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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Riley

The Prince That Was Promised: The Black Prince, the King England never got

Edward III's eldest son, born at Woodstock in 1330, was perhaps the finest Knight in Europe. Gaining fame and notoriety as a chivalrous and brave prince, securing victories at Crećy and Poitiers. Edward, who would be known to history as 'the Black Prince' never took to the throne, the job he was preparing his whole life for but, what was his story?

Portrait of Edward, Prince of Wales 1330-76 The Black Prince (1820) By Benjamin Burnell 


Early years

The 1320's was a turbulent time full of plots and deception. Edward II had been over throne by his wife Isabella the 'She Wolf' of France and her apparent lover, Roger Mortimer. The two, would be rulers acted as regents for her young son Edward, who was crowned Edward III on 25th January, 1327. Edward III spent the first few years of his reign under the shadow of Mortimer, who was doing a pretty poor job of keeping the kingdom happy instead, bleeding the treasury dry and making himself 1st Earl of March in the process. by 1330, King Edward was married, popular and the rightful king, all he needed was an heir to give his kingdom some stability and on 15th June, he got just that. Born in Woodstock, the prince was named Edward after his father and, would allow Edward III to take full control and have Mortimer executed in the process.

At the age of just seven, Prince Edward was made Duke of Cornwall, making him the owner of the first Dukedom in England. Edward was left as Guardian of the Kingdom, probably more in name than in practice, several times during his fathers absences of the 1330's and 40's and at the tender age of just 13, was made Prince of Wales. The 14th century was the time of chivalry and the young Prince of Wales was to encapsulate what it was to be a prince, knight and man of God, setting the standard for generations to come.

The Crećy Campaign

By 1346, the young prince's father Edward III was again, looking to make his claim on the French throne. After less than successful campaigns in the previous years, both the king and his now 16 year old son set out to put Normandy to the torch, in an attempt to bring the French king Philip VI, to battle. Edward was placed in charge of the vanguard, leading the 14,000 strong army as it sacked Caen and looked to turn on Paris but, before the English army could reached the French capital, Philip challenged the English to battle.

On the 24th August, the English army met a small detachment of French troops at the Somme river crossing at Blanchetaque, fighting their way over the river, the English army was able to select the place in which the battle between both armies would happen. Wedged between the small village of Crećy, the English army was set up with the Prince of Wales on the right hand side. Unlike the English, the French army had raced to the meet the English and by the 26th August, with the English well placed, Philip ordered his tired and disorganised men to attack.

Map of the route of Edward III's chevauchee of 1346 SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons user: Newm30

The first units to attack the English lines were there mercenary Genoise Crossbowmen, famed for their deadly hail of crossbow bolts but, were out matched by the thousands of English longbows, waiting behind wooden stakes they had been instructed to cut and place to stop the cavalry. Edward soon faced the deadly French cavalry led by Philip's ally John, the blind king of Bohemia, who had been lashed to his horse and pointed at the English lines. the French charge clattered through Edward's lines, and there were rumours that the young prince had been wounded or worse, killed. Upon hearing the news his son was in danger, Edward III is reported to have said 'let the boy earn his spurs' rather than send a relief force, and the young prince certainly did that. Edward was seen fighting hand to hand with his men-at-arms, cutting down French knights and leading from the front, cementing his place in chivalric lore forever.

During the fighting, the King of Bohemia had been killed and was found still tied to his horse. Edward was so moved by the act of bravery (and stupidity) that he took the dead kings heraldic symbol of the ostrich feathers as his own, a symbol still used by the prince of Wales toady.

Edward the Black Prince pays his respects to the corpse of John the Blind after the Battle of Crécy. SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons

After the battle of Crećy, Edward moved on to Calais with his father and in 1347, the important port town fell to the English. A truly successful campaign left both England and their Prince, on an all time high but, it would soon come crashing down when in August 1348, the Black Death arrived in England. Affecting Edward personally, taking his sister Joan's life, the Black Death killed between 40% and 60% of the population of England but, I didn't stop Edward from continuing to personally oversee his territories, governing Cornwall and Cheshire with a firm but fair hand. Known for both his generosity and his piety, Edward soon found himself living beyond his financial means due to his constant building projects and gift giving to buy favour with local lords. An astute politician, the young prince took an active role in settling disputes gaining even more popularity throughout the realm, with contemporaries calling him 'the flower of chivalry.'

