England’s famed Hundred Years’ War commander never lost a battle.
At Crécy, south of Calais in northern France, on August 26, 1346, Prince Edward, the eldest son of England’s King Edward III, “won his spurs” in one of the most famous battles – and crushing English victories – of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. When the battle began, an English triumph seemed improbable, as the French heavily outnumbered King Edward’s men. Confident of victory, the French rushed into the fight with thousands of Genoese crossbowmen followed by a great host of mounted knights eager for glory. Yet the English army’s Welsh longbowmen and sturdy men-at-arms cut down their overconfident attackers with a combination of new weapons and tactics that shattered the French army and won a decisive victory.
Prince Edward, leading the English vanguard, was in the thick of the heaviest fighting at the Battle of Crécy. In hand-to-hand combat, he was knocked to his knees and would have been killed or captured had Sir Richard FitzSimon and Sir Thomas Daniel not come to his rescue. Yet Edward, who later would become known as the “Black Prince,” survived the French onslaught and notably distinguished himself in the fierce fighting. The young prince had just turned 16 and had recently been knighted.
The courage of the handsome blond prince caught the fancy of the English people and he became, even during his lifetime, a legend, “like a wonderful and flawless painting glimpsed high up in a cathedral gloom … a symbol of everything right and fine.”
Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Earl of Chester, heir to the English throne, and later Prince of Aquitaine was born June 15, 1330, at a time when the ideal of knightly chivalry was in decline and nationalism was on the rise. Edward’s contemporary, the French chronicler Jean Froissart, called him “the flower of chivalry,” but as a modern historian wrote, “on the battlefield, [Edward] favored pragmatism over chivalry.”
Indeed, while Edward often displayed chivalrous behavior – such as treating noble prisoners with respect, founding a knightly order, reigning over a glittering court, and delighting in tournaments and hunting – at war he ruthlessly pursued “unchivalrous” scorched-earth policies against England’s enemies. And on the battlefield, rather than “chivalric” knightly combat, Edward favored victory-producing tactics such as smashing his enemy’s ranks with massed infantry, dismounted knights, longbowmen and flank attacks.
Although the English public loved Edward for his prowess, the tenants on his extensive landholdings detested him for the burdensome taxes and insatiable demands he imposed on them. While Edward was a great warrior, he was a bad administrator.
In 1337, when Prince Edward was 7 years old, his father, King Edward III, began to press the English claim to the French throne. At the time, the English king ruled Normandy, Aquitaine and other lands in France that had been ruled by William the Conqueror before he crossed the English Channel in 1066 and conquered England. Thus, England’s kings, as William had before them, owed feudal homage to the king of France. But in 1337, Edward III refused to pay such homage. Basing his claim on the 1328 death of France’s King Charles IV, Edward declared that in fact he was the rightful king of France, because as the son of Charles IV’s sister he was the closest male survivor of the late French king.
Despite King Edward’s claim, the French named Philip VI, Charles IV’s cousin, as king of France, refusing to allow the crown to pass through a female line. When Edward continued to press his claim and refused to pay homage to Philip, the latter confiscated Edward’s lands in Aquitaine, and the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between England and France erupted.
In 1345, King Edward launched a brief Normandy campaign, during which 15-year-old Prince Edward first saw military action. The following year the king began a major invasion of France in which Prince Edward was expected to play a significant role. The English force sailed for France July 11, 1346, and landed at La Hogue on Normandy’s Cherbourg peninsula. As troops and supplies were being disembarked, the king and prince, as well as other nobles, climbed a nearby hill from which to watch the unloading. Upon that hill, King Edward III knighted his son.
BATTLE OF CRÉCY
The English army left the Cherbourg peninsula shortly afterward, pillaging and burning its way east into France. It then headed northward toward the Low Countries before stopping at the forest of Crécy. King Edward’s men took up position on a small hill north of Crécy-en-Ponthieu, an inconspicuous village that was “home to a few dusty peasants.” On the march, Prince Edward had already distinguished himself twice: during the capture of the strategic city of Caen, nine miles from the coast; and in an engagement with a French force under Godemar du Fay, which unsuccessfully tried to keep the English army from crossing the Somme River.
