The Black Prince: hero or villain?
Edward III's eldest son has been both eulogised as the epitome of medieval chivalry and demonised as the instigator of brutal slaughter. Barbara Gribling charts the changing reputation of the victor at Crécy and Poitiers
When compiling lists of English heroes, the Black Prince is not a character who immediately springs to mind. Yet in his time, and later centuries, his character was every bit as controversial as another Plantagenet who forged his reputation on the battlefields of France, Henry V.
To his contemporaries, the Black Prince was the hero of the battles of Crécy, Poitiers and Nájera, and the villain of the sacking of the city of Limoges. In his lifetime, Edward III’s eldest son garnered a reputation as a chivalric hero. After his death, he became a focal point for debates about heroism and villainy.
At the battle of Crécy in 1346, Edward III placed the 16-year-old Prince Edward in nominal command of part of his army. In the intense fighting, the Black Prince and his men received the brunt of the French attack. Forced to the ground, the prince had to be rescued by his standard bearer.
Alerted to the dangers that faced his son, Edward III refused to send reinforcements, stating instead: “Let the boy win his spurs.” The prince performed admirably. As a major English victory over the French, Crécy confirmed his future martial promise, reinforced later when the prince became a founder member of the Order of the Garter.
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Ten years later, in 1356, this promise was fulfilled when the 26-year-old prince decisively defeated the French army near the city of Poitiers and captured the French king, John II. This English victory significantly undermined the French cause, and simultaneously helped to establish Edward and his followers’ reputations as warriors. Contemporaries praised the Black Prince’s chivalrous character, in particular his modesty, courage and courtesy on the battlefield. According to the medieval chronicler Jean Froissart, after the battle the Black Prince held a banquet in honour of the captured king and served him dinner. This scene fostered an image of Prince Edward as a humble victor. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Poitiers would be celebrated alongside Agincourt as one of the great English triumphs of the Middle Ages.
So prominent was the Black Prince’s reputation as a warrior that he was asked by King Pedro of Castile to aid him in his fight against his half-brother Henry of Trastamara for the Castilian throne. Prince Edward’s victory at the battle of Nájera on 3 April 1367 sealed his reputation as a successful warrior, though the Spanish campaign resulted in debt and illness for the prince.
In the 14th century, Jean Froissart was seminal in helping to craft the Black Prince’s image, much as Shakespeare would later shape Henry V’s. Froissart’s aim, to record the chivalrous deeds of knights, led him to manufacture and embellish scenes of chivalric virtues. However, Froissart’s description of the Black Prince was not unanimously favourable; in fact, he offered a critique as well.
Even in his lifetime, contemporaries challenged the Black Prince’s heroic image, recasting him as a villain. Criticism focused on his chevauchée (raiding expedition) in France in 1355–56, a brutal affair designed to demoralise the enemy. Starting in Bordeaux in September 1355, Edward moved across France passing Toulouse, Carcassonne and Narbonne. He focused his attention on towns where he could inflict the most damage with the least resistance. His troops looted, burned property and killed inhabitants. On campaign with the Black Prince in 1355, Sir John Wingfield wrote a letter to the bishop of Winchester proclaiming that “there was never such loss nor destruction as hath been in this raid”.
The sack of the city of Limoges in 1370 became a second source of contention. Granted Aquitaine by his father in 1362, the Black Prince ruled a principality that stretched across a third of France. The city under the prince’s rule had surrendered to the French – and, for that, Edward decided that it must be punished, first laying siege and then sacking it. Froissart reported that: “Men, women and children flung themselves on their knees before the prince, crying: ‘Have mercy on us, gentle sir!’ But he was so inflamed with anger that he would not listen… and all that could be found were put to the sword.”
Froissart records the deaths of over 3,000 men, women and children, though this figure is not corroborated by local sources. All the same, the sack became notorious for its brutality. Edward’s reputation in France was a dark one. The Angers tapestries commissioned by Louis D’Anjou (see left) illustrate the Black Prince and his father as apocalyptic horsemen ravaging France. Commissioned in 1373 when England’s hold on France was waning, they provide a contrast to images presented by the herald of Sir John Chandos, whose poem painted the prince as a hero.
