Edward of Woodstock, first child of Edward III was not known as the Black Prince in his lifetime; the nickname was given to him in the sixteenth century. When he was alive he was known as Edward of Woodstock; the Prince of Wales; the Prince of Aquitaine; or simply the Prince. He had many other titles.
He was born on 15th June 1330 to Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, who were 17 and 15 respectively. I give their ages because, as we shall see from Edward of Woodstock’s own life, life in the fourteenth century was usually short, and marrying and having children early was usually necesary.
In 1330 Edward III was still trying to gain control of his kingdom after the rebellion against his father led by his mother, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer. Edward had been crowned king, but did not rule. A son for his first born child was taken as a very good sign for his reign, which he began in his own right when he ousted Isabella and Mortimer in October of that year.
As his name indicates, the Prince was born at Woodstock, which was a favourite residence of the king and queen. More than one of the Prince’s siblings was born there. Titles and gifts were showered on the young prince and he was made Prince of Wales in 1343.
In the early years of war with France, Edward III had little success and began to lose the support of Parliament for his endeavours. This changed in 1346. Whether or not Edward III planned an invasion of France is not known, but he arrived at St-Vaast-La-Hogue on the Normandy coast on 11th July with a large army and marched east.
On 26th August he fought the French king (or the usurper, depending on your point of view), Philippe VI, at Crécy. The Prince, at 16, was put in charge of the vanguard (the division at the front of the army). This was a very responsible position. Even if he didn’t have full control (he was supported by two of his father’s most trusted men), he had enough to demonstrate his not inconsiderable abilities as a soldier. After the battle, the English army marched on to Calais, and the Prince spent the next year with his father besieging the town.
Two years later, with the Black Death raging in England, the Prince, along with 24 men who had fought with him at Crécy, was made a Knight of the Garter when the order was created.
In 1355 the Prince was sent to Aquitaine with an army. From there he launched two lengthy and damaging raids on the French. These were supposed to culminate in the invasion of France, but ended instead in the battle of Poitiers and the capture of the French king, Jean II, and much of the French nobility in September 1356. The Prince was now widely-acknowledged as a great soldier. At 26, however, the heir to the English crown was still unmarried.
The capture of Jean II led, eventually, to a peace treaty. Aquitaine was increased in size and made a principality. The Prince was sent to rule it. This had many advantages for Edward III. It kept his heir out of England. Edward III’s father had been deposed and murdered. Although this probably played little part in his thinking, Edward was a great politician and the desire to ensure that he did not suffer his father’s fate was a strong motivation throughout his reign. Settling the Prince in Aquitaine also meant that the French had the great soldier on their doorstep. It was easier for him to fight them from Aquitaine then it was from England. It also gave the Prince something to do. The Prince was unlikely to become king in the near future and there was no war to keep him occupied. The greatest advantage was that he would learn to rule, preparing him to be king. Aquitaine was to be run as a sovereign state and the Prince had almost complete authority, needing to refer very little to his father.
In 1361 he married his father’s cousin, Joan of Kent, an interesting woman who deserves, and will get, a post of her own, and set off in 1362 for Aquitaine. Their two sons were born there: Edward in 1365 and Richard in 1367.
Edward and Joan kept a flamboyant court which, in later years, was criticised for its excesses. The court moved between Angoulême, where Edward was born, and Bordeaux, Richard’s birthplace.
Even during this period of peace with France the Prince still managed to find a battle to fight. He went into Spain in 1367 to support Don Pedro, an ally of the English who had been deposed by his half-brother. Once again the Prince knew victory, but this one left a bitter aftertaste. The Prince became ill in Castile and he never recovered. It took him nine more years to die, during which he was mostly bedridden and in almost constant pain.
Shortly after this the peace came to an end. Possibly spurred on by the knowledge that the Prince was too ill to do much to stop them, the French made increasing incursions into Aquitaine. English and Gascon armies opposed them, but most of the great captains from Crécy and Poitiers were dead and no one had risen to take their places. The armies found it more and more difficult to repel the French.
The Prince still had enough strength for one last stand. In 1370 the town of Limoges surrendered to the French after a siege of three days. He took the surrender as a personal betrayal, as the bishop who had charge of the town was his son’s godfather. The Prince had himself carried to the town at the head of a large army. His siege lasted five days and ended in a storm. Many of the townspeople were killed as the Prince took his revenge. Within the rules of siege warfare the Prince could have killed everyone in the town, but he limited the slaughter. The town itself, however, was more or less destroyed by fire. It was decades before Limoges was rebuilt.
This was another victory tinged with bitterness for the Prince. He returned to Angoulême to discover that his oldest son was dead.
Acknowledging his inability to hold Aquitaine, the Prince returned to England in January 1371, leaving his brother, John of Gaunt, to govern the principality as his lieutenant. He was so ill when he returned to England that it was some months before he arrived in London to meet his father.
The following year, after a great deal of rest had improved his health, he supported another attempt by Edward III to invade France, but it, too, was a failure. Edward of Woodstock died four years later, a week short of his 46th birthday.