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Edward the Black Prince: A Flawed Medieval Hero

As an author who writes about British and European royalty, I enjoy focusing on lesser-known and forgotten royals.

Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince shown in his Order of the Garter robes.

Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince shown in his Order of the Garter robes.

Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales

Edward was born at Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire on the 15th June 1330. He was the eldest son of King Edward III of England (1312–1377) and Philippa of Hainaut (1314–1369.) He was known throughout his life as Edward of Woodstock and created Earl of Chester aged three, was the first-ever duke of anywhere in England as Duke of Cornwall in 1337 and became the Prince of Wales in 1343. In 1362, Henry III made him the Prince of Aquitaine and Gascony.

It is generally accepted that the “Black Prince” was awarded the sobriquet by the Tudors as a reference to his habit of wearing black armour in battle. His “Shield of Peace” was also black with three white ostrich feathers shown alongside the phrase used by all subsequent Princes of Wales: "Ich dien" or "I serve."

He was the first Prince of Wales not to ascend to the throne of England but he made a legacy for himself as an accomplished soldier and leader of men. His military aptitude and jousting prowess were spotted at an early age and Edward was schooled to fight with honour in the manner of a chivalric knight. He was one of the founding knights of his father’s Order of the Garter, founded in 1348. The order is still the highest chivalric honour in the land.

The Black Prince, imagined by a 19th-century artist.

The Black Prince, imagined by a 19th-century artist.

Hero of the Battle of Crecy

The Hundred Years' War against France gave him the opportunities for the glory that he craved. At 16 years old, he was involved in the comprehensive victory over the French at the Battle of Crecy in August 1346. Promoted to Lieutenant of Gascony by his father, he went on to defeat the enemy in Poitiers and imprison the French king, Jean II “the Good” (1319–1364.)

Jean was transported to the Tower of London, ransomed and returned to his country. He reputedly had no complaints about his treatment. Edward’s soldiers looted merrily, murdered French people, and destroyed and burned buildings. The French cast the prince, unsurprisingly, as a dark force. Another inspiration for the “Black Prince” perhaps?

Edward's wife, Joan of Kent.

Edward's wife, Joan of Kent.

Marriage to Joan of Kent

Edward III created him the Prince of Aquitaine and Gascony in 1362 and he settled in France, of which he controlled almost a third. Edward had a series of mistresses and several illegitimate offspring. We don’t know exactly how many he fathered. His royal oats well and truly sowed, aged 32 he married his cousin “The Fair Maid of Kent,” Joan, Countess of Kent (1326 or 1327–1385). She was the widow of Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent and a divorcee from her second marriage to William Montagu, Earl of Salisbury.

Edward and Joan’s wedding took place at Windsor Castle on the 10th October 1361. The negotiations were lengthy. They lived in Bordeaux, France, and had two sons together, their eldest, Edward of Angouleme died in 1370 aged five, and the second son Richard (1367–1400) went on to rule as Richard II.

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The Sack of Limoges, arguably the event that ruined Edward the Black Prince's reputation.

The Sack of Limoges, arguably the event that ruined Edward the Black Prince's reputation.

Victor in Castile, Villain of the Sack of Limoges

In 1367, Edward led an army in support of deposed King Pedro of Castile (in today’s Spain). Once again, Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales was celebrated as a hero as another victory was secured and Pedro was restored to his throne. In gratitude, Pedro gave him a ruby, which isn’t actually a ruby but a spinel, which became known as the Black Prince’s Ruby. It sits in the Imperial State Crown, part of the Crown Jewels held at the Tower of London.

Edward’s popularity suffered enormously in Aquitaine when he raised taxes to boost the royal coffers after the Castile campaign. The people revolted in 1370 and a bishop named Johan de Cross in Limoges, part of Edward’s territories, acted against Edward and assisted the French to reclaim the city. Edward fought back and over 3,000 people were said to have been slain during the uprising and siege of Limoges.

This episode was given the name the Sack of Limoges and was suggested as another possible reason for his “Black Prince” moniker, but this seems unlikely as the Tudors would not have marked out the event as singular. Wars were a staple of life. Additionally, contemporary records placed the deaths at around 300, still a chilling number of victims, but not the alleged thousands. Edward retook Limoges. The following year he returned to England. His health was no longer robust.

An Early Exit

On the 8th June 1376, just seven days before his 46th birthday, Edward of Woodstock died, probably from cancer or dysentery but historians have also cited his war wounds as a cause of death. He was given a magnificent funeral at Canterbury Cathedral and buried beneath an effigy of him in full armour, the ideal chivalric knight. A space was left by his side for Joan of Kent but when she died she was buried beside her first husband, the Earl of Kent.

Edward’s father Henry III survived until the 21st June 1377 and he was succeeded by his grandson Richard II. During Richard’s reign, he was feted for a few years before losing support and eventually he was deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, Henry IV (1367–1413).

Edward was the first Prince of Wales not to become monarch in royal history and the first duke created in the realm. Over the centuries he has been praised for his military victories and reviled for the slaughter at Limoges. The Georgian and Victorian eras witnessed a resurgence in interest in his life and the heroic elements of his story. Today, he is quite often forgotten.

Edward the Black Prince's tomb at Canterbury Cathedral.

Edward the Black Prince's tomb at Canterbury Cathedral.


© 2021 Joanne Hayle


Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on August 02, 2021:

Never heard of him. Thank you for enlightening us.

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