Medieval Times

Edward the Black Prince: England’s Lost Hero

Dive into the life of Edward the Black Prince: war hero, chivalrous knight, and complex historical figure.

Who Was England Black Prince

His name evokes images of chivalry and battle – the Black Prince, a legendary figure in English history. As the son of the mighty Edward III, he seemed destined to be a great king. But fate intervened, and Edward would forever be remembered as the warrior prince who never wore the crown.

So, why the dark moniker, “Black Prince”? And what were the defining moments of his tragically short life? Join us on a journey into the world of England’s lost hero.

Early life

Forget what you think you know about the Black Prince’s name – he wasn’t born with that ominous moniker. On June 15th, 1330, Edward of Woodstock arrived in the world, the firstborn son of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault.

But here’s where things get interesting: young Edward wasn’t just heir to the English throne, he had a claim to rule France too! Remember, his grandmother was basically French royalty – a daughter of King Philip IV of France.

Sadly for Edward, Anglo-French relations weren’t great. He was born into the Hundred Years’ War, a truly epic conflict that wouldn’t end for well over a century.

Now, Edward is remembered as this chivalrous knight, but he didn’t come out of the womb that way. This guy was raised on tales of valor and knighthood. Jousting, chivalry – the whole nine yards. He was the medieval prince poster child.

At seven (yep, seven), he was promised to his dad’s cousin, Joan of Kent. They eventually tied the knot in 1362. But the big title change came in 1343, when Edward’s dad crowned him Prince of Wales at the ripe old age of thirteen.

Edward’s Baptism of Fire at Crécy

In the scorching summer of 1346, a young Prince Edward, barely sixteen years old, found himself on the shores of France. It was his first taste of war, a brutal spectacle that would shape the man he would become. Weeks later, he would stand amidst the carnage of Crécy, one of history’s most legendary medieval clashes.

The dawn of August 26th found Edward preparing not just for battle, but for a spiritual rite of passage. He took the sacrament with his father, a poignant moment before the young prince symbolically assumed command of the army’s right flank – his first true test of leadership.

The battle raged, and fury washed over the field. The French Duke of Alencon, incensed, zeroed in on Edward’s division. Edward’s companions – Warwick, Oxford, Chandos, and d’Harcourt – saw the danger and dispatched a message to King Edward III. Their prince was in peril!

But chivalry, at times a cold mistress, dictated Edward III’s response. His son was unharmed, and this was the prince’s chance to “win his spurs”. To prove himself worthy of his lineage, Edward would need to seize this moment for himself and his men. No aid would come. It was a brutal lesson, designed to mold Edward into the warrior he would need to be.

Young Edward did falter. Knocked to the ground amidst the chaos, his life flashed before his eyes. But his standard-bearer, Sir Richard FitzSimmon, embodied the knightly ideal. Casting down the banner, he shielded the prince, fighting back a tide of enemies until Edward rose again.

It was a formative experience, surrounded by men for whom valor was paramount. Victory at Crécy was sweet, and afterward, father and son embraced, a warrior prince now bloodied and proven. From that day forward, the legend of the Black Prince grew.

Returning English after the Aftermath of Crécy

The Black Prince at Crécy
The Black Prince at Crécy by Julian Russell Story, 1888, shows the prince contemplating his slain opponent, King John of Bohemia. Telfair Museums, Savannah, Georgia

Fresh from his heroics at the Battle of Crécy, Prince Edward wasn’t about to rest on his laurels. He rode on to the Siege of Calais (1346-47), a grueling coastal showdown. When the town finally surrendered, Edward’s troops weren’t content with merely taking possession. They unleashed a wave of destruction, burning and pillaging a 30-mile radius around the conquered city.

The young prince, eager to prove himself, returned from France laden with spoils of war. His father, King Edward III, was so impressed that he awarded his son with membership in the newly-formed Order of the Garter. Established in 1348, this prestigious order remains a mark of distinguished service to England, even in the present day.

The Black Death Changes a Prince’s Path

The ravages of the Black Death in the mid-1300s brought even the mighty war machine of Edward III to a standstill. Not only had his daughter tragically succumbed to the plague, but countless fighting men were lost, making his conflicts in France and Scotland impossible to sustain.

But from the ashes of the plague, one figure rose with renewed determination – Edward, the Black Prince, so named for his striking black armor. He would prove his worth on the battlefields of France once more, most famously at the legendary Battle of Poitiers.

