Tag Archives: Battle of Crecy

Medieval Crossbows

Battle_of_Crecy_(crossbowmen)

In my current work in progress two English soldiers enter a French castle and discover that the soldiers from the castle garrison are pointing crossbows at them. Surely that was right, I thought. The French used the crossbow, the devil’s own weapon (its use against Christians had been prohibited by the papacy in the twelfth century), and the English used the honest longbow.  The novel is set in 1357, more than ten years after the superiority of the longbow had been demonstrated at the battle of Crécy. Perhaps the French now used longbows, as well.

Things were, of course, not that straightforward. A crossbow was an expensive weapon and the men who were expert with them were well-rewarded. They were elite troops and no medieval king’s personal retinue was complete without them. Often they were foreign mercenaries, so that they wouldn’t get any ideas about rebelling against the king. Most of the crossbowmen used by English kings came from Gascony, in south-west France. For centuries the kings of England were Gascony’s dukes. Some kings were handy with the crossbow themselves, most notably Richard I, who, somewhat ironically, died as the result of being shot in the shoulder by a crossbow bolt. He was also reputed to be pretty accurate with the longbow.

The production of crossbows was limited to a few towns in Europe, the most famous of which was Genoa. Genoa was famed not only for the crossbows it produced, but also for the mercenaries it exported. These mercenaries were very popular with the kings of France who used them both as crossbowmen and as sailors.

Despite its elite status, the crossbow was easy to use and it did not need much skill or experience to shoot one, although it needed both to shoot one well.  A longbow was a much simpler mechanism, but required practice and skill if it was to be used effectively.

It was only in the fourteenth century that the longbow came into the ascendancy in England. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the crossbow was the main projectile weapon used by English soldiers, but in Wales, the Marches and Ireland the longbow was the preferred weapon. By the end of the thirteenth century it was beginning to predominate in the rest of the kingdom. On the Continent the crossbow continued to be the main weapon.

Using a crossbow was not very demanding physically, but using a longbow was. The crossbow was a machine which could be improved so that it would shoot with greater force or for longer distances, and it would have no impact on the man using it. Even a small improvement to a longbow meant that the archer had to be stronger, and there was a physical limit on this. When the skeletons of archers were discovered in the wreck of the Mary Rose (sunk in the Solent in 1545) they were deformed. Drawing huge bows over a long period of time had damaged their bodies.

Crossbowmen needed a lot of equipment as well as support staff. They had to wear armour, as loading a crossbow took some time, and the soldier was very exposed when he was loading it. Their armour was not necessarily plate armour. Some of them managed with aketons (padded garments), mail coats and bascinets (basic helmets).  They also needed someone to carry and hold their pavise (a large shield protecting the whole body). The man holding the pavise usually carried a spear to protect the crossbowman should the enemy come too close. This meant that they could not change position easily. Archers, on the other hand, wore hardly any armour at all and took cover behind bushes, trees and in ditches.

Crossbow bolts were shorter, thicker and heavier than arrows. This was to enable them to withstand the pressure when they were released. They travelled faster than arrows and could pierce mail.

When Edward III fought the battle of Sluys in 1340 he used both crossbowmen and archers to defeat the French. Six years later he had refined his strategy.

The first real test for the longbow against the crossbow came in August 1346 at the battle of Crécy. Philippe VI employed Genoese mercenaries. As usual, they were sent to face the enemy first and they were cut down by English and Welsh archers. In his account of the battle, written within the two years following it, Villani says that the archers fired three arrows for each bolt shot from a crossbow. Villani was a merchant based in Florence who wrote down information received from merchants who had been in northern France at the time. It is possible that his account is partially based on information from participants in the battle. When they tried to retreat, the Genoese were forced forward, trampled or killed by the cavalry behind them who believed that they had betrayed the French. Two thousand of them died, according to the chroniclers.

There are still arguments today about why the crossbowmen performed so badly. One reason was that their pavises had not arrived at the battlefield, so they were exposed to the arrows, but it’s said that the bolts they fired didn’t even reach the front line of the English army. It seems incredible that professional soldiers should fail in such a simple thing as getting the range right.

Even when the English stopped favouring the crossbow in battle, they still used it in sieges, where the speed with which bolts could be shot did not matter.  Crossbows were useful for both attackers and defenders because of the force and accuracy of the bolts.

