Tuesday, March 15, 2016

England and the Aquitaine Part III: Edward

By Helena P. Schrader

As I have hopefully convinced you in my two previous essays, Aquitaine was immensely important to England in the three hundred years from 1152 to 1452.  Having already discussed its association with Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart, today I want to describe its importance to Edward of Woodstock, commonly called “the Black Prince,” but properly titled “Prince of Wales and Aquitaine.” 

Edward's Effigy in Canterbury Cathedral

Despite his more exalted title, Prince Edward’s ties to the Aquitaine were much weaker than those of either Eleanor or Richard. By the time Edward was born in 1330, Eleanor and Richard’s once vast Duchy of Aquitaine had been reduced to the coastal region from roughly Rochefort (south of La Rochelle) to the border of Navarre, just south of Bayonne. English control extended only as far inland as La Reole. The region had for almost a hundred years been called Guyenne, a word derived from Aquitaine but referring to the much reduced area under English control compared to the glory-days of Eleanor and Richard.

English control over Guyenne was, furthermore, distant and somewhat disinterested. The last English king to set foot in Guyenne had been Edward of Woodstock’s great-great grandfather, Edward I. The lords and commons of Guyenne were loyal to the English crown for two reasons: 1) because England was the primary market for the region’s chief product: wine; in short, there were very strong economic reasons to be “part” of England, and 2) precisely because the English kings were far away and largely disinterested in Guyenne — as long as they paid taxes to the crown.

At the time of Prince Edward’s birth at Woodstock in 1330, Guyenne had been for generations nothing more than a source of revenue and wine for the English crown, while the residents of Guyenne had become accustomed to running their own affairs with very little interference.

Everything changed with the death of the Charles IV, the last Capetian King of France, in 1328. Edward III of England was the eldest son of Charles IV’s sister Isabella of France. He claimed the throne of France through her, while the French chose to crown instead Philip of Valois, the son of Charles IV’s uncle, as Philip VI of France. This dispute over the succession to the crown of France spawned what is known as the Hundred Years War between England and France.

Medieval Depiction of the Hundred Years' War

That war came to Guyenne in 1337, the same year that Edward of Woodstock turned seven years old and was created Duke of Cornwall by his father. (He was already, since 1333, Earl of Chester.) Philip VI (like his ancestor Philip II) chose to strike at his rival on the English throne by confiscating and then attacking his territories on the continent, in this case what was left of the Aquitaine or Guyenne. From 1337 to 1340, the French laid waist to the towns and villages of Guyenne that did not acknowledge the sovereignty of Philip of Valois.

By a combination of force and bribery, Valois greatly reduced the English hold on Guyenne. The revenues the King of England had enjoyed from this rich province dried up and his prestige suffered significantly. By 1345, Edward III had had enough. He launched a counter-offensive against the French in Guyenne. Notably, however, he did not go himself, but rather sent “lieutenants,” who acted in his name, most notably the Duke of Lancaster.

In 1346, Edward III undertook his most ambitious campaign against France yet. (There had been two earlier attempts to win the French crown by force of arms.) The plan called for the Duke of Lancaster to fight north from Guyenne and join up with the main force under King Edward that would land in Brittany or Normandy. Although, the plan was not implemented for various reasons, Edward III won a significant victory over the French at the Battle of Crécy in Normandy on September 26, 1346.

Medieval Portrayal of the Battle of Crecy

His son, Edward of Woodstock, now aged 16 and since 1343 Prince of Wales, took part in the battle as the commander of the “van” — the division that took the brunt of the French attacks. It was a battle that immediately established Prince Edward’s credentials as an outstanding knight and was the start of his legend as a “flower of chivalry.”

Prince Edward went on to take part in the siege of Calais, which, after its fall on August 4, 1347, was settled with English and became a bastion of England inside of France for centuries to come. A year later Prince Edward was one of the founding members of the Order of the Garter and for the next eight years he distinguished himself more on the tourney fields than the battlefield.

Edward, Prince of Wales, as a Knight of the Garter

But in 1352, the French made a new assault on Guyenne under the command of the Comte d’Armagnac, a local lord loyal to the Valois. Armagnac succeeded in regaining much of the territory the Duke of Lancaster had been able to win back seven years earlier. By 1355, the situation had become acute enough for the Gascon lords loyal to England to appeal to King Edward for a new expedition. Edward III was ready to make a new bid for the French crown and he decided on the same strategy he had devised in 1346: a two pronged attack from the north and the south.

