When in 1337 King Edward III began his war to regain those lands across the English Channel claimed by France that he considered his own by ancestral right, he instigated a period of animosity and warfare between England and France which not only created the ‘Hundred Years War’ but set the tone for the relationships between the two nations for centuries to come. The war would grind on in phases until its conclusion in 1453, but there can be little doubt that the person who dominated its early phases was Edward’s son, the Prince of Wales—the ‘Black Prince.’ Edward had inherited and learnt every aspect of statecraft and the waging of war that his father possessed and this bore little relationship to notions of chivalry which prevailed at that time. However, in the business of total war he was a master and the overwhelming victories at Calais, Crecy and Poitiers among others can be attributed to his ruthless military genius. This concise overview of the life of the ‘Black Prince’ considers his entire career and is a first rate ‘primer’ for those interested in the subject.
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The Black Prince had sailed from Plymouth on September 8th, 1355, with a large band of nobles. He was received at Bordeaux with great joy by all the nobles of the country. The Gascon lords were eager to fight under the banner of so brave a prince, and to distinguish themselves by feats of arms. They had long been annoyed by the inroads of the French, and they now begged the prince to lead them on a foraging expedition into France. They formed no plan for a campaign. The expedition was simply undertaken from love of plunder, and of fighting for its own sake. The prince had the absolute command, and had been appointed the king’s lieutenant in Aquitaine. The expedition which he now undertook shows us the dark side of chivalry. We see him and his young knights, in wanton love of adventure, spreading ruin and destruction over the fairest provinces of France.<br>
On leaving Bordeaux he divided his army into several “battles.” These were to march at some distance from one another, that they might devastate a larger extent of country. In this way they went through Armagnac to the foot of the Pyrenees. Then the prince turned northwards to Toulouse, where he waited, hoping in vain that the French might be provoked to battle. He next crossed the Garonne, and went to Carcassone, a rich and populous city, as large as York. The inhabitants fled in terror, leaving the city gates open. The town was plundered and burnt, but the citadel stood firm, and the prince passed on without troubling to take it.<br>
To save themselves from a like fate, the inhabitants of Montpelier destroyed their own suburbs, and the members of the ancient university fled to Avignon, to seek shelter with the Pope. Narbonne was one of the richest towns in France, and almost as large as London; it also was burnt and plundered. In eight weeks the Black Prince succeeded in ruining the richest district of France, from which the kings of France drew the chief part of their revenue. Peace had reigned there for more than a century, so that the inhabitants were ignorant of war and its horrors. Now five hundred towns and villages were smoking in ruins; the harvests were destroyed; everywhere there was devastation and ruin. The name of the Black Prince had become a terror, not only to the people whose peaceful homes he had destroyed, but to the whole of France.<br>
Laden with booty, he and his knights returned to Bordeaux. Here the Gascon soldiers were dismissed till the spring, when an expedition into Poitou was talked of. The winter was spent by the Black Prince with his knights in great joy and festivity. There, the herald Chandos tells us, was “beauty and nobleness, sincerity, bounty and liberality.” But neither were they quite idle; for in the course of the winter they succeeded in retaking such fortresses in Gascony as had been taken by the French.<br>
It was not till the middle of the following summer that the Black Prince gathered his men together to start on a second campaign. He left Bordeaux on the 8th July with only a small force—2,000 men-at-arms and 6,000 archers—partly Gascons and partly English. His object was to make another foraging expedition, and, if possible, proceed onwards to join his cousin the Duke of Lancaster in Normandy. He went through Auvergne northward as far as Berry. Froissart tells us that they found the province of Auvergne very rich, and all things in great abundance. They burnt and destroyed all the country they passed through, and when they entered any town which was well provisioned, they rested there some days to refresh themselves, and on leaving destroyed what remained, staving the heads of wine casks and burning the wheat and oats, so that their enemies should not save anything. Everywhere they found plenty as they advanced, for the country was very rich and full of forage for men-at-arms.<br>
At Vierzon, a town in Berry, they learnt that the King of France was at Chartres with a large army, and that all the passes and towns on the Loire were secured and so well guarded that no one could cross the river. The prince then held a council with his knights, and they resolved to return to Bordeaux through Touraine and Poitou, destroying all the country on their way. Near Romorantin some of the prince’s men had a skirmish with some French soldiers, whom they routed. The castle of Romorantin refused to yield to the prince. As he was assailing it one of his squires was killed at his side by a stone thrown from the castle. The prince was so furious that he swore he would not leave that place till he had the castle and all in it in his power. Cannons were brought forward, and Greek-fire was shot upon the town, till a large tower of the castle, covered with thatch, caught fire and was all in a blaze. Then the garrison had to yield; but the prince treated them nobly, and set many knights and squires at liberty, whilst he made the lords, who had commanded the castle, ride by his side and attend him as his prisoners.<br>
When the King of France heard that the prince was hastening back to Bordeaux, he determined to pursue him, thinking that he could not escape. He left Chartres, and marched south, to intercept him on his way back. John was marching almost in a direct line south, whilst the Black Prince was marching from Romorantin in a south-westerly direction. It was therefore impossible but that they should meet. The English, however, were ignorant of their danger, till they accidentally discovered, when near Charigny, on September 17, by coming upon a French reconnoitring party, that the great French army was between them and Bordeaux. Escape was impossible. The Prince had only 8,000 men, while John had a mighty army of 50,000. But Prince Edward would rather fight even against such odds than yield to an enemy. All that remained for him was to choose his position well and fight his best. The skilful tactics displayed by the prince in disposing of his small force, show us that he was something more than merely a brave soldier.