Who Was England’s Black Prince?

Discover the exciting deeds of England’s famous Black Prince.

Mar 3, 2024By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History

england black prince edward iii


Arguably England’s greatest king who never was, the Black Prince is a name that people associate with war, heroism, chivalry, and tragedy. Being the successor and son of one of England’s greatest-ever kings, the legendary King Edward III, the Black Prince had his work cut out for him from an early age. Discover why he was known as the Black Prince, as well as some of the key events from his short but eventful life.


Early Life

Edward as a Knight of the Garter, from the Bruges Garter Book, 1453, Source: The British Library


Clearly, the Black Prince was not Christened “the Black Prince” — this nickname came much later in his life. He was born on June 15, 1330, at Woodstock Palace, Oxfordshire, England, and named Edward of Woodstock. He was the eldest son of King Edward III of England and his wife, Philippa of Hainault.


Interestingly, young Edward also had a claim to the French throne as well as the English throne. This was because his grandmother, Queen Isabella (Edward II’s estranged wife and Edward III’s mother), was a daughter of the French king, Philip IV of France. Put simply, Prince Edward’s great-grandfather had reigned as King of France from 1285-1314.


However, relations had soured between England and France, and the early period of Prince Edward’s life saw the eruption of the Hundred Years’ War, a conflict which was to rage on for 116 years, finally culminating in the Battle of Castillon in 1453.

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Part of young Edward’s reputation as a chivalrous knight stemmed from his early childhood — he had been brought up as the quintessential medieval prince, educated in the ways of a knight and true soldier since he was a little boy. He was educated in chivalry, and was an avid jouster.


When he was seven years old, he was betrothed to his father’s cousin, Joan of Kent, and they would eventually marry in 1362. On May 12 1343, when Edward was 13 years old, his father made him Prince of Wales in a parliament held at Westminster.


Prince Edward’s First Taste of War

The Battle of Crécy, from Chroniques de Jean Froissart, 15th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In July 1346, the Prince of Wales sailed to France with his father, where he would experience medieval warfare for the first time. Less than a month after his 16th birthday, young Edward would participate in one of the most famous medieval battles of all time — the Battle of Crécy.


Early in the morning of August 26 1346, before the battle, Prince Edward received the sacrament alongside his father. He symbolically took charge of the van — the right of the army — which, according to some contemporaries, included two thousand archers, a thousand Welsh foot soldiers, and eight hundred men-at-arms.


During the battle, the French Duke of Alencon, furiously enraged, charged at young Edward’s division. The other leaders who were present with Prince Edward at the time — including the Earls of Warwick and Oxford, Sir John Chandos, and Sir Geoffrey d’Harcourt, who sent a messenger to relay to King Edward III that his son was in grave danger.


Battle of Crecy miniature, by the Master of Boucicaut, 15h century, Source: The British Library


Edward III, ever being the chivalrous king, upon learning that his son was not wounded, did not send help to him, preferring Prince Edward to “win his spurs” himself — in other words, prove himself on the battlefield to show that he was worthy of his privileged position. This was also to give young Edward and those aforementioned leaders the honor of victory.


However, at one point, young Edward was knocked off his feet and thrown to the ground. His standard-bearer, Sir Richard FitzSimmon is the one who is credited with rescuing Edward. He allegedly threw down his banner, stood over the prince’s body and fought off any who tried to kill him, until he regained his feet.


Being surrounded by men with this sort of attitude and these military expectations at such a young and impressionable age would undoubtedly have contributed to the Black Prince’s chivalrous manner and style. Following the victory at Crécy, Prince Edward met up with his father, and the pair embraced.


Prince Edward’s Return to England

Medieval depiction of the Siege of Calais, from Anciennes Chroniques d’Angleterre, by Jean de Wavrin, 15th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Following the Battle of Crécy, Prince Edward was also present at the Siege of Calais, from 1346-47. The coastal town surrendered, and the English harried the area — burning and looting for around 30 miles outside of Calais. Young Edward brought back many possessions with him, and was richly rewarded by his father, who honored him with the Order of the Garter. The Order of the Garter was set up in 1348 by King Edward III and is to this day reserved for those who have shown outstanding service to their country.


After the Plague

The Battle of Poitiers, from Chroniques de Jean Froissart, fifteenth century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Due to the spread of the Black Death across Europe in the late 1340s and early 1350s, Edward III put a temporary stop to his wars in both France and Scotland.


He had lost a daughter (and Prince Edward a sister) to the bubonic plague, and hundreds of fighting-age men were dying, so it was simply unfeasible to carry on a war on two fronts.


