I recently wrote a review of a biography of the Black Prince. One of the main sources for his life is Chandos Herald’s Life of the Black Prince. As his pseudonym implies, the writer was the herald of Sir John Chandos, who had been a close friend of the Prince’s from childhood. The herald’s real name is unknown.
The Life was written in verse in Anglo-Norman somewhere between 1376 and 1387. The poem was originally untitled. Many believe that the Life was written for Richard II, the Black Prince’s son, but the lack of a dedication to him makes it unlikely.
Chandos Herald came from Hainault, as did Edward III’s queen, Philippa, and the other great (English) historian of the fourteenth century, Jean Froissart. When he wrote his own history, Froissart used Chandos Herald as a source.
When Sir John Chandos died in 1370, the herald entered royal service and was made king of arms of England by Richard II at his coronation in 1377. No one seems quite sure what a king of arms was, but it seems to have been some kind of super herald.
Almost half of his poem is taken up with the Spanish campaign of 1367, which included the Prince’s victory at the battle of Nájera. It’s an accurate account, since the herald was present. His account is corroborated by a version from the opposing side. It is possible that Chandos Herald only intended to write about the Spanish campaign and then revised his plan after the death of the Black Prince in 1376. Some of the details of the Prince’s earlier life in the poem are very vague. It’s unlikely the herald was at the battles of Crécy or Poitiers. From his description of the battle of Poitiers it seems that it took place before he was in Sir John’s service.
When Chandos Herald wrote his poem it was already an old-fashioned way of telling history, as he admitted himself at the beginning of the text.
His objective was to write about good and chivalrous deeds, of the kind carried out by the Black Prince who, shortly after his death, became the personification of everything that had once been good about England. This was in contrast to what was going on during his son’s reign. The herald didn’t want to write about shameful deeds and refused to list the French knights who fled the field at Crécy.
In his Life Chandos Herald was at pains to show the real affection that existed between the Black Prince and his wife, Joan of Kent. He describes her fears as the Prince left on campaign and her grief at his death. He is also discreet, neglecting to mention her two previous marriages, one of which was bigamous. It’s another possibility that the Life was written at her behest, but the lack of a dedication counts against it as much as it does against it being written for her son.
Heralds didn’t have a job description and it’s not easy to tell today exactly how the herald served Sir John. Heralds’ tasks seemed to vary depending on the position of the herald’s master and what was going on at the time. Heralds were supposed to be experts in heraldic identification; they could identify knights from their banners alone. This was a particularly useful skill in a battle, when it was the only way of telling the difference between friend and foe. The herald might also be a minstrel, a musician or a barber, some of whom were also surgeons. Heralds were used at tournaments to announce the names of the participants to the crowds. They were frequently used as messengers, carrying letters from their masters, but also word of mouth messages. They were supposed to receive immunity in war, since they carried messages from one side to the other as part of peace or surrender negotiations. Heralds were also criers at public events.
It is very fortunate for us that the herald extended his duties to write about his late master’s friend.