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Edward, The Black Prince

Edward, The Black PrinceEdward, The Black Prince

Edward, the Black Prince, is not a historical character looked upon with fondness or sentimentality. To many, his reputation represents cruelty, brutality and heartlessness. But there are now those who question this take on his role in history. He still remains a controversial character, of course, but personalities of note would never have survived the test of time if they’d been straightforward in the first place. We thought, therefore, this was worth investigating a little further…

Who was Edward, the Black Prince?

In a nutshell, Edward was born in 1330, the eldest son of Edward III. He was made Prince of Wales in 1343 and then went on to develop notoriety as a brilliant military mind from the age of sixteen. His soldierly reputation became further entrenched via his victories against the French in the hundred years war. And by 1362, he’d become prince of Aquitaine and Gascony. This is a critical turning point in his story, particularly regarding his military zeal, for it hinges on Limoges. More on this to follow…

So what prompted this nickname?

There are various theories of where his nickname – the Black Prince – sprung from, of course, but two conflicting ones stand out above the rest. The first actually has nothing to do with brutal deeds and a cruel heart; it’s far simpler than that. The coat of arms Edward used at tournaments in his youth, and later on, consisted of three ostrich feathers set on a black background (similar to that used by the Prince of Wales still these days). This would have been a motif used on his surcoat, as well as his horse. But what’s of note is that black is a fairly rare colour in the world of heraldry. It’s very possible, therefore, that this alone could have given rise to such a nickname as the Black Prince.

However, the other more popular explanation, relates directly to his activities in France.

It has, up until recently, been reckoned that the attack he orchestrated on Limoges in 1370 was particularly brutal. The ruthlessness is believed to have been triggered because Edward’s close friend, the Bishop of Limoges, jumped ship, defected to the French, and then welcomed a small enemy force into the part of Limoges he inhabited and held it against the English. Edward’s response to this was fierce, and by some accounts a massacre ensued. It’s said that all were put to the sword, even those who begged for mercy.  And it was reckoned, until recently, that upwards of 3000 men, women and children saw their death that day.

That’s quite a tantrum. However, a letter has been discovered that sheds a slightly different light on things now.

The Black Prince is reassessed

This letter was found in a Spanish archive, and it’s actually written by Edward himself, three days after the assault on Limoges. It was a letter written to Lord Gascon explaining the turn of events. One thing in particular stands out. Edward was very specific about the number of prisoners he took in the town. According to this letter, he took two hundred knights and men-at-arms. Now, other sources support that the renegade garrison had numbered three hundred, and that there were ‘only’ 300 fatalities that day. This would suggest then, that Edward killed one hundred soldiers, and two hundred civilians; a tenfold difference to the three thousand fatalities quoted in other references.

Now, we’re not suggesting these new figures make his behaviour totally acceptable, but we are suggesting that this behaviour was not abnormal or excessive for its time. And we’d surmise, therefore, that such an attack would have been unlikely to attract a specific nickname in response. If nothing else, it’s food for thought.

Edward’s early death

Sitting behind these mixed views and anecdotes of Edward’s life, however, sits one fact. He died a prince at the age of 45, never to become king. Wracked with illness probably due to many war wounds, a weakened immune system, and a work-hard-play-hard take on life, it’s likely he died of dysentery, cirrhosis, nephritis and edema.

He spent his last few days at Westminster Palace, but chose very specifically to be buried at Canterbury Cathedral. Some have surmised this request to be added justification for believing him to have led a life of brutality. Many contemporaries have stated he showed little empathy to the subjects of his father’s realm, let alone mercy to his prisoners. So to be buried in Canterbury – a well-known pilgrimage destination – rather than Westminster does, to some, suggest penance was being paid.

Also, to add credence to this, on his deathbed he issued a charter disafforesting Wirral in Cheshire. Wirral had been under his rule as Earl of Chester, and the inhabitants had experienced significant hardship as a result of the forest system. Their plight had not been noted by Edward during his active life and some have deduced that to issue a charter that brought relief to these locals could be seen as Edward trying to make amends for his other failings.

At the end of the day, it’s unlikely we’ll ever actually know the real reason he was called the Black Prince. But we’ve now realised, at least, that it’s very possible it has less to do with an unremittingly blackened heart than at first thought.