The Order of The Garter

Following a rather depressing 1348, Edward III decided to form a fraternal order, comprised of 26 knights, selected based on their achievements and valour rather than their rank. The Order of The Garter, which included Prince Edward, would form the backbone of future campaigns into France and, is still active today. The order was the pinnacle of both Christian piety and marshal prowess, becoming the envy of rulers around the Christian world with French, Spanish and German orders popping up throughout the 14th century.

Images of Sir Sanset Dabrichecourt and Prince Edward of Woodstock, of the Order of the Garter, each wearing a blue Garter mantle over plate armour and surcoat displaying his arms SOURCE: The British Library via

Aquitaine and Poitiers

By 1350, Edward III was ready to open up a new campaign against the French but, before he could set about invading again, rumours were that a French contingent was planning on recapturing Calais. Both the King and Prince Edward set off for Calais with a small force and were able to cut off the French, with the Prince saving his father's life during the skirmish. Over 300 French knights were ether killed or captured at Calais marking yet another miraculous victory for the Prince.

The next half decade, Edward spent his time managing his estates in South England, mounting more and more debt but still gaining popularity as his fairness and generosity had still not wavered. By 1355, Edward III had instructed his now 25 year old son to go to Gascony, a region under threat from French attacks under the new king of France, John II, who was looking to reclaim the rich lands in the south under English control. Arriving in Bordeaux in September of 1355, the Prince made sure to speak directly to the inhabitants of the region, expressing his passion for killing Frenchmen. What followed would be an all out destruction of French held villages, towns and castles, all the way to the Mediterranean sea, with Edward's men burning and looting their way throughout the south of France, with the only exception being church property as Edward was incredibly pious. With very little in the form on military power in the area, the French had to look on with horror as the Black Prince destroyed everything in his path, with only winter stopping the chevauchee from completely wiping out French control in the region.

by the time 1356 rolled around, Edward III was ready for an all out assault of France. Sending Henry Duke of Lancaster to attack normandy, he also instructed his son, the Prince, to meet up with Lancaster and with their larger force, destroy French support completely. Due to constant trouble in Gascony, Edward was stuck fighting until late on in 1356 and had to leave considerable numbers behind to protect the region. As before, Edward performed a chevauchee throughout France angering the French nobles and, King John II who had formed a large army of close to 20,000 men which was now within miles of the now isolated Black Prince.

After the French under John II, which had been shadowing the Princes army, finally got I front of the Anglo-Gascon forces, it was clear the two sides would have to fight. On the 19th September 1356, outside the town of Poitiers, the two sides faced of against each other. The Black Prince, remembering Crećy, had his much smaller army positioned on a slight slope with a forest covering their rear and archers placed on the flanks, with the customary wooden spikes placed in front of the main line.

As at Crećy, the French cavalry charged at the English with only the first few lines knights it to the English men-at-arms, with arrows raining down on the back lines completely destroying the momentum of the French attack. Ordering his infantry to join the Fight, King John committed his reserves allowing Edward's cavalry to swing round the right and smash into the French left, causing a mass route. Adding to John's bad day, Edward's knights smashed straight into the front of the French lines, pinning the unorganised forces allowing for a complete slaughter. King John was eventually captured after a valiant last stand, and along with many a French noble, was taken back to England.

Battle of Poitiers (miniature of Froissart) SOURCE: Public domain

The battle of Poitiers was a miraculous victory for Edward, overcoming improbable odds and a numerical disadvantage to completely destroy a French army and, capture a French King. where as Crećy is considered Edward III's finest day, Poitiers goes down in history as The Black Prince's greats achievement.

Ever the Chivalrous young man, Edward personally waited on the French king, making sure he had any and all things that he needed on his way back to his fathers court, even the French found it hard to deny Edward's honour and bravery now. The capture of John allowed Edward III to carve out a treaty that saw him as ruler of most of the south of France and, secured the fee of 4,000,000 crowns for the realise of John, a truly remarkable prize secured by his son.