A crossbow was also useful in hunting. It could be loaded before the beginning of the hunt so that there would be no noise to alert the hunted animal just before it was fired.

In this video the rates of fire of a crossbow and a longbow are compared.

 

References:

The Great Warbow – Matthew Strickland, Robert Hardy

Edward III and the Triumph of England – Richard Barber

The Battle of Crécy – Andrew Ayton, Philip Preston

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Edward of Woodstock: The Black Prince

Black Prince received Aquitaine

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.

 

 

 

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The Hundred Years War

Battle-of-Sluys-Wikipedia-the-free-encyclopedia

All of my books set in the fourteenth century are set in the context of the Hundred Years War, which, along with the Black Death, overshadowed the second half of the century.  It was actually a series of wars that lasted for more than a hundred years.

This is a very brief overview of the war. Lord Sumption’s projected five volume history of the Hundred Years War has only just reached 1422 after more than three thousand pages and four books. This post contains fewer than a thousand words, so covers much less than the tip of the iceberg. The war involved complex alliances and treacheries and its origins are not as clear as they might be.

As well as being King of England Edward III, through his Plantagenet forebears was also Duke of Aquitaine and his ancestors had ruled over a large amount of France. His mother, Isabella, was the sister of Charles IV, the last of the Capetian king of France. On Charles’s death, Philippe of the house of Valois became king. He was a cousin of Charles IV, whereas Edward III was his nephew. This was in 1328 when Edward III had other things on his mind. Although he had been crowned king of England in 1327, Edward was little more than a figurehead for his mother and her lover, Roger Mortimer, who had had Edward’s father, Edward II, killed.

Realising that if they could kill one king, they could easily kill another, Edward III decided to make his move against them. In 1330 he managed to take Isabella and Mortimer prisoner. After Mortimer’s execution, Edward was occupied with establishing himself as king of England.

It wasn’t until 1337 that he was able to concentrate on his claim to the French throne after Philippe VI had confiscated Aquitaine. Edward III’s was not a frivolous claim; each of his mother’s brothers had been king of France. It is probable, however, that it was, at this point at least, a ploy to distract Philippe from the dispute over Aquitaine.

At the time France was the most sophisticated nation in Europe and was probably its wealthiest with the best armies. England was poor and found it difficult to keep the Scots on their side of the border. The idea that England could take on France and hope to win was laughable.  The first few years of the war seemed to support this view.

War was a costly business and Edward III needed Parliament to keep agreeing to fund it. His lack of success in the early years made it more difficult to retain their support, but his victory in the sea battle at Sluys in 1340 kept Parliament behind him and his victory at Crécy in 1346 turned everything around. This was followed by the taking of the town of Calais, giving the English a foothold on the northern French coast, making an invasion of France more viable. The victories at Crécy and Poitiers (1356) were enough to give the English a reputation for winning battles and the French thereafter avoided joining battle with them for several decades.

After the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360 there was peace for several years, although the fighting started again in Aquitaine in the late 1360s. This carried on until 1389. By this time Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, were both dead and Richard II, Edward III’s grandson, faced internal troubles. He lost interest in the war and agreed to a truce.

The peace lasted until 1415. Richard II had been deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, whose son, Henry V, used the madness of Charles VI as a way of making his crown more secure. There was civil war in France between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs. Both sides asked for Henry’s support. In the end he sided with the Burgundians. This enabled him to pursue the war in France. He had a decisive victory at Agincourt in 1415 and by 1419 it looked as if the English had won. Henry V married the daughter of Charles VI.  It was agreed that, on Charles’s death, the son of Henry V and Catherine would be crowned King of France, with Charles VI’s own son, the Dauphin, being declared illegitimate. Both Henry V and Charles VI died in 1422. Henry’s nine month old son was declared king of England and France. Despite the efforts of Henry’s brother, the Duke of Bedford, against the Dauphin, who was eventually crowned Charles VII with the help of Jeanne d’Arc, the French had more victories. Bedford died in 1435 and the alliance with the Burgundians also died.

When he came of age, Henry VI, pursued a policy of peace, which led to him losing all of Aquitaine. The final battle in the war was at Castillon in 1453 which led to the surrender of Bordeaux. By the end of the war England had lost all its possessions in France with the exception of Calais, which it held for another hundred years.

