Image of the Month: Edward, the Black Prince

Today marks the 691st anniversary of the birth of Edward of Woodstock, eldest son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. Born June 15, 1330, Edward was made Duke of Cornwall in 1337 and, at age twelve, became Prince of Wales. He was a founding knight in his father’s creation of the Order of the Garter, not long after having distinguished himself at Crécy, and was known as “the embodiment of all valor.”

Not long ago I wrote of my determination to finally read Michael Jones’s biography, The Black Prince, which details the life of Edward of Woodstock, son of King Edward III of England. Having owned the book since 2019, I’d been really ancy to get going, and not too long ago, at last, I made a start to it.

One thought that often lingered in my mind regarded how Edward appeared, probably because I didn’t know much about him. Seeing someone, whether in real or by way of an image, gives us an idea of their personality, what they are (were) like, or at least we seem to think so. Having none of this—at the time I found only dozens and dozens of sites with images of his tomb—then pushed me toward the book, and here we are.

My copy’s cover has only a drawing of the Prince’s effigy (though I hasten to say it is beautiful), but another edition carries a painting of Edward: Edward, Prince of Wales, 1330-76, The Black Prince by Benjamin Burnell (c. 1820).

Edward looks to me like a serious man, which fits in with how I had begun to imagine him—humored, perhaps at times, with some of life’s peculiarities, though never really showing it. I thought the image was a little bit attractive, and I especially liked his nose and beard. Still, it is halved, perhaps for dramatic effect, and I really wanted to see it all. Without the entire picture, something seemed unsettled, not quite right. I found the full painting in a few pages, such as here and, for a fuller image, here (scroll down at link).

I was right to wonder about it. On Jones’s cover, the prince appears to be focused, even “contemplative,” as this blogger notes; in the full painting he looks, well, sort of steely. Oddly, this rather fits in with the divisive portrait of him within society, at least that segment of modern society that knows enough about him to ask: warrior hero or villain? According to History Extraeven Edward’s contemporaries challenged his hero status, and one of the theories as to his sobriquet lays the blame on his brutal treatment of civilians at Limoges in 1370. Victorian children’s author Meredith Jones referenced his “angry flashing eyes,” which may or may not have been influenced by Burnell’s treatment of the Prince, itself perhaps born of historian Jean Froissart’s embellished records of Edward’s career.

Ostrich-feather crest, early 17th-century painted carving on main gate of Oriel College, University of Oxford. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

On the other hand, he was said to be generous to a fault, and seemed to have well learned the lessons taught to him by his father, who endured a four-year regency overseen by his mother, Isabella of France, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, after they drove Isabella’s husband, Edward II, off the throne, brutally executed his abusive gatekeeper and brought England dangerously close to civil war. In his own time he is also perceived as chivalric, and he famously adopts the motto of the blind Bohemian King John, whom he fights against at the battle of Crécy in 1376. It reads, Ich dien, “ I serve.”

So if we ask, “Who was Edward of Woodstock?” and are presented with the same image of opposing perspectives, it leaves us with as much mystery about who he was as when we started. A little bit of knowledge, however, could go  long way, in this case after having a look at the black armor Edward wears, and French historian Dr. Guilhem Pepin provides this in the article linked above. Black being rare in heraldry, he reasons, it then would be “completely feasible” for such a nickname as “Black Prince” to arise. After all, with so many Edwards—and so close together—to name, it also makes sense that at some point someone would have come up with something else to call him in order to avoid confusion.

For me it seems telling that Edward is said to have adopted King John’s motto, a piece of history that Jones writes of in The Black Prince. Edward defeated the blind king at Crécy, but seemed to have no barrier to speaking his admiration for John’s actions. From the small amount I have read about Edward in Jones’s book, he does indeed seem to have been contemplative by nature, however sneeringly the blogger above uses the word, and this may be his state of mind in the painting after all. Given that I’ve come across very little on Burnell thus far, it’s nearly impossible to say. What I can relate with accuracy, however, is that the Black Prince’s image gives nothing away, paving a path for further necessary investigation into this remarkable historical figure.

This blog originally appeared at Before the Second Sleep, where Lisl continues to write more of Edward, the Black Prince, as well as Richard III, King Harold Godwinson (Harold II) and a variety of other topics. 

By Lisl

My first career ambition was (at age six) to become a spy; shortly thereafter I added poetry to my list of goals. I went on to write in this genre through high school and beyond; by this time spying had lost a bit of its appeal, though I utilized stealthy methods to observe people and activity all around. I went on to earn an English degree and nowadays write on a variety of topics. I am currently at work on a collection of novellas, a series of essays re: Richard III and I dream of writing a really quality ghost story. My poetry has appeared in _Alaska Women Speak_ and I am a contributor to _Naming the Goddess_.

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