by Rosanne E. Lortz
The year was 1370. The Hundred Years’ War was in full swing. The Battles of Crecy and Poitiers had already been fought. Edward, Black Prince of Wales, had already earned a reputation as the most famous knight in all Christendom.
The place was Aquitaine—the duchy that the spirited Eleanor had transferred to English control in the twelfth century, the duchy that the French king Philip VI had tried to confiscate in 1337, and the duchy that the Black Prince had already fought so hard to reclaim.
The French forces were buzzing like hornets around the city of Limoges, but the Black Prince was not worried. Limoges had a strong English garrison, and its governor—the bishop—was a close friend and the godfather to the prince’s eldest son.
But the prince’s confidence, as it turned out, was misplaced. The bishop of Limoges, after receiving an envoy from the French, decided to transfer his allegiance and surrender the city. The historian Richard Barber notes that “one late chronicle even says that he spread rumours of the prince’s death in order to persuade the citizens.”
And that is the backstory to what many consider one of the great military atrocities of the medieval period—the siege of Limoges, and the massacre thereafter which was perpetrated by the Black Prince.
|Edward III bestows the rule of Aquitaine upon the Black Prince|
Froissart’s Chronicles gives a chilling description of what happened at that unfortunate city in the year 1370.
When intelligence was brought to the prince that the city of Limoges had become French…he was in a violent passion…. He swore by the soul of his father, which he had never perjured, that he would have it back again, that he would not attend to anything before he had done this, and that he would make the inhabitants pay dearly for their treachery….
…The prince, the duke of Lancaster, the earls of Cambridge and of Pembroke, Sir Guiscard d'Angle and the others, with their men, rushed into the town. You would then have seen pillagers, active to do mischief, running through the town, slaying men, women, and children, according to their orders. 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, wherever they could be found, even those who were not guilty: for I know not why the poor were not spared, who could not have had any part in this treason; but they suffered for it, and indeed more than those who had been the leaders of the treachery.
There was not that day in the city of Limoges any heart so hardened, or that had any sense of religion, who did not deeply bewail the unfortunate events passing before their eyes; for upwards of three thousand men, women and children were put to death that day. God have mercy on their souls! for they were veritable martyrs.The picture Froissart paints is a gruesome one, and one that I had to grapple with when writing I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince. Although the story in my novel ends ten years before the Siege of Limoges, I believed that the events at Limoges must inform how I thought of the Black Prince’s character in his earlier years. It was a little difficult to reconcile the romantic hero with the man who could give the command to slaughter more than three thousand defenseless men, women, and children.
Is it possible to portray the Black Prince as anything other than a mass murderer?
There are a couple considerations that made me take a more nuanced approach to the prince’s character.
In his book The Medieval Siege, Jim Bradbury says, “it needs to be emphasized that Limoges was not an exceptional atrocity.” In the Middle Ages, a city that surrendered could, for the most part, expect to be treated with restraint whereas a city that defied a besieging army could not. Wholesale sack and slaughter in cities that “held out” against a prolonged siege was considered a just punishment for the city’s obstinacy and a deterrent to other enemy cities that might otherwise do the same—thus causing far greater expenditure of effort and loss of life on the side of the besieging army.
Bradbury gives the example of James I of Aragon (who on most occasions granted quarter) refusing to make terms in one particular instance and hanging and beheading all the inhabitants of a captured city. He also cites the examples of the Crusaders’ capture of Jerusalem where the streets ran red with blood and of Richard the Lionheart’s actions at Acre where hundreds of Moslem prisoners were slaughtered.
If Edward, the Black Prince, must lodge with the mass murderers, he has a good deal of company including many of the other military leaders in medieval Europe.
Another historian, Richard Barber, acknowledges that post-siege massacres occur in many of the medieval chronicles. Interestingly, however, he sees these accounts as more a conventional literary trope than a precise description of what actually happened. (Much like how film makers insist on including a car exploding in flames in every car chase scene, despite the infrequency of that occurring in the real world.)
Barber writes that:
Froissart’s vivid picture probably arises from two sources: he is portraying in conventional terms the taking of a city by storm, and his information may have come from a source strongly hostile to the prince. Under the accepted laws of war at the time, a city taken by assault was entirely at the mercy of its conquerors. However, it was extremely rare for a place of the importance of Limoges to be taken in this way, and Froissart is merely depicting what would have been expected to happen under such circumstances. None of the sources which might be expected to make capital, for propaganda purposes, out of such a massacre, even mention it: the references in the papal and French records are purely factual, referring to some destruction of property.Barber sees Froissart’s gruesome account as more rhetorical hype than historical substance.
So what did happen then at Limoges? According to Barber,
Much more reliable sources put the number of dead at about 300, or one in ten of the population. In fact, the number of dead may well have been less than the number of those carrying arms in defence of the city, estimated at about 500.
|The Black Prince, in Order of the Garter regalia|
With these two considerations in mind—Bradbury’s explanation that if the massacre did happen the prince was far from unusual, and Barber’s contention that the massacre didn’t happen and that Froissart is all wet—reconciling the accounts of the Black Prince as the flower of chivalry and the Black Prince as a genocidal maniac became a little easier.
As I mentioned above, my novel I Serve ends ten years prior to Limoges, but my understanding of the events of that siege still helped me construct the character of the prince in his younger days. Thus, in my novel, when the prince observes his own father Edward III threatening to massacre the citizens of Calais, he does not react with shocked modern sensibilities but acknowledges that the king would have the right to do so—for the siege had been a year in length and cost him much time and many men. But at the same time, he also throws in his plea with the remonstrations of the nobles and the implorations of his mother for the king to grant the citizens of Calais clemency.
And, if Barber is right, then despite all the rape, pillage, and slaughter we see splashed about the pages of the medieval chronicles, maybe clemency was the case more often than not. Maybe sieges were a bloodier affair on paper than in person. Maybe the Black Prince was not the butcher of Limoges. One can always hope….
I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.
You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.
Barber, Richard. Edward, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine: A Biography of the Black Prince. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1978.
Bradbury, Jim. The Medieval Siege. Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1992.
“The Prince of Wales’ Revenge on Limoges.” Edited by Steve Muhlberger. Tales from Froissart. http://usna.edu/Users/history/abels/hh381/froissart_limoges.htm.