 

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Soldiers for Hire

Battle_of_Crecy_(crossbowmen)

Following on from last week’s post about paid soldiers, this week I’m looking at the ultimate paid soldier:  the mercenary.

Some great soldiers became mercenaries in the fourteenth century, including Bertrand du Guesclin, who later became Constable of France and was buried near his king in St-Denis. It was du Guesclin who led the Great Company and was also the leader of the mercenaries who fought against the Black Prince at the battle of Nájera in 1367. One of his companions in that army was the English knight Sir Hugh Calvely, who changed sides and proved very useful to the Black Prince by securing the route through Navarre to Castile for the English and Gascon army. Robert Knolles was another sometime mercenary greatly valued by the Prince and his father, although his lowly origins sometimes caused problems for the nobles who served under him.

Mercenaries were used from the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War and the crossbowmen who formed the first wave of the French attack against the English army at Crécy were Genoese mercenaries. The English also used mercenaries in their garrisons in Brittany in the 1340s and 1350s, although they learned the hard way that mercenaries were difficult to control.

It was in peacetime that mercenaries became a real problem. King Jean II was captured at the battle of Poitiers in 1356. This led to a series of peace negotiations culminating in the treaty of Brétigny in 1360.With much of the French nobility dead or captured and the king a prisoner in London, it was almost impossible for the French to continue the war.

Men who were used to being paid to fight didn’t have anything to return to in England. Soldiers at a loose end joined together to form the free (not controlled by kings or governments) companies. They made money in two ways. One was a form of protection money. They would threaten towns and villages and allow themselves to be paid not to attack them. The money they collected was called a patis. The other was to be paid to fight on behalf of a lord, king or, in the case of Italy, city state.

After the Jacquerie, the French peasants’ revolt in 1358, the Dauphin (the heir to the French crown) had internal problems to deal with as well. This meant that there were thousands of soldiers in France with nothing to do and no way to earn money. Mostly these were English soldiers, but there were also French soldiers who thought that hiring themselves out would increase their wealth and social standing.

The best known of the free companies was the Great Company. It was made up of ever-changing smaller bands of mercenaries. It was originally formed out of some small Gascon groups, and the Gascons remained as its core, which goes a long way to explaining why Aquitaine was rarely troubled by them. Not surprisingly the free companies tended to be unstable. They were made up of the worst kinds of men from all social classes except the nobility. Many of them were criminals and thieves on the run from justice. All were self-seeking and ambitious. Interestingly it was the English groups that were the most stable. This was possibly because they had become used to fighting together in various campaigns, were better disciplined and tended to trust one another.

The bands of mercenaries became a great menace and Charles V used them creatively by hiring the Great Company to aid his ally Enrique de Trastámara in Castile when the king, Don Pedro, gave his support to Edward III. Du Guesclin led a band of French and English mercenaries into Spain to help depose Don Pedro. Most of the English mercenaries in the Great Company fought against their captain when they joined the Black Prince to fight on the side of Don Pedro.

One of the most famous and most successful English mercenaries was Sir John Hawkwood, who spent most of his career in Italy. One of the reasons why the papacy moved from Rome to Avignon at the beginning of the fourteenth century was the incessant fighting in the north of Italy, which made it dangerous for the pope to remain in Rome. There was much work there for mercenaries. Hawkwood was completely ruthless and fought for most of the Italian states before ending up in Florence in 1380. Although he was known as Sir John, he was probably not made a knight by Edward III or by the Black Prince.

He was part of du Guesclin’s Great Company that attacked Avignon in 1361, but he later joined the army Innocent VI hired in order to move the papacy back to Rome. This became the White Company, which he eventually commanded. The White Company did in Italy what the Great Company was doing in France. It didn’t take long for the White Company to become known for its brutality. Eventually Hawkwood became commander-in-chief of the Florentine forces in the 1390s. At the end of his life he wanted to return to England, but died before he could do so.

Hawkwood was the orchestrator of more than one atrocity and had a reputation for brutality. Despite this, unlike many other mercenary captains, some of whom were killed by their own men, he died in his bed in 1394. At his death he was very wealthy, owning property and even a castle in Tuscany.