Once the Black Death had slowed its progress down, war resumed, and the Black Prince once again showed he was worthy of being regarded as a great medieval knight. This time, it was at another hugely famous medieval battle: Poitiers.


This legendary medieval battle not only showed the Black Prince’s prowess as a fighter and a leader, it really showed how he was worthy of succeeding his father. Many historians have credited the English victory at Poitiers to the Black Prince, rather than Edward III. Not only was the battle itself a resounding victory for England, but the French king, John II “the Good” was captured and sent to England to be held for ransom.


The Black Prince, now a renowned warrior, married Joan of Kent in either late 1361 or early 1362 (records vary according to different sources). The marriage was generally a happy one, and two children were produced — one of whom would go on to become King of England.


In June 1362, Edward III granted Prince Edward all of his territories in Aquitaine and Gascony — but this is a period of the Prince’s life would not be remembered too fondly in years to come.


Prince Edward’s Spanish Campaigns

The Battle of Najera, from Chroniques de Jean Froissart, fifteenth century, c. 1450, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Never one to settle in a place for too long, the Black Prince’s next military involvement was in Spain. He helped the deposed King Pedro the Cruel of Castile defeat his illegitimate brother Henry of Trastamara. Henry had challenged Pedro for the throne in 1365, and Pedro called on the Black Prince for help.


Prince Edward managed to successfully defeat Henry at Najera Castle in 1367, and was rewarded with the “Black Prince’s Ruby” by King Pedro for his work. This ruby is still visible in the Imperial State Crown today and is classed as part of the Crown Jewels.  A truly priceless historical artifact attributed to the Black Prince.


The Infamous Siege of Limoges

John of Gaunt, c. 1593, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Earlier in this article, Edward’s time in Aquitaine was mentioned as a dark period in his life. The Siege of Limoges epitomizes exactly this. Because Limoges was in Aquitaine, Edward ruled over it, as he was Prince of Aquitaine. The town was governed by the English, as Prince Edward could not always be present. One of the men who governed it was a traitor, and he was called Johan De Cross.


In August 1370, Johan De Cross openly welcomed a French garrison into the town, who took it for themselves. Upon hearing this news, Prince Edward was furious. A small French garrison of approximately 140 men had been left in the town, while Prince Edward, along with two of his brothers (John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Edmund of Langley, Earl of Cambridge), had amassed a force of over 3,000 soldiers.


Clearly, the vastly outnumbered French garrison was no match for the Black Prince’s forces. Prince Edward was still furious with rage at this point, and his end goal was to regain Limoges for the English and punish the French for its capture.


Unfortunately, Prince Edward did not take his frustration out elsewhere. Some contemporary chroniclers report that up to 3,000 French civilians were killed, whereas the more realistic number is around about 300. Either way, 300 civilians killed in a small medieval French town would have still felt like an abominable massacre.


Throughout all of his life, Prince Edward had been respected as a great knight, and a chivalrous soldier, and he almost undid it all in one fit of madness in September 1370 at Limoges.


Later Life and Death

Richard II’s court after his coronation, from Anciennes Chroniques d’Angleterre, by Jean de Wavrin, c. 1479-80, Source: The British Library


There are several theories as to why Prince Edward was known as the Black Prince. As mentioned above, his cruelty at Limoges may have contributed to this nickname, although this theory has largely been dismissed.


The most popular theory is that it was due to the color of his armor — it was almost always black. Additionally, his bronze effigy turned black over the years after his death, which is another plausible explanation. It was not until years after his death that he was known as the Black Prince. In his lifetime, he was known as Prince Edward, Edward of Woodstock, or Young Edward.


In 1371, Prince Edward’s eldest son and heir, Edward of Angoulême, died aged around five years old. Prince Edward was distraught with grief, and his health began to deteriorate in the years that followed.


At the “Good Parliament” held in April 1376, it was clear that the Black Prince was dying, and that Edward III’s health was also rapidly declining too. It was at this parliament that it was ultimately decided that the Black Prince’s second son (and now his eldest surviving son) would inherit the throne, despite only being a child. He would go on to rule England as King Richard II — an infamous character who brought about the downfall of the Plantagenet Dynasty.


On June 8 1376, aged 45, the Black Prince died. Exactly what he died of is unknown, but several theories have since been presented, such as nephritis, sclerosis, cancer, or even war wounds or dysentery.


The Black Prince’s legacy is definitely one of “what could have been”. Had he lived to rule, who knows whether the Plantagenets would have ruled England for longer — perhaps the Wars of the Roses might have been avoided altogether? We will never know, but what we do know is that Edward, the Black Prince, was one of the finest warriors in medieval history.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.