While it has often been said that Prince Edward was in command of the vanguard at Crécy, the teenage prince was actually under the control and advice of the earls of Warwick and Sussex. King Edward commanded the central “battle” (tactical formation), and the Earl of Northampton led the English rear guard. The English vanguard was on the right, nearest to where the French were expected to attack.
King Edward’s 2,500 knights and men-at-arms were deployed dismounted with their horses confined within a cordon of wagons. Several small “bombards” (mortar-like gunpowder weapons that hurled stone balls) were in place near and beneath the wagons on the right of the English line. The king’s Welsh longbowmen, perhaps as many as 5,000, were deployed on each side of his line, facing slightly inward. (See Battle of Crécy map.)
The English, who had about 9,000 men on the field at Crécy while the French had perhaps three times as many, had arrived in time to dig a series of pits in front of their line to impede the French cavalry charges. Additionally, they had rested for at least a day, while the French were fatigued after leaving Abbeville that morning and marching 18 miles to Crécy. The French were disorganized as well and straggling across the countryside.
Upon coming within sight of the English force, King Philip VI ordered his French army to pull back to re-form; however, his overconfident and glory-hungry knights refused. They wanted only to attack. Realizing that he was losing control of his army, Philip relented and ordered an attack, sending his Genoese crossbowmen in first.
As the French crossbowmen approached the English army, King Edward’s Welsh longbowmen fired, loosing three or four arrows for every one bolt fired by the enemy. This rain of longbow arrows, coupled with fire from the English bombards, quickly repelled the Genoese. The Florentine Giovanni Villani later wrote that the bombards “made a noise like thunder and caused much loss in men and horses.”
The English longbow, which has been called the “artillery of the Middle Ages,” was a more formidable weapon than the era’s crossbow. The crossbow’s complicated mechanism required the bowman to place his foot in a stirrup on the bow, crouch to fasten a string on his belt, and then stand up, pulling the string with him and then fastening it onto the crossbow’s trigger. The crossbow’s range and penetrating power was comparable to that of the longbow, but because of its clumsy arming mechanism the crossbow was much slower to fire.
The Genoese crossbowmen who survived the initial attack and clouds of English arrows fled the field – only to run into the impetuous French mounted knights, who charged right through them. The knights who made it through the retreating Genoese and over the English pits hit Prince Edward and the vanguard. The close-combat fighting grew fierce and the young prince was in the heart of it.
The French struck the English line again and again, banging against the English shield wall. Only once did the French break through the English line, assaulting the prince’s position in such force that at one point Prince Edward went down. A French chronicler even claimed that young Edward was briefly seized. But FitzSimon and Daniel came to his rescue, preventing the prince from being killed or captured.
As this occurred, Sir Thomas Norwich was dispatched to the king to seek help for the prince. Yet when King Edward determined that the prince was neither dead nor wounded, he sent Norwich back without assistance, saying, “My son must have a chance to win his spurs.”
Each time the French were beaten back, they re-formed and attacked again. Each attack was slowed by the bodies of men and horses that had fallen earlier and was shredded by the deadly crossfire of the Welsh archers.
The attacks continued until darkness fell, and some skirmishing went on throughout the night. One chronicler related that King Edward filled a windmill with wood and lit it afire, the blaze casting a flickering light over the English camp and part of the battlefield. The next morning, a final body of French troops seeking to join their king’s army arrived on the scene, only to be quickly repulsed by Prince Edward and the vanguard. The Battle of Crécy was over.
Prince Edward had established his military reputation and the English had achieved a major victory, taking 80 French standards. After the battle, Edward III said to his son, “You are worthy to be a king.”
According to tradition, Crécy was where Prince Edward adopted the ostrich feather emblem and the motto “Ich Dien” (I serve), both of which are still used by the Prince of Wales. One of Prince Edward’s shields, which probably was used in jousting tournaments, was painted black with three white ostrich feathers, each emblazoned with this motto.
It is also traditionally said that Prince Edward received the name “Black Prince” after Crécy because he had worn black armor at the battle. This, however, is unlikely, and no contemporary mention of it has been uncovered. The first recorded mention of Edward as the Black Prince did not appear until the 16th century. It is possible the name arose from his use of a black shield, or perhaps from the “black” (severe) manner in which the French claimed Prince Edward ravaged their countryside during his military campaigns.
Following the Battle of Crécy, King Edward marched north to Calais on the English Channel coast and laid siege to the city, which fell to the English a year later in August 1347. After Calais’ fall, Prince Edward looted, harried and burned the countryside for 30 miles around.
