This article was first published in the August 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine
On 19 September 1370 an English army drew up outside the French city of Limoges. A formidable fighting force of 4,000 men, it had been bombarding the city and undermining its walls for five days. Now, with a section of the ramparts weakened, it was ready to strike. “A large part of the wall collapsed, filling in the ditch,” wrote the chronicler Jean Froissart. “The English watched with eager anticipation, lined up in formation as they prepared to storm the city… They rushed its defences, broke through the main gate and started to slay the inhabitants, indiscriminately – as they had been ordered to.”
According Froissart, the man who gave these brutal orders was Edward III’s eldest son, Edward, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine, known to posterity as the Black Prince. “It was a terrible thing,” the chronicler continued. “Men, women and children cast themselves on their knees before the prince, begging for mercy, but he was so overcome with anger and an all-consuming desire for revenge, that he listened to no one. All were put to the sword, wherever they were found.”
Froissart concluded: “There was not that day in Limoges any heart so hardened, no one possessed of even a shred of pity, who was not deeply affected by the events taking place before them. Upwards of 3,000 citizens were put to death that day. God have mercy on their souls, for they were truly martyrs.”
It is a heartrending depiction – one that has become infamous in the annals of medieval warfare. Jean Froissart, the foremost chronicler of his age, was a passionate admirer of the code of chivalry, values that encouraged a warrior to show mercy towards the defeated. In contrast, what happened at Limoges appeared a descent into savagery. Froissart’s account left a permanent stain on the prince’s reputation. From the early 16th century he was described as the ‘Black Prince’, and the epithet stuck. Some suggested this might refer to the colour of his armour or heraldic accoutrements; for others, black deeds in the war in France offered a more plausible explanation.
Was the Black Prince really a prince of darkness? A medieval commander was entitled, under the laws of war of the time, to sack a city that refused reasonable terms of surrender. Other contemporary sources – including a local chronicler of Limoges, and the Chandos Herald, who wrote an account of the prince’s life – confirm the sack took place. But they put the number of casualties at 300, a tenth of the figure given by Froissart. A recent discovery of a letter of the prince’s, written three days after his capture of the city, contains no mention of a wholesale slaughter of inhabitants. Froissart’s account needs to be tested against a range of documentary material, including new discoveries in the French archives.
The sack of Limoges took place during the Hundred Years’ War, which had begun in 1337 with Edward III claiming the throne of France in the right of his mother, Isabella. Stunning victories at Crécy, in 1346, and Poitiers, in 1356, put the English in a commanding position and in 1360 they concluded a most advantageous peace treaty at Brétigny. Under its terms, the Black Prince received the principality of Aquitaine, in south-western France, to govern in his own right.
The Black Prince made his entrée on the European stage a war hero. He won his spurs at the age of 16, fighting with distinction at Crécy; 10 years later he commanded the force that won the stunning triumph at Poitiers, capturing the French king, Jean II. Jean Froissart was impressed by the prince’s skill in battle and by his gallant treatment of his French prisoners in its aftermath. The chronicler’s admiration increased when, as ruler of Aquitaine, the prince set up a magnificent court, entrancing all who visited it. But by 1370 the picture had soured.
The turning point was a campaign in northern Spain, undertaken by the prince in 1367, to restore the exiled ruler, Pedro of Castile, to his throne. In military terms, it was a success, with the Black Prince gaining another striking triumph at Nájera (against the rival claimant Enrique of Trastamara).
In political terms, though, it was a disaster. Pedro reneged on his debts, and the prince left Spain out of pocket, his army riven by dysentery. In an attempt to recoup his losses, he imposed a property tax – the fouage – upon Aquitaine, which drove a number of its noblemen into open revolt. They appealed to the new French king, Charles V, and in the summer of 1369 war broke out once more.
The Black Prince was now a shadow of his former self. Suffering from a serious illness (possibly dysentery), which left him bedridden for months at a time, he lacked the money and manpower to effectively resist the French. Parts of his principality of Aquitaine began to defect to Charles V.
Amid these reverses, in late August 1370 he learnt that Limoges had gone over to the enemy through the treachery of the city’s bishop, Jean de Cros (a man who had previously stood as godfather to his eldest son). Froissart described the prince responding with a vindictive outburst of temper: “When news was brought… that Limoges had become French he fell into a violent rage…
He swore upon the soul of his father, which he had never perjured, that he would have the city back again… and that he would make the inhabitants pay dearly for their treachery.”
Froissart is unreliable as a historical source. In the 1360s the chronicler had benefited from English patronage, and visited the prince in Aquitaine shortly before his ill-fated Spanish expedition. But after the death of Edward III’s queen, Philippa of Hainault, in August 1369, Froissart returned to France and the Low Countries, securing the patronage of Guy de Châtillon, Count of Blois, a partisan of Charles V. If the chronicler was privy to any testimony about the sack of Limoges, it was only from voices hostile to the prince.
Documentary evidence presents a very different picture of the campaign. On 1 July 1370 the prince determined on a new way of waging war. In contrast to Froissart’s account, it was one of clemency and persuasion rather than threat and intimidation – and the details were set out on the Gascon rolls, part of the administrative records of his principality:
“It has been decided that he [the prince] should be able to admit and receive into the king’s peace and grace those who have left his obedience – whether through the persuasion of the king’s enemies or of their own free will – who now wish to return to his allegiance, pardoning their crimes, even the most serious, and restoring their privileges. While it is sometimes justifiable to punish such actions through the exercise of royal authority, it is also, on occasions, right to temper such a policy with leniency.”
Froissart does not seem to have ever visited Limoges, and he had little knowledge of its geography. He was unaware that the city was divided into two parts: the prosperous château district, on the higher ground, dominated by the castle and abbey; and the poorer cité, composed of the cathedral, bishop’s palace, smaller churches and humble dwellings, controlled by the bishop. The château district – where most of the city’s population lived – remained loyal to the prince in August 1370, and refused to admit the French; the cité only did so with extreme reluctance.
Newly discovered material from French archives shows that a draft surrender agreement between the bishop, Jean de Cros, and John, Duke of Berry (the younger brother of Charles V) was jettisoned because not enough citizens had put their names to it. One chronicler even reported that the bishop resorted to subterfuge, falsely claiming that the Black Prince had suddenly died of illness, to persuade the reluctant cathedral chapter to allow Berry’s soldiers into the cité.
The Black Prince’s army arrived outside Limoges on 14 September 1370, the prince watching proceedings from a stretcher. His troops were welcomed into the château, while the inhabitants of the cité, realising they had been duped, opened negotiations with the besiegers. On 19 September, while the prince’s soldiers attacked the weakened city walls, distracting the French garrison, a body of citizens made their way to the main gate, raised the banner of France and England in a pre-arranged signal, and flung it open.
This dramatic sequence of events is revealed in a law suit held before the Paris Parlement on 10 July 1404 between two merchants of Limoges (Bizé versus Bayard). Bizé’s lawyer described the part played by his opponent’s father, Jacques Bayard, in assisting the English to regain the city 30 years earlier: “Bayard’s father, a poor man and a furrier, accompanied by other furriers, took and carried the banner of the English to the main gate, where he was captured by the captain of the garrison, who then beheaded him.”
The Parlement evidence reveals a very different story of the sack of Limoges. As English troops flooded into the cité, the enraged French garrison killed those inhabitants who had let them in, fired the houses around them and retreated towards the bishop’s palace. There was indeed a massacre (numbering hundreds not thousands) but it was conducted by the French, not the English.
Two vital documents support such a scenario. In a grant to the cathedral chapter, giving them possession of the cité, the prince clearly stated: “Understanding that as a result of the treason of their bishop, the clergy and inhabitants of the cité suffered grievous losses to their bodies and possessions, and endured much hardship… we do not wish to see them further punished as accomplices to this crime, when the fault lay clearly with the bishop and they had nothing to do with it…We therefore declare them pardoned and quit of all charges of rebellion, treason and forfeiture.”
The captain of the French garrison of Limoges, Jean de Villemur, was widely praised by Valois chroniclers for his courage during the siege. But, on his release from captivity, Charles V revoked all his land grants and confiscated his possessions. In January 1375, Villemur, living in a state of abject poverty, petitioned the French king. But despite being an able soldier, he never received another military command. Villemur’s stern punishment suggests that Charles V held him responsible for the killing of Limoges’s inhabitants, and would not forgive him for it.
Froissart’s highly coloured account of the sack of Limoges has held sway in our imagination for too long. The Black Prince returned to England shortly afterwards and his last years were overshadowed by illness. He died on 8 June 1376 aged 45, and when news of his passing reached the Valois court, Charles V held a most solemn memorial mass for him. This was an unprecedented honour – and it would hardly have been accorded to a man who had recently massacred 3,000 French civilians. It is time to remove this unwarranted stain on his reputation.
Michael Jones is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His new biography of the Black Prince is published by Head of Zeus this month.