Avignon and, therefore, the pope, was forced to pay to rid itself of  mercenaries four times: in 1357, 1361, 1365 and 1368. By 1368 the pope had returned to Rome, but Provence was still perceived to be a place of wealth compared to France, which had been stripped bare by thirty years of war.

Whilst a mercenary might hope to become very rich, his fate was more likely to be that of the Genoese crossbowmen at Crécy who were either killed by the English and Welsh archers or trampled by the advancing knights behind them.

Fighting as a mercenary does not seem to have harmed the careers of the captains, as many of them returned to fight for their kings when hostilities began again in earnest in the 1370s. Being a mercenary wasn’t seen as incompatible with chivalry. Some praised knights for taking the opportunity to gain experience, but for many towns and villages in France their presence meant that there was never peace.

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A Garter and Chivalry

Edward III and the garter

Edward III was his father’s son and the early years of his reign, at least, were informed by the disastrous end of his father’s. Edward III was at pains to show that he was a different kind of king in the hope of hanging on to his crown… and his life.

Although far from a coward, Edward II didn’t seem to enjoy fighting as much as his son and he certainly possessed none of Edward III’s military genius. Edward II had little in common with his barons, and his wife and her lover found it fairly easy to depose him and then murder him. Edward III wished to escape a similar fate.

The creation of the Order of the Knights of the Garter was an important step in the process of creating a new kind of kingship for England. Edward had been considering ways in which to bind his knights to one another and to him for some time. He had originally considered something similar to the Round Table. Arthurian legends were popular at the time and it wouldn’t hurt the king to be considered a second Arthur.

In the end he decided to create a chivalric order that included an element of the spiritual.

After the surprising military successes of 1346 (victories against the French at Crécy and the Scots at Neville’s Cross) the king was in a position to his ideas into effect and the Order was created on St George’s Day 1349 (probably).

There are only ever 24 Knights of the Garter, plus the monarch and the Prince of Wales. These days they tend to be rather elderly – 4 are in their 90s and the youngest is 64. When the first Knights of the Garter were created they were much younger, mostly in their 20s. The Black Prince was 18 and the king himself was one of the oldest at 36.

The first knights included men who had fought beside the king and the Prince in France, such as the earl of Lancaster (the king’s most trusted general), the earl of Warwick, the Captal de Buch (a trusted Gascon lord) and the Prince’s friends Sir John Chandos and Sir James Audley, as well as Thomas Holland, first husband of Joan of Kent who later married the Prince.

The Knights would meet on St George’s day, usually at Windsor and their meeting would often be accompanied by a tournament. The tournament provided a spectacular entertainment for those in attendance, but it also had a more serious purpose. The Order of the Garter was an order of chivalry and the tournament allowed its members to demonstrate their chivalry by feats of arms.

Orders of knighthood were being formed in other European countries at the time, as the modern methods of warfare were beginning to make their rôle in it less important. Soldiers were being paid rather than providing their services as a feudal duty and had little personal loyalty to those who paid them.

The Garter Knights have a motto ‘Hony soi qui mal y pense’, which probably refers to Edward III’s claim to the French throne. Since one of the objects of the Order was to bind the members to him so that they would support him in foreign wars, this makes sense. It means ‘Shamed be he who thinks evil of it’.

No one knows why the garter was chosen as the emblem, although there are lots of theories, some of them rather salacious. It probably symbolized something relating, again, to the king’s claim to the French throne.

Windsor was important to Edward III as it was his birthplace. It was also his favorite residence outside London, although Woodstock, where three of his children were born, including the Black Prince, was another place where he liked to stay. It was in Windsor that he chose to institute the Order and where he built their spiritual home, which reflected the increasing attribution of English military success to St George and the cross of St George was used to represent the king as much as his own royal standard.

One of the more surprising things about the institution of the Order is that it happened while England was in the grip of the Black Death. It’s easy to imagine that everything just stopped for the time during which Europe was expecting the world to end, but things did continue, although there were some comments from contemporary chroniclers that this might not be the best time for what many considered frivolity. Since he lost one of his much-loved daughters to the Black Death, Edward III was as aware as anyone else of the impact the plague was having on the country.

The kind of kingship he created certainly worked for him. Unlike his predecessor and his successor, he died a natural death and was king for 50 years.

 

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Chandos Herald and the Life of the Black Prince

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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.