In 1349, bubonic plague – the dreaded “Black Death” – struck Europe. The disease killed as much as a third of the European population. In Paris alone, 50,000 people, a quarter of the city’s population, died. The plague brought all military operations to a halt.
During this time, Price Edward remained at home in England and was instrumental in founding the Order of the Garter (the English order of chivalry) with 26 members. Most of the original members were men he had commanded at Crécy.
BATTLE OF POITIERS
By 1355, the Black Death had abated enough that King Edward III and his son could turn their attention back to the war with France and their quest for the French throne. That year, Prince Edward commanded raids in the Aquitaine-Languedoc region of France and then in Aquitaine duchy. He raided again in 1356, moving north from Aquitaine and pillaging the French countryside until reaching the Loire River near Tours.
At nearby Poitiers, on September 19, 1356, Prince Edward’s force was met by the army of King John II, who had ascended the French throne in 1350 upon the death of his father, King Philip VI. The ensuing Battle of Poitiers would be the second great English victory of the Hundred Years’ War, but this time Prince Edward was in overall command.
The English at Poitiers were grouped into three “battles,” with the prince commanding the center formation. The army was positioned along the side of a wood, with men-at-arms and dismounted knights in the front and mounted cavalry behind them. As at Crécy, the English longbowmen were placed on each flank of the forward line, pointing slightly inward to produce a devastating crossfire. In front of the English were hedges, thick grape vines and a narrow lane.
At about 8 a.m., the English vanguard and the English baggage train, which had been on the army’s left, began moving back and to the right behind the wood. The move was either designed to pull the French into attacking or was in fact the beginning of a cautious retreat. Whatever the reason for the English movement, the French knights saw it and, as at Crécy, impetuously charged the English line.
As the French knights passed through the hedges, they were caught from both sides by clouds of arrows from Edward’s longbowmen. The arrows were aimed mostly at the French horses, which were less heavily armored than the knights. The horses plunged and bucked in the onslaught of projectiles, throwing some of their riders and pulling others from the fight as the panicked animals bolted.
King John, seeing the plight of his mounted knights, sent dismounted men-at-arms into the fray. Many of them were able to pass through the carnage and attack the English barricaded behind hedges, ditches and rows of stakes. Gradually, however, the English beat back the French men-at-arms’ attack.
After a pause that allowed both sides to regroup and the longbowmen to collect many of their spent arrows, the French again advanced on the English line. But this time, Edward countered with a bold stroke. Rather than continuing to fight from a defensive position, he ordered a cavalry charge flanking movement by 60 mounted knights and 100 archers.
Edward’s unexpected counterstroke drove the French back toward the Miosson River, where the French king’s bodyguard was overwhelmed. Sir Geoffrey de Charny, bearer of the French standard, was killed, and King John was taken prisoner, captured by either Sir Denys de Morbecque or Sir Bernard de Troy. (A later lawsuit between the men over the matter and the hefty ransom was never settled.)
The captured French King John asked to be taken to his “cousin, the Prince of Wales.” Prince Edward received John chivalrously, helped him to take off his armor, and entertained him and many of the French princes and barons who also had become prisoners. Edward even graciously served at the king’s table and would not sit down, declaring, as Froissart reports, that “he was not worthy to sit at table with so great a king or so valiant a man.”
The French defeat and the capture of King John at Poitiers crippled France’s army for the next 13 years. The disaster loosed anarchy and chaos in the country as France was ravaged by its own nobles and by uncontrollable freebooter troops. Jean de Venette, a Carmelite friar and medieval chronicler, wrote of France: “The Kingdom and the state was undone. Thieves and robbers rose up everywhere in the land. The nobles despised and hated all others and took no thought for the mutual usefulness and profit of lord and men. They subjected and despoiled the peasants and the men of the villages. In no wise did they defend their country from enemies. Rather did they trample it underfoot, robbing and pillaging the peasants’ goods.”
LATER LIFE: 1361-76
Returning to England, Prince Edward devoted himself to more domestic matters, courting and marrying his cousin Joan, “the Fair Maid of Kent,” on October 31, 1361. Froissart called her “the most beautiful woman in all the realm of England, and the most loving.” The marriage was controversial, however, because Joan had been married twice before (once bigamously) and because Edward’s marriage to an Englishwoman was considered to waste a possible alliance with a foreign power. The prince became stepfather to Joan’s four children, and over the years the couple produced two children of their own: Edward of Angoulême; and Richard, who would became England’s King Richard II in 1377.
In July 1362, King Edward III granted all his dominions in Aquitaine and Gascony to Prince Edward, and in February the prince sailed with his wife and household for Gascony, landing at Rochelle. As prince of Aquitaine and Gascony, Edward kept one of the most glittering courts in Europe.
Among those to whom the prince gave sanctuary was Peter of Castile (also called Peter the Cruel), whose illegitimate brother Henry had usurped Peter’s Castilian throne and was reigning as Henry III. Edward, who had been allied with Peter in the past and was opposed to the idea of an illegitimate child assuming a throne, was persuaded to come to Peter’s aid to help restore the Castilian succession.
In 1367, Edward’s Anglo-Gascon army of 24,000 men marched south from Aquitaine and crossed the Ebro River. They took the fortified village of Navarrete and continued on, seeking Henry’s 60,000-man Franco-Castilian army. As Edward moved south into the Iberian Peninsula, he and Henry corresponded in a chivalrous manner. But when Henry suggested that a few knights from each side be delegated to agree on a suitable battlefield, Edward – who, Froissart wrote, held the advantage because his army had “the most famous warriors in the whole world” – flatly refused. Henry then moved into a defensive position near Nájera, with his army straddling the road and arrayed along the bank of a stream.
Coming upon Henry’s army on April 3, Edward prayed aloud that, as he had come to uphold what was right and reinstate a disinherited king, God would grant him success. He then attacked with dismounted knights and men-at-arms under covering fire from his longbow archers. As the fighting became hand-to-hand and grew fiercer, Edward committed another “battle” to the fight.
Henry’s mounted men fled, along with much of his right wing. These defections freed the English to concentrate all their forces on Henry’s Castilian vanguard, and the encounter was soon over. According to one participant, Henry “was forcibly dragged from the battle by his own men.”
But things soon began to go badly for Edward. Peter did not pay the money he had agreed to give Edward for his aid in securing the throne. As Edward waited in vain for his payment in Spain’s oppressive heat, he and many in his English army became seriously ill, likely from amoebic dysentery (although possibly from deliberate poisoning). Prince Edward never fully recovered. Debilitated by illness and beset by money problems that increased with Peter’s nonpayment, he saw his time in Aquitaine march to a close.
Before Edward left France, however, he received word in 1370 that the English-controlled town of Limoges had been surrendered to the French by its bishop, a man he had trusted. Froissart wrote that the betrayal put the prince into “a violent passion.” Edward swore to recapture the town and to make its inhabitants pay for their treachery.
Edward and his army marched north and laid siege, finally occupying Limoges when his miners undermined the city’s walls. According to Froissart, Edward’s troops massacred some 3,000 of the town’s residents. That number, however, is likely an exaggeration by the French meant to reinforce their presentation of Edward’s “black” depredations. Writings by a monk of St. Martial’s Abbey placed the number closer to 300 killed.
Bedeviled by money problems, lingering illness and the desultory fighting, Prince Edward gave up his position in Aquitaine and returned to England in January 1371. Five years later, on June 8, 1376, he died and was buried in Canterbury Cathedral. A friend described that Edward “made a very noble end, remembering God his Creator in his heart, and bidding his people pray for him.” The cause of his untimely death was probably the amoebic dysentery he contracted in Spain, although it also has been speculated that he may have suffered from cancer or multiple sclerosis.
The Black Prince – who had never been defeated in battle and whose exploits had established the English army as the foremost military power on the Continent – was only 46 years old when he died. The epitaph on his tomb effigy reads:
Such as thou art, sometime was I.
Such as I am, such shalt thou be.
I thought little on th’our of Death
So long as I enjoyed breath.
But now a wretched captive am I,
Deep in the ground, lo here I lie.
My beauty great, is all quite gone,
My flesh is wasted to the bone.
Chuck Lyons is a retired newspaper editor and a freelance writer who has written extensively on historical subjects, and his work has appeared in numerous periodicals. Lyons resides in Rochester, N.Y., with his wife, Brenda, and a beagle named Gus.
Originally published in the November 2014 issue of Armchair General.