Book Review: The Black Prince

Black Prince CoverMichael Jones’s most recent book retells the story of Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, who is better known today as the Black Prince. Raised to be a warrior in the mould of his father, King Edward III, the Prince ‘won his spurs’ in battle at the tender age of sixteen. At Crécy he commanded a hard-pressed division of the English army, and thereafter his life was dominated by conflict with France. By the age of twenty-six, when he won a spectacular victory at the Battle of Poitiers, he had established himself as one of the greatest soldiers of his time. The Prince also caused a stir when he appears to have married for love, choosing as his bride the beautiful Joan of Kent. (Evidently he was willing to overlook Joan’s controversial past.)

In the summer of 1362, when the Prince was in his early thirties, he was entrusted by his father with the rule of Aquitaine (which at this point owed allegiance to the English king). While this was intended as a great honour, it proved to be a challenging task. The aristocracy of the region were notoriously fractious, and the Prince also became embroiled in a civil war in Spain. In 1367 he restored Pedro ‘the Cruel’ to the throne of Castile, although the Spanish king proved to be a fickle ally and his second reign was soon cut short. The expedition had important repercussions as its costs were enormous – and Pedro failed to pay his debts. Struggling to make ends meet, the Prince was forced to resort to unpopular taxation. This led to widespread resentment throughout his French domains.

The Spanish campaign was pivotal in another important respect, as it appears to have affected the Prince’s health. He began to show the first signs of an illness that would ultimately claim his life. By the autumn of 1369 he was reduced to travelling in a litter, but he was determined to lead his men in one last campaign. His target was the city of Limoges, whose lord (the bishop) had defected to the French king. Limoges was swiftly retaken, and according to the chronicler Jean Froissart over 3,000 of the city’s inhabitants were massacred; many historians have seen this as a stain on the Prince’s glittering reputation. Early in 1371 he returned to England. In the years that followed the French gained the ascendancy in warfare, and in the Prince’s absence much of Aquitaine was lost. He passed away in 1376, still only forty-five years old.

The Black Prince had a dramatic career, and in Michael Jones he has found a worthy biographer. Naturally much of the book is taken up with the Prince’s martial exploits, which Jones describes with authority and flair. His account of the Battle of Poitiers is particularly engaging. The Prince is depicted as a sound tactician – one who remained calm in adversity and was willing to listen to advice – but also as a charismatic leader who could inspire his men to extraordinary feats of arms. For medieval people, it seems, the Prince’s appeal lay in his genuine commitment to the ethos of chivalry, with its emphasis on prowess, loyalty, courtesy and piety. Jones argues persuasively that these core values formed the guiding principles of the Black Prince’s life.

On the whole, this is an admirably clear account, but it also conveys a deep sense of emotion; Jones appears to feel great sympathy for the Prince, whom he obviously admires. Nevertheless, he does not flinch from explaining how the Prince’s choices sometimes led to difficulties of his own making. He also acknowledges that the Prince could be a harsh master, especially in the pursuit of funds to pay for his extravagant lifestyle and incessant campaigns. The Prince was ruthless in exacting dues from his tenants in Cheshire, for example; this was something he regretted in his last days, as he attempted to make his peace with God. Yet we also gain a strong impression of a man who was always conscious of his responsibilities as well as his rights. Some of the most interesting passages in the book are concerned with the Prince’s exercise of lordship in Aquitaine, where he often emerges as more diligent and effective than is usually allowed.

Jones builds upon the work of other historians (notably Guilhem Pépin) to offer a full reassessment of Froissart’s description of the siege of Limoges, ultimately concluding that his account of a ‘massacre’ should be dismissed as fiction. However, this is not the only occasion when the Prince’s reputation has suffered at Froissart’s hands. Following the chronicler, the Prince’s Spanish campaign has often been portrayed as an act of hubris in which he overreached himself. In fact, it would seem the Prince had serious misgivings about the enterprise – not least because he despised Pedro of Castile, whose character was the antithesis of all the values he held most dear. Jones makes a convincing case that it was Edward III, not his son, who was the driving force behind the English intervention in Spain. For me, this is the most affecting part of the book, as we see the Prince struggling to balance the obligation of loyalty to his father with his wider sense of chivalric ethics.

Jones also captures the essence of how the Spanish campaign cast a dark shadow over the rest of the Prince’s life. Not only did he contract his mortal illness at this time, the expedition set in train a chain of events which eventually led to a breach between the Prince and his father (with both men seemingly blaming the other for the change in their fortunes). While he could still take pride in his achievements (as witnessed by the plans for his splendid tomb), his last years make for sad reading, as both the Prince and King Edward struggled to cope with the waning of their powers. It is pleasing to think they might have reconciled before the end.

I found this book a gripping read; it has that ‘just one more chapter’ quality that keeps you going late into the night. Moreover, while it seems likely that some of Jones’s conclusions will lead to further debate, it must be stressed that his work is based on extensive scholarship (including his own archival research). He provides a compelling and humane portrait of a medieval warrior, bringing the Black Prince and his world triumphantly to life.

The Black Prince is published by Head of Zeus

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David Santiuste

David Santiuste is a historian of late medieval Britain. His interests include Anglo-Scottish relations, pilgrimage, and the Wars of the Roses. His most recent book is The Hammer of the Scots: Edward I and the Scottish Wars of Independence.