This decisive English victory showcased the young Prince’s unmatched skill and leadership. It even earned him more credit than his own father, King Edward III. To add to the triumph, the French King John II “the Good” became a high-profile prisoner, held for ransom in England.

The Black Prince, now a hero of the realm, married Joan of Kent in the early 1360s. The union was a happy one, producing two children – one of whom would eventually ascend the English throne.

In 1362, the Black Prince’s power grew further when his father granted him control of the English territories of Aquitaine and Gascony. However, this period would later leave a darker mark on the prince’s legacy.

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The Black Prince Marches on Spain

The Black Prince, with his restless warrior spirit, could never stay idle long. His next campaign led him to Spain, where he found himself entangled in a royal power struggle. Pedro the Cruel, ousted from his throne in Castile by his illegitimate brother Henry of Trastamara, sought aid from the famed Black Prince.

Edward answered the call, and in 1367 he led his forces to victory over Henry at the Battle of Najera. Pedro, true to his word, bestowed a magnificent reward upon Edward – the “Black Prince’s Ruby.” This legendary gemstone, a large red spinel, remains a dazzling centerpiece of the Imperial State Crown, a timeless relic of the Black Prince’s prowess.

The Limoges Massacre: When The Black Prince Saw Red

John of Gaunt, c. 1593, Source: Wikimedia Commons
John of Gaunt, c. 1593, Source: Wikimedia Commons

Edward, the Black Prince, was known for his chivalry on the battlefield– yet his time in Aquitaine saw that reputation falter. Nowhere is this more evident than in the infamous Siege of Limoges.

Limoges, as part of Aquitaine, fell under Edward’s rule. With the Prince often occupied elsewhere, the town was left in the hands of appointed English governors. One such man, Johan De Cross, proved a traitor.

In August 1370, De Cross turned on his English masters, welcoming a French garrison who promptly seized the town. News of this betrayal turned Edward’s princely blood to boiling rage. With his brothers John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Edmund of Langley, Earl of Cambridge, a massive English force of 3,000 descended upon Limoges. The French, a mere 140 men, stood no chance.

Blinded by fury, Edward wasn’t looking for a mere victory; he sought vengeance. Unfortunately, Limoges’ citizenry would bear the brunt of his anger. Contemporary chroniclers wildly inflated the death toll, claiming upwards of 3,000 French civilians were slaughtered. Modern estimations put the figure closer to 300. Still, in the context of a medieval town, it was a horrifying massacre.

The Siege of Limoges forever tarnished Prince Edward’s otherwise sterling reputation. The chivalric warrior of legend had, in a single fit of rage, revealed a far darker side.

The Mystery of the Black Prince and his Death

Why was Edward, son of King Edward III, known as the Black Prince? The answer isn’t straightforward, and a lot of speculation surrounds this historical figure. His actions at Limoges might suggest a ruthless character, earning him a dark reputation, but most historians dismiss that as the origin of the name.

The strongest theory is far more literal: his armor. Edward favored striking black armor in battle, setting him apart on the field. Interestingly, his bronze tomb effigy has also blackened over time, perhaps reinforcing the nickname long after his death. Keep in mind, he wasn’t called the “Black Prince” in his lifetime! Back then, he was Prince Edward or Edward of Woodstock.

The Black Prince’s life was marked by both triumph and profound sorrow. In 1371, his eldest son and heir died at a tragically young age. Grief devastated Edward, and his health spiraled downward.

By 1376, it was clear both the Black Prince and his father, King Edward III, were nearing the end. Parliament made a fateful decision: the Black Prince’s second son, still a child, would inherit the throne. This boy would become Richard II, a troubled king whose reign contributed to the fall of the Plantagenet Dynasty.

On June 8th, 1376, the Black Prince died at the age of 45. The exact cause remains a mystery – disease, lingering war injuries, even cancer have been suggested.

His death begs the question: what if he’d lived? Could he have steered England on a different course, perhaps even preventing the Wars of the Roses? It’s the ultimate historical “what-if”. What we know for sure is this: Edward, the Black Prince, left a blazing mark as one of the greatest warriors of his era.

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Marie Dupont
Marie Dupont graduated with an M.A. in European Medieval History from the Sorbonne University. Her blog entries discuss everything from medieval daily life to significant historical events.

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