In 1376, the Black Prince died at the age of 45 from a lingering illness. Keenly aware of the power of image, Edward sought to craft his own memory, requesting that his tomb be located in Canterbury Cathedral depicting him as a resting knight. His sword, shield and armour were arranged above his tomb, providing a lasting tribute to his feats in war. At his death, the Black Prince was mourned across Europe, and medieval chroniclers did their bit to polish his reputation, lauding his life’s achievements.
However, future debates about what it meant to be a hero had to address the less palatable aspects of Prince Edward’s story. His subsequent reputation, like those of many medieval royals, was shaped in part by Shakespeare, who captured the dual image of the Black Prince as both hero and villain in his plays Richard II and Henry V. Shakespeare’s Black Prince was a consummate warrior who “play’d a tragedy on French soil” as a result of his victories there. This view was upheld in the play Edward III, which is now frequently attributed to Shakespeare.
If the Black Prince’s appearances in Shakespeare’s plays helped make him a prominent figure in England’s medieval story, so did the power of his sobriquet. We know that Prince Edward became the ‘Black Prince’ during the 16th century but what we don’t know is why the name changed when it did and why he earned this name. Later historians have speculated that the sobriquet came from the colour of Edward’s armour and his dark reputation in France.
Interest in the Black Prince as a person in his own right – rather than a character in a play – developed to a greater extent in the 17th century. In 1688, antiquary Joshua Barnes wrote the first authoritative historical biography of Edward III and the Black Prince, which later authors consulted as a key source. Tensions with France and a royal focus on the Middle Ages led to a renewed desire to reconsider the prince’s battles. Barnes pinpointed the prince’s military feats as being central to his heroic image.
The British monarchy of the 18th century, however, proved to be the driving force behind the Black Prince’s re-emergence as a hero. George III commissioned the American artist Benjamin West to produce a series of grand history paintings in the late 1780s chronicling the deeds of King Edward III and his son for the Windsor Castle audience chamber. Fascinated by the medieval past, George saw the reign of Edward III as a time of royal power. His love of the medieval chimed with his wider programme to reinvent ceremony and splendour for the monarchy. West reframed Edward’s heroism in terms of 18th-century gentlemanly virtues, depicting a chivalric Black Prince who was courageous and honourable.
West chose to paint a scene from the aftermath of Crécy, featuring Edward with his father acknowledging the slain John of Bohemia, himself a hero of chivalry. In another painting (above), West depicted the Black Prince meeting his prisoner, the French king John, after the battle of Poitiers. His source, David Hume, whose medieval volume of The History of England was published in 1761, extolled the prince’s heroic character and chose to ignore his battlefield violence. Based on Hume’s written depiction, West portrayed Edward as a moderate and sympathetic gentleman conqueror. Not everyone bought into West’s rather sanitised and bloodless versions of events though – his portrayals of Edward’s battles were criticised at Royal Academy exhibitions for their lack of realism.
The robust and masculine warrior, Edward, became a special hero for young soldiers during the Georgian and Regency eras. And the prince was once again celebrated on the stage – William Shirley’s drama of 1750, revived in the late Georgian period, offered him as a model of English masculinity for contemporary soldiers.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the Black Prince’s hero-villain dynamic really came to the fore. His image circulated in media of all kinds – from children’s adventure novels to plays. Fascination with national heroes and the Middle Ages spurred a diversity of Black Princes, and Edward became a focus for debates on character and war.
Children’s books tended to emphasise the prince’s more attractive qualities in order to teach young children proper behaviour. One of the most popular textbooks of the 19th century, Little Arthur’s History of England (1835), added to Edward’s repertoire of virtues by referring to him as “the bravest and politest prince at that time in the world”.
Yet Edward served as a villain as well. His sack of Limoges was used as a lesson about barbarous behaviour – one that the Victorians believed they had safely moved beyond. Children’s author Meredith Jones wrote that at Limoges he was a frightening figure with “angry flashing eyes”, violent and ruthless.
