Edward the Black Prince
The warlike son of King Edward III of England, he did not survive his father
Edward the Black Prince should have become King of England but died before his father (King Edward III), so the throne passed to his less worthy son, who reigned as King Richard II. Edward represents many people’s idea of a knight from the period when chivalry was at its height. Indeed, Chaucer’s “perfect gentle knight”, from the Canterbury Tales, written not long after Edward’s death, could have been a nostalgic (and doubtless sanitised) portrait of the Black Prince.
Edward’s life, from 1330 to 1376, fell at the start of the period of English history known as the “Hundred Years War”. This was a series of conflicts between England and France that were fought over the right to rule large areas of territory in France that had formerly belonged to William I and Henry II. Edward III also had a claim to the throne of France. The War alternated between campaigns waged by English kings (from Edward III to Henry VI) and periods of truce.
Prince Edward was born on 15th June 1330 at the royal palace of Woodstock, being the first child born to the young King Edward III and Queen Philippa. When only six he was declared Duke of Cornwall, a title that brought him considerable wealth, as it does for the eldest son of the monarch down to the present day.
Edward’s military career
From 1340 onwards he took an active part in public life, being “guardian of England” (despite his youth) while his father was out of the country for much of the period up to 1346, but his first military experience came when he joined his father on the campaign in 1346-7 that included the Battle of Crecy.
Edward was knighted by his father and put in command of a division that played a major part in the victory at Crecy. Edward was in mortal danger at times during the battle but displayed great courage. In honour of the defeated and killed King of Bohemia, Edward adopted the latter’s device of an ostrich feather, which still forms part of the coat of arms of Princes of Wales.
Back in England in 1348, Edward created the Order of the Garter, a chivalric order that survives to this day. The order was designed to create a close bond between the knights who fought at Crecy and who would doubtless be called on again to serve the king. Team spirit was also fostered by a series of tournaments, featuring “war games” such as jousting, on which Edward spent lavishly.
Edward and his father were again called upon to fight in 1350, when they fought a sea battle in the English Channel, but the truce with France lasted until 1355, the interim being spent by Edward in running his various estates in England. It would appear that he could be somewhat heavy-handed in the administration of his lands, and petitions were presented to the king to appeal against the oppressive governance that he exerted.
Following growing hostile activity by the new French King, Jean, Edward landed at Bordeaux in September 1355 and put together an army that set off into the lands that were in dispute between the English and French crowns. Edward’s aim was to raid and pillage French territory with the hope of bringing the French regent, Jean d'Armagnac, to battle. However, d’Armagnac refused to be drawn from his citadel at Toulouse, and Edward eventually returned to Bordeaux, where he spent the winter.
During much of 1356 the English and French armies kept each other at arms’ length, but battle was eventually joined on 19th September at Poitiers in west central France. Despite being greatly outnumbered, English tactics and quick thinking won the day, with massive casualties on the French side. The great bonus from Edward’s perspective was the capture of the French king, who was then taken back to England to be held for ransom.
A three-year peace treaty was eventually agreed, although another military campaign was needed before the French King’s ransom was eventually paid. However, the original amount was greatly reduced, in exchange for Edward being recognised as virtual King of Aquitaine (the region of south-west France to which England had always laid claim).
Edward had had little time in his busy life to consider marriage (although he had fathered a number of illegitimate children), but now he was able to do so, his bride being Joan, Countess of Kent. Unusually for the time, this was a partnership of mutual attraction with no dynastic element being involved. Joan was a young widow, although a certain amount of scandal attached to her as it appeared that she had been married bigamously. Joan was also a first cousin of Edward, so papal dispensation was needed before the marriage could take place.
The marriage was a happy one, spent mostly in Aquitaine where their two sons were born. Young Prince Edward died at the age of six but Richard survived, becoming King Richard II at the age of ten.
Edward and Joan arrived in their new kingdom in June 1363. Edward was clearly a better soldier than administrator, and his efforts to raise revenue from his new territory led to resentment. He was not skilled in winning people over. His autocratic manner made him far more enemies than allies.
A further opportunity for military action came in 1366, when Pedro of Castile (northern Spain) appealed to Edward for help in regaining his throne after he had been usurped by his half-brother Enrique da Trastamara, with French support. Edward was at first reluctant to help, but early in 1367 he set off across the Pyrenees.
One difficulty to be overcome was the fact that the Kingdom of Navarre lay between Aquitaine and Castile, and Charles of Navarre levied a large fee for the passage of Edward’s army. In return, Edward demanded from Pedro control of the coastal region of Castile.
Edward eventually met the Castilians, under Trastamara, in battle at Najera on 3rd April 1367, and achieved a victory. Pedro was restored, but was unable to pay Edward the agreed fee for the campaign. Edward remained in Castile until August, waiting for payment, but it eventually became clear that Pedro was in no position to pay. Edward therefore left and returned to Bordeaux. Pedro was murdered by his half-brother two years later.
Edward had fallen ill while in Castile, possibly with malaria or dysentery. On his return he faced dissent from a number of local lords, encouraged by the French king, and his inability to pay for the services of the lords who had accompanied him to Castile also caused resentment. Edward’s only recourse was to raise taxes, which naturally increased his unpopularity.
The French were now emboldened to encroach on the territory of Aquitaine, with several cities changing their allegiance, and Edward was forced back into the field to defend his borders. The city of Limoges, which had been taken back into French hands, was recaptured and sacked after a siege of five days’ duration, in the summer of 1370. Despite this action, no other city was inspired to return to English control.
His final years and legacy
Edward was now too ill to be an effective commander in the field, and in January 1371 he returned to England for the last time. During the remaining years of his life he played little part in the affairs of state, rarely travelling more than 50 miles from London. He attended the opening of Parliament in April 1376 but that was his last public appearance. He died on 8th June 1376, a week short of his 46th birthday, and was buried at Canterbury. He therefore failed to become King of England by one year.
The name “The Black Prince” was a Tudor invention, but it has stuck. It is not clear why it was given; it could possibly have been a reference to the colour of his armour, or even his temper.
As a heroic figure of distant English history, Edward the Black Prince will always be part of the romance of a chivalric past, especially as his legacy survives in the Order of the Garter. As one of a long list of great English and British military commanders, he deserves his place in history. However, how successful he might have been as a peace-time monarch must remain in doubt.