The Black Prince
Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, known to history as the Black Prince (1330 – 1376), was the son and heir apparent of England’s warrior king, Edward III. A chip off the old block, the Black Prince proved himself a brilliant military leader and one of the greatest commanders of the Hundred Years War, playing a prominent role in his father’s great victory at the Battle of Crecy in 1346, and winning a brilliant victory on his own at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356.
Born in Woodstock in 1330, Edward’s father made him Earl of Chester in 1333, Duke of Cornwall in 1337, and Prince of Wales in 1343. From an early age, Edward took after his father in his tastes for all things martial, and in 1346, he accompanied him on his Crecy Campaign. At the Battle of Crecy that August, the 16 year old prince was put in charge of the English vanguard, and the teenaged commander distinguished himself. When the prince’s force was hard pressed and reinforcements were requested, king Edward III responded: “I am confident he will repel the enemy without my help. Let the boy win his spurs“. Win his spurs he did, and during the fighting, the Black Prince’s forces killed king John of Bohemia.
In 1355, he was put in charge of Gascony and ordered to lead a grand Chevauchee – a burning and pillaging raid – to despoil French possessions in Aquitaine, which he successfully carried out. The following year, he led another Chevauchee, but was cornered and outflanked by a larger army led by king John II of France. The Black Prince offered peace terms, but when the French insisted that he surrender himself as the price for acceptance, he balked. The result was the Battle of Poitiers on September 19th, 1356, a stunning English victory in which the Black Prince distinguished himself by personally leading a charge that caught the French off guard and routed their larger army. The Black Prince captured the French king, his son, and much of the French nobility.
He is supposed to have earned the nickname Black Prince because of the color of his armor. However, an alternative explanation has it that the nickname is owed to the cruelty he inflicted upon the French during the war. The latter explanation is possible, for the Black Prince’s first act of independent command upon arriving in France in 1346 was to ride through Cotentin, ravaging and burning as he went. He also led chevauchees to ravage enemy lands – raids whose very raison d’etre was to terrorize and weaken the French with acts of cruelty.
The blackest stain upon his reputation, however, was his sack of Limoges in 1370. That year, the bishop of Limoges, a friend of the prince and the godfather of his son, betrayed him by defecting to the French, opening the city gates, and allowing them to garrison the town. That enraged Edward, who responded by marching on Limoges, storming the town, and massacring its inhabitants. As described by the chronicler Jean Froissart: “It was a most melancholy business – for all ranks, ages and sexes cast themselves on their knees before the prince, begging for mercy; but he was so inflamed with passion and revenge that he listened to none, but all were put to the sword. Upwards of 3,000 men, women and children were put to death that day“.
The Black Prince was created Prince of Aquitaine in 1362, but while brilliant as a military mind and battlefield commander, his governance proved a failure. His court was extravagant, he imposed heavy taxes upon his subjects, his administration failed to foster loyalty to English rule, he did not get on well with bishops, and his French nobles were hostile.
It all came to a head in 1367 when he undertook to restore Peter the Cruel of Castile to his throne. Although he won a brilliant battlefield victory, the campaign ruined his health and finances, and bankrupted Aquitaine. By 1369, his principality was in open revolt, and he could not afford to pay troops to put it down. He returned to England sick and broken in 1371, and devolved Aquitaine to his father in 1372. In ill health, he then faded into the background until his death in 1376.