At the age of 31, and at the hight of his popularity, Edward decided to marry his cousin, Joan of Kent, a women who he was truly in love with, and the two of them spent the early 1360's touring Aquitaine, newly acquired in the treaty of Bretigny, racking up further debts due to the prince's lavish spending and banquets. By 1365, Edward had perhaps the greats prize of all, a son. Named Edward after his father, grandfather, great grandfather and great great grandfather, the royal couple were likely at their happiest.

War in Spain

With things going well for Edward, his attention was turned away from having children and being a good lord when, in 1366, he received a request for help from Pedro of Castile who had recently had his throne usurped from his half bother, Enrique of Trastámara. Edward III, keen to keep the alliance between England and Castile, convinced his son to lead an expedition into Spain and put Pedro (later known as 'The Cruel' for his poor treatment of his subjects and the church) back on the throne, adding further financial strain on the Black Prince.

Portrait of Pedro 'The Cruel' of Castile SOURCE: NNDB

After the birth of his second son Richard, Edward formed an army of Anglo-Gascon men, and set off for Spain, looking to defeat Enrique as quick as possible as he couldn't afford a long and drawn out campaign. By February 1367, Edward and his 6,000 strong army, had crossed the Pyrenees but bad weather and Franco-Spanish raiding parties had sapped both men and moral. On the 3rd April, outside the village of Nájera. The two armies faced off against each other, and after poorly organised cavalry and infantry attacks, the Spanish soon feel back. The English longbows tore through the Spanish lines, who not used to the onslaught caused by the hail of arrows, yet again winning the day for the English. Enrique was able to escape to the protection of the new French King Charles but, Pedro was virtually made king of Castile again. Keen to make sure the massive fees that were owed to him were replayed, Edward and his army stayed in Spain but, were soon cut down by a bad bout of dysentery, with Edward himself coming down with it.

Downfall and Death

Sick and Bankrupt, Edward arrived back in Bordeaux in the autumn of 1367 with little money to ether pay his troops or, support his lifestyle. With his father back in England loosing his grip on court due to his ill health and age, Edward gained little support or money from home. The image of the strong and brave prince had now been replaced by a sickly frail man who was loosing favour with his French nobles who slowly but surly, started to side with Charles. To make things worse, by 1369, Enrique was back on the Castilian throne and, Charles V was back on the war path with England, raiding deep into Aquitaine and Anjou, meaning the last 3 years of struggle was virtually for nothing.

Edward, now incredibly ill, had to be carried to the siege of Limoges where, alongside his brother John of Gaunt, the town was captured on 19th September, leading to a rumoured slaughter of over 3000 civilians. Only one source makes this claim and Froissart, the chronicler who claimed it was not there and was likely an attempt to damage the Prince's reputation. After the siege, Edward left France for England, a combination of ill health and the news that his eldest son, Edward had died, forced Edward to consider his death.

Edward retuned to England, and lived the last few years of his life in constant pain from his now chronic dysentery, and turned further to God for forgiveness. Seeing his illness as punishment for his support of Pedro of Castile, Edward turned to prayer in order to make his peace before his death that he knew, would surly come soon. On 8th June 1376, at the age of just 45, Edward the Black Prince died at Westminster, plunging Europe into mourning. Even the French King made sure that masses were held form the prince for his bravery and honour on the battlefield. Buried at Canterbury Cathedral, Edward of Woodstock can still be visited today, his tomb topped with a life size effigy of the Prince in full armour at prayer, acts as a staunch reminder that the man was the embodiment of 14th century values, honour, bravery and piety, followed the great man the grave.

His son, Richard would inherit the crown after Edward III's death in 1377, and would go on to face his own challenges, becoming somewhat of a tyrant perhaps due to his father's early death. The Black Prince had been preparing his whole life for the crown but, never lived long enough to receive it. The next centuries conflicts plunged England into war, usurpation and regicide, all of which could have potentially been avoided by the Black prince living long enough to be king.

If you would like to know more about The Black prince and the beginning of The Hundred Years War I recommend reading 'The Black Prince' by Micheal Jones and Ian Mortimer's 'The perfect King: The Life of Edward III' both wonderful Biographies adding both detail and context to the messy 14th century.

I hope you enjoyed this and would love to hear what you think, please leave me a comment and follow me on Instagram @chrisriley_ for more medieval history!

As always, thanks for Reading.

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