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Where did the Black Prince get his name from?


Edward, prince of Wales and Aquitaine, duke of Cornwall, Earl of Chester, founder knight of the Order of the Garter, hero of Crécy, victor at Poitiers, the Black Prince, died on 8th June 1376, Trinity Sunday, the feast day for which he had particular reverence.

It was recorded that the news was received in England and across the Channel with great sadness and mourning and not only for the sake of form. His life and death exemplified many of the incongruities of the political milieu in which he lived and his career mirrored the triumphs and disasters of the nation that he represented. Much of his brief life was characterised by war, and as the term ‘Hundred Years War’, the conflict to which the prince dedicated himself, has been misapplied to a punctuated confrontation that lasted at least 116 years, so likewise the name by which Edward of Woodstock is most commonly known is uncertain in origin and in meaning. It was in common usage by the end of the sixteenth century.

Leland named him as such in his Itinerary, and Holinshed used the term in his Chronicles, which may have been a source used by Shakespeare. The idea that the name derived from a penchant for black armour remains unsubstantiated, as does the theory that the name was of French origin, brought on by the brutal raids and his victories in battle.

Nonetheless, the prince’s reputation in France was certainly ‘black’ and is, for example, apparent in the Apocalypse tapestries Louis of Anjou commissioned in 1373 and which are said to depict Edward III as a demon followed by his five sons.

In a subsequent panel, the primary horseman is said to represent the Black Prince. In this series of images, the war perpetrated by the prince and his father ‘is rendered monstrous, a virulent plague sent by the heavens to punish mankind’ with the Plantagenets a dark instrument of divine (or diabolical) judgement. Considerably later, King Charles VI, prior to Agincourt, says they must fear Henry V because:

He is bred out of that bloody strain That haunted us in our familiar paths:

Witness our too much memorable shame

When Cressy battle fatally was struck,

And all our princes captiv’d by the hand

Of that black name, Edward, Black Prince of Wales;

While that his mountain sire, on mountain standing,

Up in the air, crown’d with the golden sun,

Saw his heroical seed, and smiled to see him,

Mangle the work of nature and deface

The patterns that by God and by French fathers

Had twenty years been made. (Henry V, Act 2, Scene 4 by Shakespeare)

Such comments, made over 200 years after the death of the prince, may be seen as a mark of the impact made by both Edward III and his eldest son on the collective memory and imagination of the country. Politically and in terms of ‘national’ reputation - although such a concept was probably alien to the prince - the years 1346-67 were unquestionably triumphant, and by contrast with the collapse of English power in France and the fractures of the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century, there was undoubtedly an Edwardian ‘Golden Age’ to which those in the sixteenth century could look back.

His reputation, contradictory still, was set by the sixteenth century if not earlier, and perhaps before his death. That reputation was indicative of the troubled times through which the prince lived and the stark contrasts between his triumphs at the battles of Crécy, Poitiers and Nájera, and the debacle of the failure of the principality of Aquitaine and loss after 1368/9 of nearly all that the English had gained in the years since the war had begun. The contrast was intrinsic also in the prince’s health and character, and furthermore was evident in the changing nature of the chivalric ethic with which the prince was associated from a very young age and of which he had become an exemplar by the time of his death. 

By David Green

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