Jones wasn’t the only Victorian to regard Limoges as a ‘blot’ on Edward’s otherwise good character. In a public lecture on the prince’s life in 1852, Canon of Canterbury, Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, placed Edward’s brutality in the city within a wider criticism of chivalry, suggesting that it amounted to class violence against the poor. While Stanley stated that the Black Prince was a model knight, he questioned whether Edward could indeed be an appropriate role model for modern men and boys. He concluded that the prince’s successes were greater than his failures.
Many early 20th-century portrayals of Edward were less ambiguous about his legacy. One such was the Black Prince’s statue in Leeds City Square – commissioned by the city’s ex-lord mayor, Colonel T Walter Harding. Harding entertained the possibility of other heroes – Queen Elizabeth I, Simon De Montfort and Henry V – but settled on Edward because he regarded him as a champion of the people and a patriotic warrior – values he wished to instil in the citizens of Leeds.
Published in 1917, Henry Newbolt’s Book of the Happy Warrior also placed the Black Prince within a tradition of warrior heroes who happily fought for their nation. The 1929 historical novel, The English Paragon, continued to define Prince Edward as a model of chivalry. Restoration work on the prince’s tomb at Canterbury in the 1930s led to some re-evaluation of his character. But, by now, such debates about his memory lacked the lustre of Victorian discussions.
By the 1950s, Edward as a popular icon was disappearing from public view. Despite this, guidebooks to Canterbury Cathedral kept his memory alive, while the 1955 film, The Dark Avenger, had Errol Flynn play the Black Prince as a medieval cowboy saving the peasants and his lady from cruel French nobles.
Scholarly interest in the Black Prince has remained stronger with the publication of a number of papers and books about the prince’s life and career by John Harvey, Barbara Emerson and Richard Barber in response to the 1976 anniversary of Edward’s death. More recently, David Green has offered a re-evaluation of Edward, highlighting the need to understand the prince within the context of the 14th century.
Despite this, the Black Prince’s apotheosis as a prominent figure in the public consciousness undoubtedly occurred during the 18th and 19th centuries when both royals and populace celebrated him. Debates about the nature of heroism and villainy, royalty, chivalry, war and character helped to market Edward’s image.
These debates no longer have the same currency, and for many, Edward is an obscure figure. In today’s more cosmopolitan society, the Black Prince’s story lacks cultural resonance.
However, exploring the Georgian and Victorians’ fascination with Edward allows us to evaluate changing values and ideas about the hero in history. Perhaps now, it is time to revisit the Black Prince’s character once more.
Five medieval war heroes
How did their reputations compare with the Black Prince's?
King Edward III
Founder of the Order of the Garter and war hero of the 14th century, Edward III ruled England for 50 years. His reputation during his lifetime as an ideal statesman and chivalric hero continued into the 18th century. Victorian criticism of the Hundred Years’ War led them to recast the king as a warmonger.
King Henry V
Hero of Agincourt, Henry V’s reputation was crafted by Shakespeare, who presented the king as a consummate warrior. His image has undergone re-evaluation in the 21st century, focusing less on the ‘hero’ of Agincourt, more on his cruelty and coldness.
King John of Bohemia
John fought with the French at Crécy. The quintessential brave knight, John, although blind, had his knights tie their horses to his as he went into battle. Killed alongside his men, his feats were celebrated both in the 14th century and after. According to legend, the Black Prince took John’s feathers, which became the symbol of later princes of Wales.
Joan of Arc
Born a peasant, Joan became a heroine in France, leading troops to victory against the English at the siege of Orléans. Her leadership turned the tide of the Hundred Years’ War. Captured by the Burgundians, she was sold to the English. Charged with heresy and burnt at the stake, Joan was absolved by the pope after her death. The Victorians recast Joan as a martyr and war hero.
King Richard I
An archetypal warrior, Richard Coeur de Lion was known for his battles in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade. He spent less than a year of his reign in England and died on campaign in France. Praised for his skill as a warrior, the Victorians questioned his capability as a ruler.
Barbara Gribling is a visiting scholar in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia.