A major new biography of the Black Prince: hero of the battles of Crécy and Poitiers and England's greatest medieval warrior.As a child he was given his own suit of armour; in 1346, at the age of 16, he helped defeat the French at Crécy; and in 1356 he captured the King of France at Poitiers. For the chronicler Jean Froissart, 'He was the flower of all chivalry'; for the Chandos Herald, who fought with him, he was 'the embodiment of all valour'. Edward of Woodstock, eldest son and heir of Edward III of England, better known as 'the Black Prince', was England's pre-eminent military leader during the first phase of the Hundred Years War.Michael Jones uses contemporary chronicles and documentary material, including the Prince's own letters and those of his closest followers, to tell the tale of an authentic English hero and to paint a memorable portrait of warfare and society in the tumultuous fourteenth century.
The Black Prince Review
- January 1, 1970Leanda LisleOn the morning after the battle of Crecy the sixteen-year old Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, came across the body of the blind Jean of Luxembourg. He had died in a suicidal charge against the English along with his men. The Prince took up Luxembourg’s badge of a silver ostrich feather and resolved to use it as his own. The heraldic background was black: the possible origin of his later sobriquet, the Black Prince.There are other theories. The most banal is that the young Prince’s armour i On the morning after the battle of Crecy the sixteen-year old Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, came across the body of the blind Jean of Luxembourg. He had died in a suicidal charge against the English along with his men. The Prince took up Luxembourg’s badge of a silver ostrich feather and resolved to use it as his own. The heraldic background was black: the possible origin of his later sobriquet, the Black Prince.There are other theories. The most banal is that the young Prince’s armour in 1346 was black. Shakespeare, more convincingly, suggested it was the name the French gave him for the black deeds he later committed during his period of the Hundred Years War. It was, perhaps, a combination of factors. The black background to the silver Prince of Wales feathers would have been the dominant colour of his livery, while the French had good reason to fear the brilliant English commander who pillaged their towns and routed their armies. In one French tapestry he was depicted with a demon’s horns.The tension between hero and villain expressed in the Black Prince’s sobriquet existed also in the man. He was a killer with conscious: eternal judgment feeling very immediate to a warrior from a generation that had lived through the arrival of the bubonic plague. It was two years after Crecy, in 1348, and the Black Prince was eighteen when the epidemic reached England. In Bristol, a chronicler noted, ‘Few survived more than two or three days’. As the plague spread, and killed between 1/3 and ½ of the population, the crops were left unharvested and livestock untended. 5000 dead sheep were spotted in one field alone. In London, the uncleaned streets ran with human waste, and processions of Flagellants, whipped their naked torsos with nail studded rope, crying out to God for mercy, as their blood mixed with the faeces at their feet. It was while this epidemic was at its height, in 1349, that the Prince’s father, Edward III, inaugurated the chivalric Order of the Garter at Windsor Castle. Selection was based on acts of valour, but the statues of the Order were primarily religious. These warriors knew death that could come suddenly, as it did with the plague, and they feared what came next - if not hell, then purgatory, where they would suffer for their sins, until they were ‘burned’ clean of them. They knew they should avoid doing evil, but it was a comfort to know that their fellow Garter knights were bound to have Masses said for their soul to help speed their passage through purgatory’s fires. It guaranteed them around 5000 Masses within three months of their death. Some knights must have needed quite a lot help getting out of purgatory as God surely took a dimmer view of their past crimes than their commanders sometimes did. The Black Prince was prepared to overlook assault, housebreaking and abduction, in return for a man’s sword. Yet he also aspired to be a true Christian knight. This meant showing not only courage in battle, but also mercy to his defeated enemies, generosity to friends and the carrying out of acts of piety. Unfortunately it was necessary sometimes to be brutal to ordinary townsfolk to demonstrate that their French lords could not protect them. Similarly, generosity to friends, and acts of piety - such as the Prince’s desire to found a Cistercian Abbey bigger even than Fountains in Yorkshire - necessitated placing financial pressure on his tenants. A Prince couldn’t let appearances slip (indeed it is appropriate that his biography is exquisitely produced and illustrated) . Wearing black was cool, even in the middle ages, for it was an expensive dye - but the Black Prince, also liked cloth made with pure gold thread and silk embroidered with pearlsOne medieval cleric sneered that the vanity of the warrior class was such that they risked tripping up on their long tunics. But there was no danger of that with the Black Prince. His tailor was so good that he knighted him in front of his army, before spending eleven days spent wreaking havoc on the Count of Armagnac’s estates. Michael Jones brilliantly brings to life the campaigns and battles that made the Black Prince’s name. At Poitiers in 1356 he broke all the rules of contemporary tactics, ordering a frontal assault on the forces of the French king, John II, while sending other cavalry to attack from the rear. He joined the head on attack, where a contemporary describes him ‘hewing at the enemy, lifting up his fallen comrades’. John II fought back with, ‘ a great axe ..in the thickest press of his enemies’. Around the king, ‘The standards wavered and the standard bearers fell. Some were trampled upon, their innards torn open, some spat out their own teeth. Many were stuck to the ground, impaled’. Eventually John II was captured, and brought to England a prisoner. This victory was celebrated with a Garter tournament attended by Edward III and the queen dowager, Isabella. Some of the most colourful passages in Black Prince concern his adoring grandmother. Her husband, the homosexual Edward II, had preferred the company of Hugh Despenser who, it was said, lead ‘the monarch around as of he were teasing a cat with a piece of straw’. In due course Isabella was revenged. Despenser had his penis cut off before being castrated and disemboweled, while Edward II was, reputedly, sodomised to death with a hot poker. She now regretted some of this and planned to be buried near Edward II, and in her wedding dress. Jones’s book features other women almost as intriguing as Isabella. Edward III’s last mistress, Alice Perrers, was only a teenager when the relationship began, but appears to have woven a similar spell over the old King to that Despenser had held over Edward II. Then there is the Black Prince’s beautiful wife Jeanette, who married in scarlet, had a penchant for slutty dresses, and to whom he would write loving letters from the front.It is, however, the drama of the battles and the moral fog of war that dominate the narrative: the nobility of the love soldiers have for each other, and the sometimes base brutality of their acts of slaughter. The Black Prince’s last years were spent in poor health, both physical, and, it seems, mental. The hero and the villain were one man and Michael Jones does justice to this complexity, while also giving us a gripping story in which we beat the French An edited version of this review appeared in the Timesmore
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