of his black armour. Is he famous because he was a skilled knight or what?

>>> Original post on AskHistorians

My Answer

In Short: Who’s Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince?

Edward of Woodstock only became known as the “Black Prince” by the sixteenth century. No one called him as such during his lifetime. The origin of his pseudonym remains clouded in mystery. I would argue he became worthy of the name when he dressed in black to mourn his opponent, John the Blind, dead at Crécy (1346). Nevertheless, the “Black Prince” appellation has become a common name for him in history books and therefore it sticks. It’s certainly more convenient than searching for Edward, the one who was heir to the throne of England but never made it to kingship because he died not too long before his father.

Joke aside, the answer is really quite simple. The Black Prince achieved great military deeds and dazzled many people with his lavish court in southern France–he was prince of Aquitaine. At age 16 he “won his spurs” leading the English vanguard at the Battle of Crécy (1346). Ten years later he vanquished the French at Poitiers and even managed to capture their king, John the Good! He would still insure a great military victory at Najera (1367) against a Franco-Trastamaran coalition. The man was a military prodigy.

Being prince of Wales, duke of Cornwall and earl of Cheshire, he introduced the welsh longbowmen into the English army. The havoc they brought to their enemies at Crécy, Poitiers and Najera was unheard of at the time. Moreover, the Black Prince showed all the expected virtues of a great knight. He contributed to found the Order of the Garter with his father, which is to this day the oldest knightly order in existence–quite a feat!

It is also worth reminding that he married for love!

Most of all, however, the Black Prince was a great hero in Froissart’s chronicles and he’s pictured as a legendary ancestor to Henry V in Shakespeare’s plays.

Look back into your mighty ancestors:
Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire’s tomb,
From whom you claim; invoke his warlike spirit,
And your great-uncle’s, Edward the Black Prince,
Who on the French ground play’d a tragedy,
Making defeat on the full power of France,
While his most mighty father on a hill
Stood smiling to behold his lion’s whelp
Forage in blood of French nobility.

[Henry V, I, ii]

Charles VI piles on the trope a bit later in the same play, warning his men about Henry V:

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.

[Henry V, II, iv]

The French* didn’t have the Black Prince at heart, though. Louis of Anjou commissionned a set of Apocalpse tapestries in 1373 which depicts Edward of Woodstock as a follower of his demonic father. Neat.

Most of what we see on TV or in videogames today is heavily drawn from historical fictions or historical plays: Shakespeare, Walter Scott, Mark Twain, Alexandre Dumas… I doubt screenwriters in general spend much time reading actual history books. By any standard, the Black Prince should be remembered for his great victories at least. It is the kind of historical trivia that sticks to the collective memory. However, he also became a mysterious and legendary figure in Shakespeare’s plays and that was passed on to later novelists and screenwriters, which magnified his standing as a chivalric icon.

* The French, here, are the people who belonged to the Valois party during the Hundred Years’ War. Edward of Woodstock spoke French and was, by any contemporary standard, a French aristocrat himself.

One Story To Remember Him By

Medieval Meme. Good Guy Greg. Good Knight Black Prince
Good Knight Black Prince

The battle of Poitiers (1356) saw the Black Prince and his 6,000 men (3,000 men-at-arms, 2,000 archers and 1,000 mounted infantry) oppose a French army 10,000 men strong, led by King John II himself, his heir, who would later become Charles V of France, and the full force of the royal army: the Constable and both Marshals* were there.

The French army charged the Black Prince’s troops on three occasions. Each wave was defeated when a fourth almost brought Edward of Woodstock to his knees. His men were exhausted from the battle, his archers almost out of arrows and, this time, King John himself was leading the charge with his elite reserve and many rallied soldiers. In a desperate counterattack, the Black Prince moved forward and pushed towards the French, leaving his defensive position. He sent the Captal de Buch to circle around toward the French rear with 160 mounted men, hoping to break the French’s formation. He won his risky gamble. The French were routed out of the battlefield and King John was captured!

The same night, Edward of Woodstock waited on King John’s table himself. Sensing there might be tension, he kneeled in front of the king and handed him his rosary. He told King John his father, Edward III of England, would treat him right and be his friend, for they had much in common. This show of humility moved the many ransomed French knights who witnessed the scene and it gave much credit to the Black Prince.

* The Constable was the highest ranking officier of the French army. Two Marshals were appointed to be his lieutenants. Those positions were given to highly skilled military captains instead of close relatives to the king.

Map. Shelley Reid, Battle of Poitiers (1356), in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology (2010), 3:135
Shelley Reid, Battle of Poitiers (1356)

More on Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince:

  • Barber, Richard W., Edward, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine: A Biography of the Black Prince. London: Allen Lane, 1978.
  • Green, David, Edward the Black Prince: Power in Medieval Europe. Harlow, U.K. and New York: Longman, 2007.

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