AskHistorians Contributions, Short Reads, Who's Who

John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury (1387-1453)

Wild Reddit Question Appears!

John Talbot became the most feared of the English captains. La Hire himself would run away.

I wasn’t aware of this. I always imagined that the Poitiers-level casualties was the reason the Battle of Castillon doomed the English war effort, but did the death of Talbot play a significant part too?

>>> Original comment on AskHistorians

My Answer

Map. A.J. Pollard, The Theatre of War in Northern France (1427-1450). John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury
A.J. Pollard, The Theatre of War in Northern France (1427-1450)

In Short: Who’s John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury?

John Talbot was a relentless captain. So relentless in fact that he would find reasons to fight even in times of peace. Once, he came back to England for a few years and he started a judicial quarrel that almost led to an open conflict. The Duke of Bedford was wise enough to summon him in France, on the frontline, where he brought havoc to his enemies. Talbot was very gifted in starting and managing feuds.

This man was to the French people, a very scorge and a daily terror, […] in so much that women in Fraunce to feare their yonge children would cry ‘The Talbot Cometh! The Talbot Cometh!’

Talbot learned the art of war in Ireland where the chivalric code didn’t exist. He grew very attached to it later on–though he had a very technical, heartless and cold take on it–but he first learned his ways through skirmish and guerilla warfare. He was an utmost expert at night attacks, raids and decisive “coups de force”. He was very cruel too: he burnt down churches with people in it, he executed men-at-arms when they didn’t respect a surrender treaty and gave up the fortress too late, he basically scorched the earth in Normandy when the peasants revolted in 1435-1436. I personnally found several occurences of French or Burgundians troop litteraly TURNING BACK when they learned it was John Talbot they were going to face. He was that fearsome.

John Talbot became the most feared of the English captains. He was cruel, crafty and relentless. A terror to the French. Edward Hall wrote an epitaph that Grimgor Ironhide would envy: “This man was to the French people, a very scorge and a daily terror, in so much that his person was fearful and terrible to his adversaries present, so his name and frame was spiteful and dreadful to the common people absent, in so much that women in Fraunce to feare their yonge children would cry ‘The Talbot Cometh! The Talbot Cometh!’

Yet Shakespeare depicted him as a most chivalrous knight in Henry V.

At the time of the battle of Castillon (1453), Charles VII had already recovered most of France from the English. Normandy had been taken back. The Burgundians had fallen back in line. Several military campaigns in southern France meant the English were basically holding onto pretty much nothing concrete. Only Calais would remain the unpenetrable English fortress on French soil for the centuries to come (it still belonged to the British crown when Henry VIII was king!). The Duke of Bedford had passed away. Henry VI of England never grew up to have the military charisma nor the natural authority his father wielded. This sweet and pious king aspired to peace and he married a French princess after all, whilst a English princess was married to the Duke of Burgundy. John Talbot, really, was the last living and kicking remnant of the Hundred Years’ War. Most of his foes were dead or had retired. He was facing a younger generation now.

No one can state as fact that John Talbot’s death led to the end of the Hundred Years’ War. It was only diplomatically ended in 1475! However, no one had the energy nor the shoulders to pick up his mantle and continue the old fight. His death, really, is symptomatic of how times changed. It was certainly a symbolic victory for the French who had to dread no longer the “English Achilles”.

One Story To Remember Him By

Ridiculously Chivalrous John Talbot. Ridiculously Photogenic Guy. Medieval Meme.
Ridiculously Chivalrous John Talbot

Forced to retreat at Orléans, Talbot was met unexpectedly by La Hire and his friends at Patay (1430). Talbot’s troops had covered as much as 100 miles in two days to defend the Loire valley. La Hire and company fell upon the English army before they could organize a defensive line. Talbot was ultimately captured by the archers of Poton de Xaintrailles–La Hire’s best friend and brother-in-arms.