Surprisingly, he chose to send his eldest son, Edward of Woodstock, Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall and Prince of Wales, to go to Guyenne. From the sources, it appears that the choice was in direct response to a request from the loyal lords of Guyenne. They wanted the Prince because sending the Heir to the Throne represented a significantly greater commitment on the part of the English crown and so sent a strong signal to the French.

Edward of Woodstock's Coat of Arms

Thus it was not until he reached the age of 25 that Edward of Woodstock first set foot in the Aquitaine. He came as his father’s lieutenant, endowed with far reaching authority and near complete independence. His short-term mandate was to subdue and punish the disloyal lords and towns of Guyenne (those who had in the last decades done homage to the French king). His longer-term objective was to restore English control over the region, make the local population afraid of committing treason against the English crown in the future, and asserting his father’s claim to the throne of France. It was not a peaceful mission.

Prince Edward landed in Bordeaux on September 20, 1355 and in October he launched an offensive directed against the the Comte d’Armagnac, the French king’s proxy in Guyenne. Armagnac chose a defensive strategy, withdrawing behind the strong walls of Toulouse. Prince Edward had no siege equipment and the weather was turning bad; most commanders would have withdrawn to Bordeaux and enjoyed the wine and women for the winter.

Prince Edward instead took his raiding force past Toulouse and struck at the rich region east of Toulouse that had never been part of English Aquitaine and was completely unprepared for war. Tellingly, when Carcassonne offered a huge bribe to stop him from burning the town but refused to acknowledge the Plantagenet claim to the crown of France, Edward rejected the bribe. This raid had nothing to do with asserting English rights to the Aquitaine. Rather it was about his father’s claim to the French throne.

Prince Edward's Motto (curiously in German): I Serve
At Narbonne the raid reached its extreme limit, and thereafter Prince Edward masterfully extricated his dangerously exposed expeditionary force, avoiding being cut off by Armagnac. The raid allegedly destroyed 500 towns and villages and seriously damaged the economy of the region, thereby denying the Valois “usurper” valuable revenue while also intimidating the inhabitants. Militarily, it was audacious, brilliantly executed and successful. As a start to a long-term relationship with the Aquitaine, however, it was not particularly auspicious. As a means of winning the love of the residents of Aquitaine it was downright disastrous.

In the following year, Prince Edward carried out the plan to lead an army north from Guyenne as one part of a two-pronged pincer intended to strike at the heart of France and win his father the French crown. Again the armies failed to connect, and while withdrawing back toward Guyenne, Prince Edward was pinned down and surrounded by the combined forces of the Valois King, now John II, his sons and most of the major barons of France.

At a field near Eleanor of Aquitaine's beloved Poitiers, Prince Edward took up a defensive position exploiting the terrain as much as possible. He deployed his archers masterfully, and when the moment came he led a cavalry charge against the approaching forces of the French King that would not have shamed Richard the Lionheart. (Many accounts still claim that Prince Edward’s counter-attack was on foot, but Richard Barber argues very convincingly that the attack was mounted. See: Richard Barber, Edward, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine: A Biography of the Black Prince, Boydell, 1978.) At the end of the day, King John II of France was Prince Edward’s prisoner. It was a brilliant and decisive victory, far more significant than the Battle of Agincourt.

Medieval Depiction of the Battle of Poitiers

After wintering in Bordeaux with his immensely valuable prize, Prince Edward sailed for England in March 1357. Diplomacy replaced warfare as the French and English negotiated King John’s ransom and the terms of his release. Twice the Dauphin refused to accept the terms his father negotiated from weakness as a prisoner in London. In 1359, the English launched yet another invasion of France through Normandy, but the French refused to come out and fight (and risk another defeat like Crécy or Poitiers), but the English were not strong enough to seize Paris. Finally, on May 1, 1360 the Treaty of Brétigny was signed in which King Edward renounced his claim to the throne of France in exchange for obtaining a much expanded Aquitaine in full sovereignty, i.e. not as a vassal of the King of France (as Eleanor and Richard had been), but as an independent Principality. From at least this time if not before, King Edward intended his eldest son, Prince Edward, to rule over the Aquitaine.

