The Black Prince


The legend of Edward of Woodstock, the eldest son of King Edward III dominates the period of English history known as the Hundred Years War. In fact it has been suggested that the disputes and battles over the entitlement to rule whole areas of what is now modern France lasted much longer than a century and could possibly be seen as part of a much broader battle lasting from the Norman Conquest to the mid fifteenth century. Traditionally this heir to the English throne has been portrayed as playing a key role in this conflict, winning his spurs at the battle of Crecy and gaining notable victories at Poitiers and Najera. His reputation as the personification of fourteenth century chivalry, possibly even formed before his death, was certainly well established by Shakespeare's day and lasted well into the nineteenth century. Today his tomb is one of the sights of Canterbury Cathedral where it is emblazoned with replicas of his surcoat, shield, helmet and gauntlets. The originals, placed there at his death, are now preserved elsewhere.

David Green' book was first published in 2001 and has now been re-issued in paperback by The History Press. Much of the book is based on his PhD research on the Prince and his Military and Administrative Household although there is considerable reference to recent research on medieval military history and chivalric traditions. This is not a particularly personal history but a discussion of the life of the Black Prince in relation to his contemporaries and the government and the structure of society of the time. One of the difficulties faced by historians is the scarcity of primary sources. However the author makes use of the archives that do exist and clearly differentiates between information gained from these and material from secondary sources from many periods.

The author aims to unpick the facts on the life of a man whose reputation was forged by the early chroniclers Froissart and Chandos Herald whose rosy picture of a chivalrous Prince struck down in his prime was upheld well into the twentieth century. More recent accounts have portrayed him as a greedy, arrogant thug and butcher. Indeed one of the theories surrounding the mystery of his name is that he was named the 'Black Prince' by the French because of the 'black' deeds that he instigated in attempts to gain and retain control over whole areas of France. This book attempts to introduce some balance into the discussion pointing out that recent accounts have judged him by twentieth century standards. Fourteenth century princes were judged by their military skills and their ability to raise and manage the funds for the maintenance of their position. Yes, he and his followers did have a policy of burning towns and killing inhabitants over whole areas in order to reduce the level of support for their opponents. However the Prince needed to demonstrate his power in a way commensurate with his position and his actions were little different to contemporaries of the same rank. In part war engendered the funds for his the rule of Aquitaine from 1362 to 1371. Alas, probably due to lack of archival material, his personal life is only briefly touched upon: his marriage at the late age of 31 to Joan, 'Fair Maid of Kent', the trappings and costly jewels and clothes ordered for him and his wife at the Aquitaine Court, his contact and relationship with his sons. Most of the book deals with his military campaigns and the historical changes taking place in the wider world.

I must confess that I am no expert in the field of the Hundred Years War, my knowledge being gained in second form History lessons many years ago and study of Shakespeare's History plays. This has been supplemented by some additional reading on visits to historical sites while on holiday in France. Have others experienced trips to ruined castles in the middle of France in the company of a group of French? The words 'Burned by the English'. 'Murdered by the English' seem to come up at every other sentence and at this point those assembled turn and look at the only representatives of England present as if they are personally responsible! A little investigative reading of the background helps to salve consciences.

I found David Green's book particularly helpful in the brief discussions of both the background to the war and the other influences such as the Black Death, its effect on the old feudal recruitment system and the efficient administration of the Prince's estates which helped to fund his military exploits. However, as a lay person in this field I did find much of the detail difficult to follow. I understand that there is renewed interest in the Hundred Years War and that there are many who have a good knowledge of both the campaigns and personalities involved. They will be pleased with the academic tone of this book and as you would expect there is an excellent bibliography, helpful notes and an index. However I do feel that the book shows its origins in the author's doctrinal studies and this makes it more difficult for the casual reader. I would have preferred a stronger narrative thread. There also seems to be an assumption of prior knowledge. Lists of names of the participants and their supporters are heavy going and although I appreciate that there is very little visual material available I did not find that the small black and white pictures of their tombs helped me to understand better the man or the period. A tendency to use arcane medieval French terms was a little irritating. I was forced to 'Google' several terms such as 'chevauchees' (laying regions to waste in order to deprive the enemy of support) in order to confirm my understanding. A glossary of such terms would have been helpful as would a simple map of France and Northern Spain showing the campaigns and the areas governed by the Black Prince in his heyday.

The Black Prince did not die heroically on the battlefield as many have imagined but after a long period of decline and illness in 1376 aged 46 a year before his own father King Edward III. In conclusion David Green briefly discusses the legacy passed on to the Prince's son Richard II and the role of John of Gaunt. Despite my reservations about this short book I enjoyed it and am inspired to find out more about the period and its principals.

Rosemary Conely
Copyright © Open University History Society, 2014