Talbot was put to ransom, but to a ridiculously high amount. Talbot, in fact, came very close to bankruptcy while he was held prisonner from 1429 to 1433. Charles VII of France even acquired Talbot’s as a prisoner of note, exercising his regal priviledges. It was customary that the king could demand any famed knight who was put to ransom by a vassal of his in exchange of a fixed fee. As it turns out, Charles VII later exchanged Talbot for Poton de Xaintrailles! The latter had indeed been captured by Talbot’s father-in-law, the powerful earl of Warwick.

Once released, Talbot couldn’t let it stand. He took it to the Order of the Garter and blamed John Fastolf of cowardice. At Patay, the latter reportedly fled the battlefield and brought great dishonor to his knightly title. Talbot argued so passionately that Falstolf was stripped of his Garter until the early 1440’s. Facing financial ruin rendered him especially callous and mercy wouldn’t be his strongsuit in later installments of the Hundred Years’ War…

Click on this link to read one more story about Talbot. Or this one, if you want to know the role he played at Orléans.

More about Talbot:

  • A.J. Pollard, John Talbot and the War in France: 1427-1453. London & New Jersey: RHS and Humanities Press Inc., 1983.

Fun Fact About Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey' Movie Revival In The Works — Original Cast ...

Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode), who marries Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) by the end of the unforgettable Downton Abbey TV series, is a descendant of John Talbot, 1st earl of Shrewsbury!

Needless is to say, when I heard he was a Talbot, I geeked out. Moreover, just the thought that Michelle Dockery portrayed a Talbot lady makes me squeak like a teenage girl. I mean… look at those eyes if they don’t breathe fire!!! Mary Josephine Talbot. What a nice ring to it!

Can’t wait to see her in a spin-off series stretching from the 40s to the 60s.

AskHistorians Contributions, Short Reads, Who's Who

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.
Short Reads, Who's Who

John the Blind, count of Luxembourg and king of Bohemia (1296-1346)

Who’s John the Blind, Who Died At Crécy?

John of Luxembourg, father to Charles IV of the Holy Roman Empire, was among the first to make the Prussian crusades a highly fashionable adventure to western knights. That man had a finger in every pie. He helped Louis the Bavarian to be elected emperor (before he fought against him once his own son was crowned King of the Romans and got the support of the papacy). He fought the Lombards in Italy. He died at Crécy while assisting his good friend, King Philip VI of France, but first and foremost he married a Bohemian princess and also claimed the throne of Poland, only relinquishing it for a very high tribute in money. A few months before Crécy, he was yet still in Prussia helping out his good friends the Teutonic knights! John of Luxembourg was highly admired in France and the trend he set, as a knight always beating the road and roaming Europe, was followed by many. He was also among the first to use artillery to win over a siege, which is quite noteworthy.

Though adored by French poets and knights, he was heavily despised by the Bohemian clergy. He didn’t support or helped to finance the church and rather went to Bohemia only to gather the money to finance his international warfare activities while his son was left behind to rule and govern the country (when he wasn’t dragged along on some of his father’s epic quest: Charles IV participated himself to the battle of Crécy!).

One Story to Remember Him By

The Prince of Wales’s feathers

The legend would have that the Prince of Wales’s feathers date back 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.’

Great scene from Orange is the New Black, season 06 – episode 02, bringing back the Cha-cha slide! From today’s standard, it would be easy to deem John the Blind as mentally unstable as “Crazy Eyes”.

As a matter of fact, John of Luxembourg, king of Bohemia, charged the English heroically at Crécy, on August 26th, 1346. Following the Duke of Alençon, he and his men 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, among who sir Henry the Monk of Basel, 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–for which I found no reliable source–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?

Paris, BnF, MS fr. 2643, f. 165v ~ Depiction of the Battle of Crécy in Froissart’s chronicle. As the Genoese crossbowmen get slaughtered by the English longbowmen, we see French knights charging through while the rest of the army already turns back.

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 their men 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.

Sure, when John the Blind does it it’s stupid. But when Captain America and Black Panther go at it, it’s epic. Double standards much?

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.