Prince Edward does Homage to his father for the Aquitaine
Due to various disputes about the details and implementation of the treaty, it was not until July 19, 1362 that Prince Edward was officially named Prince of Aquitaine. In October the same year he finally married, and shortly afterwards departed to Bordeaux to take up his new duties. The territories he was sent to rule represented one third of the territory of France! The border extended beyond Poitiers, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s beloved residence, and beyond Limoges and Cahors, including the Rouergue with Rodez and Millau, and stopped only just short of Toulouse.

While Aquitaine in these borders were closer to what Eleanor of Aquitaine had inherited and held, in fact it incorporated many towns and lords whose loyalty was by now wholly French. It was more than 150 years since these regions had been ruled by Richard the Lionheart, and even in his day the barons had been restless and rebellious. Any loyalty they owed Richard had been as Duke of Aquitaine, not King of England. Furthermore, Eleanor and Richard had both spoken the langue d’oc of the region; Prince Edward did not. In retrospect, Prince Edward’s rule seems doomed to failure.

Prince Edward's Signet Ring, now in the Louvre

Yet he got off to a good start. From 1362-1367 he and his wife, Joan of Kent, presided over a brilliant and much admired court at Bordeaux. It was in Bordeaux that both their sons, Edward and Richard, were born. But in 1367, (at his father’s behest), Prince Edward was encouraged to become embroiled in a succession dispute in Castile. He agreed to support the legitimate King (Pedro, often referred to as “the Cruel”) against his bastard half-brother, Enrique of Trastamara, who was supported (surprise, surprise!) by the French.

The Spanish adventure, despite a brilliant battlefield victory at Najera in April 1367, was to prove catastrophic for Prince Edward. Pedro the Cruel reneged on his lavish promises to pay all the expenses of the campaign, forcing Edward to raise the money through taxes. Taxes are never popular, and now his new subjects, never fully reconciled to English rule, had a reason to rise up against him — encouraged, aided and abetted by the French, of course. Even more tragic, Prince Edward returned from Najera deathly ill. Although historians have never diagnosed with certainty just what the illness was, it slowly but surely debilitated and finally killed him.

The Diptych of Wilton from 1390, believed to be portraits of Richard II (kneeling), his father the Black Prince (uncrowned) and his grandfather (Edward III) and great (or great-great) grandfather, Edward II (or Edward I). Some historians suggest this is the most realistic portrait of the Black Prince.

In 1372, ten years after he had come to Aquitaine, Prince Edward left Bordeaux for the last time. He returned to England and surrendered the principality to his father. It is probable that he departed embittered by the disloyalty of his subjects. The revolt of the city of Limoges had so enraged him that he allowed it to be sacked by his troops, commanding, it is said, from a liter. The sack of Limoges has long been seen as a dark blot on his reputation as a chivalrous prince. He had also lost and buried his first born son, Edward in the Aquitaine.

Once in England, despite his deteriorating health, Prince Edward played an important role in politics. He opposed his senile father’s increasingly grasping mistress and supported the so-called “Good Parliament.” But he died before his father in 1376, leaving his second son Richard, to succeed at his father’s death as Richard II.

The Black Prince's lovely tomb in Canterbury Cathedral
Unlike Richard the Lionheart or Eleanor, Edward of Woodstock was first and foremost an Englishman.
Helena P. Schrader still hopes to write a biographical novel (in several parts!) about Edward Plantagenet, Prince of Wales and Aquitaine. Meanwhile, however, is is completing a three-part biographical novel about Balian d'Ibelin, who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187, and later served as Richard the Lionheart's envoy, negotiating the end of the Third Crusade. 

Visit her website at: http://defenderofjerusalem.com or her blog: http://defendingcrusaderkingdoms.blogspot.com. She also has an author website: http://helenapschrader.com


  1. I do hope you write this series, I so enjoy your style!!

  2. Another excellent article! I'm looking forward to the book as well. The Black Prince has ever been a favorite of mine.

  3. Thank you both! I will get to Edward eventually, but I estimate it will be three to four years from now after I retire and can give it (and the marketing platforms I will need) the time and energy they deserve.


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