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.