A newly discovered letter that has lain unread for over 600 years is forcing a rethink of a 14th Century prince with a controversial reputation, writes Luke Foddy.
He was the superstar of his age, winning his spurs in battle aged just 16. But the reputation of Edward of Woodstock – or the Black Prince, as he has become known to history – is still the subject of the same type of dispute that rages over the reputations of Richard III and Oliver Cromwell.
A persistent theory runs that Edward’s nickname refers to the cruelty he inflicted upon the French during the Hundred Year’s War – the dynastic struggle for the crown of France.
The blackest stain upon Edward’s reputation is the sack of the French town of Limoges in September 1370.
An English possession, it was ruled by Edward as Prince of Aquitaine.
In late summer 1370, the Bishop of Limoges, Johan de Cross – a friend of Edward’s and godfather to his son – betrayed the prince and defected to the French. He welcomed a garrison into part of the town, and held it against the English.
According to the chronicler Jean Froissart, Edward was incensed at the news and stormed it. A massacre followed, says Froissart.
“It was a most melancholy business – for all ranks, ages and sexes cast themselves on their knees before the prince, begging for mercy; but he was so inflamed with passion and revenge that he listened to none, but all were put to the sword. Upwards of 3,000 men, women and children were put to death that day.”
Despite some academics dismissing Froissart’s account, the sack of Limoges has become a well-known aspect of Edward’s career to modern schoolchildren and history buffs. In a recent episode of the BBC’s QI, host Stephen Fry described how the prince “almost destroyed the entire population of Limoges”.
But now, a previously unknown letter written by the prince is shining new light on the controversy.
The letter was discovered by French historian Dr Guilhem Pepin in a Spanish archive.
“The letter was written by the Black Prince three days after the sack of Limoges,” says Pepin, who will be presenting his research at the International Medieval Congress conference in Leeds this week.
“He was writing to the great Gascon lord Gaston Febus, Count of Foix, to tell him what had happened.”
In the letter, Edward describes how he took several high ranking prisoners in the attack, including the bishop of Limoges and Roger de Beaufort, the brother of Pope Gregory XI.
Crucially, however, Edward refers to the number of prisoners he took in the town. “He specifies that he took 200 knights and men-at-arms prisoner,” says Pepin. “When we compare this new evidence with other sources, it becomes very significant.”
One source, the Chandos Herald, says there were 300 men garrisoning the town. “We also have a contemporary, local source written at the abbey Saint-Martial of Limoges, which says there were around 300 fatalities in total in the city,” says Pepin.
“So, when this evidence is combined, it seems that 100 soldiers and 200 civilians were killed, as opposed to Froissart’s claim of 3,000 innocents.”
In the medieval world, the death of hundreds of people during the storming of a town was far from unprecedented. But the cold-blooded murder of 3,000 civilians would have been scandalous. Richard the Lionheart’s decision to execute a similar number of Saracen prisoners at Acre during the Third Crusade in 1191, for example, has led to him being a controversial figure even in modern times.
It is now clear, though, that Froissart greatly inflated the scale of violence at Limoges, making it seem extraordinarily, excessively cruel. That Froissart’s version has stuck is an injustice to Edward, argues Pepin.
“It now seems he doesn’t deserve the ‘evil’ reputation he has for what happened at Limoges.” Froissart’s credibility is further undermined by Edward making no reference to a massacre in his letter.
Who was Edward the Black Prince
- Eldest son of King Edward III – born in 1330 in Woodstock, Oxfordshire
- Showed early military brilliance and enjoyed notable victories against the French in the hundred years war
- Made prince of Wales in 1343
- Married Joan of Kent and went to live in French domains after being created prince of Aquitaine and Gascony in 1362
- Died aged 45 on 8 June 1376, and was buried in splendour in Canterbury Cathedral
But before we go exonerating the Black Prince and freeing him from the label of historical baddie, we should be careful. In a recent paper on the final days of Edward’s life, Dr Paul Booth says the prince was a troubled soul reflecting on a life of sin.
“On his deathbed, Edward did an extraordinary thing,” says Booth, honorary senior research fellow at Keele University. “He issued a charter disafforesting Wirral in Cheshire, which had been under his rule as earl of Chester. The inhabitants were subjected to hardship and corruption under the forest system, and the pressures of war meant Edward often turned a blind eye to these excesses.
“Issuing this charter would have brought much relief for the people of Wirral, and it could be seen as Edward trying to make up for his failings before he died.”
His choice of mausoleum offers clues as his state of mind, says Booth. “Edward chose to be buried at Canterbury Cathedral instead of Westminster Abbey, which had become the traditional resting place for the English royal family. Canterbury is strongly associated with pilgrimage and penance, so it seems Edward felt he had many sins to repent for.”
But if Edward was repenting, we at least now know it probably wasn’t a great massacre at Limoges troubling his soul.
So, where does all this leave the Black Prince nickname?
The theory that it relates to Edward’s “black as pitch” soul is at odds with the praise lavished on him by contemporaries, who painted a picture of a man more akin to James Purefoy’s interpretation in the 2001 Hollywood romp, A Knight’s Tale. Purefoy’s character is a just and humble knight, the epitome of chivalry.
“Edward of Woodstock was probably not virtue personified, but based on the testimonies I’ve seen, I would say he was probably more virtuous than the average princes of his time,” says Pepin.
There’s a simple explanation in Edward’s coat of arms used for tournaments.
“It consisted of three white ostrich feathers [still used in the arms of the Prince of Wales today] on a black background,” says Pepin. The black motif would have also been on the prince’s surcoat worn over his armour, and on the horse’s caparison.
“Given that black is a fairly rare colour in heraldry, it is completely feasible that this would be unusual enough to give rise in England to a nickname like the Black Prince,” says Pepin.
His dark soul appears to have nothing to do with it.
The medieval reign of King John has been characterised by disaster and his reputation languishes among the lowest for all the kings and queens of England. But among the dozens of bad kings and despots, why is John always the pantomime villain, asks Tom Geoghegan.