 

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Edward Prince of Wales and Aquitaine: The Black Prince by Richard Barber – A Review

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I’m currently planning a series of books set around the Poitiers campaign of the Black Prince in 1356, so I’m reading whatever I can get my hands on about his life, the campaign, the battle itself and the politics that brought it about.

Barber is a specialist in Arthurian legend, about which he has written extensively, but he has also written books about the Plantagenets: Henry Plantagenet, Edward III and the Triumph of England: The Battle of Crécy and the Order of the Garter and this biography of the Black Prince, as well as chivalry: The Knight and Chivalry and The Reign of Chivalry.

As Barber keeps reminding the reader, there really isn’t very much information about the Prince’s character or even much detail about his life. There are lots of household accounts from which conclusions can be drawn, the odd letter or proclamation and one letter from the Prince to his elderly father asking the king to believe that his son has acted loyally and honourably in his father’s cause.

Whatever Edward of Woodstock’s character was, he was able to inspire loyalty and friendship in a close-knit group of men who were his counsellors and companions for most of his life. It is also known that he had great physical courage which he demonstrated many times in battle.

Edward was the eldest son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, born when the king was only seventeen in 1330. He married late (at thirty-one), to a woman whose past can only be described as colourful, since she knowingly entered into a bigamous marriage at the age of thirteen or fourteen. They had known one another from childhood and it was very probably a love match. His marriage should have served his father’s dynastic aims, but he married for love instead.

The Prince was known as the epitome of chivalry after the victory at Crécy (1346) where he led the vanguard. This reputation increased after the Battle of Poitiers ten years later, where the French nobility was crushed; the French standard was captured; and the French king was taken prisoner. There was a final victory for him at Nájera in Castile in 1367. It was during this campaign that he caught dysentery, which would eventually kill him.

He ruled the principality of Aquitaine as a sovereign state between 1362 and 1372. Despite the glory of his early years, the final years of his life were marked by bitter failure. From 1369 the French started encroaching on Aquitaine and towns and castles fell to them constantly, often without a fight. The Prince’s eldest son died in 1370 and the men who had been his closest friends and advisers began to die, including the man who had been closest to him for thirty years, who was killed in a skirmish with the French. By 1371 the Prince was too ill to be able to hold Aquitaine against the French and he returned to England, where he died a year before his father in 1376 at the age of forty-six. When Edward III died the Prince’s ten-year old son became Richard II and the seeds of the Wars of the Roses were sown when the Prince’s brother, John of Gaunt, became regent.

For all that there is very little information available, Barber is very good at setting it out and drawing conclusions. He is also fair. Where there are two or more explanations for something that the Prince did or might have done he summarises them all rather than choose one that is more favourable or less favourable to the Prince.

One of the successes of the book for me is the very good summary at the beginning of the causes of the Hundred Years’ War. These are quite complex, but some historians seem to focus on the trivial or the anecdotal. Barber uses a few pages to explain the almost perpetual war between England and France over Aquitaine and Edward III’s claim to the French throne, both of which came to head in 1337.

Barber has some interesting things to say about the Prince’s supposed extravagance when he was Prince of Aquitaine. Sovereign lords were supposed to distribute largesse as rewards and, for want of a better word, bribes, to their subjects; it was one of the ways in which they showed that they were rulers. He also puts the case that the Prince did not order or even contemplate the massacre of the inhabitants of Limoges after the end of the siege there in September 1370 and that the deaths were limited to those who had carried arms against the town’s true lord, the Prince.

One of the things that comes across is the Prince’s practical nature. He was not a diplomat, nor was he really a politician, but he did have the knack of getting men to follow him. Barber makes a strong case for the victories achieved by the Prince being due, in part, to the trust that existed between the Prince and the captains of his army and their willingness to make their needs subservient to his.

Even as a young man he was a legend. He had been sixteen at Crécy and his fame only grew through the rest of his life. He was held up as the example of chivalry. He seems to have been a fairly straightforward man, rather like his father, but unlike the kings with whom he had to deal in Aquitaine, which put him at a disadvantage. He learned the hard way not to trust Don Pedro of Castile and Charles of Navarre. Charles V of France was so cunning it was a wonder he could keep track of his own plans.

This is very much a book worth reading, not just to find out about the life of the second Prince of Wales, but also to understand some of the key events of the Hundred Years’ War.

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