of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter
G. Beidler, Lehigh University
3. The Black Prince
Eldest son of Edward III, Edward the Prince of Wales was to
have been king of England at his father's death. Because his
father outlived him by a year, however, Edward had to content
himself with being the father of the next king, Richard II. Still,
though he was not destined to wear the crown of England, he achieved
through his military prowess a fame greater than either his father's
or his son's, and he made for himself a name feared and respected
more than either of theirs. The Winston Churchill of his time,
this man who came to be known as the Black Prince mirrored almost
perfectly the military and chivalric ideals of his time and gave
England good reason to be proud of herself as a nation.
Edward III became embroiled in situations that gave rise to
what was later known as the Hundred Years War. Although it was
not a "war" in the usual sense, and though it did not
last a hundred years, the series of battles that it entailed
became the dominant foreign policy issue for England in the last
three-quarters of the fourteenth century. At the death of King
Charles IV of France in 1328, Edward III, as a nephew of the
previous French king, tentatively advanced his claim to the throne.
Philip of Valois, however, a cousin of the previous king, was
named king, and Edward let the matter drop for the moment, having
more urgent matters to attend to in England.
In 1337 Edward once again advanced his claim to the throne,
this time with full military seriousness. A decisive naval victory
against a French fleet off the coast of Flanders gave him the
confidence to plan a land invasion of Normandy in 1345. Taking
his son with him, he once again won a decisive victory against
the French at Crecy in 1346. The Black Prince--though only sixteen--played
an impressive part in that battle, engaging in direct front-line
personal combat. More important, however, he was able to observe
both his father's strong leadership and the near invincibility
of the English longbowmen when pitted against the lumbering,
heavily armored, mounted French noblemen and the slower-firing
crossbows of their ground troops.
It was not until a decade later, during the battle at Poitiers
in 1356, that the young prince became a full-fledged military
commander in his own right, leading English troops against a
much larger French army. The Black Prince not only won the battle
against a formidable enemy on that enemy's own turf, he also
captured John, King of France. He carried his royal prisoner
back to London, where King John was treated with full chivalric
honor and respect while appropriate terms of ransom were arranged.
The battle at Poitiers was a wonderful event for England and
for its Prince of Wales. Young, bold, handsome, articulate, graceful,
and chivalric, the Black Prince became the military idol of the
era. His gallantry properly symbolized the growing confidence
of his nation. He became the darling of London and the most admired
man in England.
It is not surprising that such a man should have had a number
of love affairs and should have fathered several children. But
when he came to think of marriage, he was drawn--with apparently
substantial encouragement from her--to his cousin Joan of Kent.
Widowed in 1360, she was, at 33, a lovely, charming, and amorous
woman of the high nobility. Two years her junior, the Black Prince
had known his delightful cousin from childhood. He determined
to marry no one but her, even though it would require a special
papal dispensation for him to marry his own blood relative. The
Black Prince's father thought it a stupid marriage, for he had
hopes that his son, surely the most eligible bachelor in Europe,
would be sensible enough to marry a woman who would bring with
her some political advantage on the continent. To the people
of England, however, the wedding was a wonderful and romantic
event, proof that their chivalric prince would not let practical
considerations stand in the way of victory, honor, or love.
The Black Prince's fortunes began to wane when he crossed
the channel to take up duties as Prince of Aquitaine, that vast
territory in the southwest of what is now France. His victory
at Poitiers had gained for England legal right to this vast territory,
and the Black Prince was the logical person to manage and control
it. He set up court at Bordeaux, and for a time all was well.
The Black Prince, however, learned early what others who tried
to manage the British Empire would learn later: that it is difficult
for a foreigner to rule a people whose nationalistic loyalties
In the end financial difficulties, a pointless expedition
to defend the throne of Don Pedro of Spain, and a debilitating
sickness which he apparently incurred on that Spanish campaign
in 1367, all followed by the loss of French lands and the death
of Edward, his oldest and favorite son, demoralized the Black
Prince. He set sail for home with Joan and Richard, his second
son by her, in 1371. Bedridden with dysentery, cirrhosis, or
syphilis, he lingered for a few years before dying in 1376.
The name by which he is universally referred today was not
conferred until many years later. Apparently it was originally
a French term of fear and hatred, for this "prins noire"
who had so humiliated them must have seemed, indeed, an emissary
of the dark devil himself. To the English, however, he came to
symbolize all that was brightest and most noble in a tumultuous
The embalmed body of the Black Prince lay in state in Westminster
Hall for nearly four months before it was moved for interment
to the cathedral at Canterbury, not far from the tomb of St.
Thomas. It is entirely possible that Chaucer himself took part
in the funeral procession from London, down through Rochester,
on the Black Prince's funeral pilgrimage to the cathedral in
which the prince had requested, in his will, to be buried. But
whether or not Chaucer was on that particular pilgrimage to Canterbury,
the death of the exciting and chivalrous heir-apparent to the
English throne, followed a year later by the death of the venerable
Edward III, removed from public view two living examples of knighthood.
The death of the Black Prince meant that Chaucer was to become
the subject not of this prototype of medieval manhood, but of
that man's weak young son, Richard. Chaucer, then, was to spend
his most productive artistic years serving not a bold and dashing
man, but a retiring and unfortunate lesser one. There is no way
to know whether Chaucer's poetic output would have been different
under the kingship of the Black Prince, but it is a curious fact
that there are few manly heroes in Chaucer's fiction. The Knight
on Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrimage and Arveragus in the Franklin's
Tale may be exceptions, but not even they are universally
admired by Chaucer's readers.
Chapter Three of Backgrounds
to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University