The legend would have that the Prince of Wales’s feathers date from the Battle of Crécy. Once the French army had been routed, the Black Prince came across the dead body of John the Blind, King of Bohemia. Froissart do actually state that the Prince of Wales and his father, the King of England, dressed in black to pay their respect to their honourable foe. Yet another tale reports that the Black Prince, to pay tribute to the King of Bohemia, took the feathers from the latter’s helmet for himself then even went on to adopt his motto: ‘Ich Dien.’
This romantic version of the story is counterbalanced by a more ludicrous one. The King of Bohemia being blind, it’s believed that he was told when and where to strike with this sword. ‘To the left, Your Majesty! Now, to the right!’ As the joke goes, Henry the Monk of Basel shouted those words to John the Blind once they broke into the English ranks.
Both knights heroically charged the English at Crécy, on August 26th, 1346. Following the Duke of Alençon, they pierced through the fleeing Genoese crossbowmen, maybe trampling a few. A downpour of arrows rained on them. John the Blind couldn’t see anything but he had been advised of the danger. With no regard for his life nor his safety, he had charged nonetheless. His horse had been tethered to those of his companions to help him steer his steed onto the right direction.
‘To the left, Your Majesty! Now, to the right!’ Basel sounded as if he was instructing John the Blind the basic steps of the cha-cha slide. Yet he was telling him when and where to bash his sword on enemy heads. This alleged quote is supposed to deride John the Blind’s last moments. He died at Crécy while charging head on an enemy he couldn’t see. Sure! From a modern point of view, it makes no sense. Why would anyone do that?
The fact is that the modern rules of warfare don’t apply on a medieval battlefield. It was expected from Kings and their commanding officers to step on the frontline and to lead from the very front row. It was up to them to behave the way superheroes do today in movies and honour a long literary tradition of valour, bravery and gallantry. I mean, they had the suit and everything. Who could be more dashing on the battlefield than a knight in shining armour dressed up with the coat of arms of his family? They craved to become the fabric of legend and to get a tenth spot among the the Nine Worthies, alongside Alexander, David and Arthur. We need to remember that back then, written history was barely anything but tales of war. There was no study of the economical impact of the Cistercian order in eastern Europe. Only tales of Teutonic knights slaying pagans in the name of God. Tales to which John the Blind contributed himself, by the way.
John the Blind’s death reminds us that mankind isn’t the most level-headed of species. We do tend to act on impulse rather than reason. However it would be wrong to assume that as he charged at Crécy, John the Blind drowned himself in some ‘collective dream’ fixated on an outdated and nostalgic idea of chivalry.
More on that in my next post!
Disclaimer. Sources and further readings to be found at the end of the John the Blind’s series