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Murrey and Blue interviews Michael K. Jones

  • Which of the Black Prince’s military achievements is the most impressive and why?

The main attraction in writing a biography of the Black Prince was to bring to life his martial exploits, for Edward of Woodstock, the eldest son of Edward III, captured the imagination of fourteenth century Europe. The chronicler Jean Froissart described him as ‘the flower of all chivalry’; the Chandos Herald, who fought with him, saw him as ‘the embodiment of all valour’. Thomas Walsingham wrote: ‘He never attacked a people he did not conquer; he never besieged a city he did not take.’ Even the French were impressed. A Valois chronicler stated: ‘He was one of the greatest and best knights ever seen. In his time, he was renowned the world over and won the respect of all.’

The Black Prince won his spurs at Crécy, on 26 August 1346, aged just sixteen. Edward III’s army used the longbow to deadly effect – annihilating the French nobility – and the Prince fought with conspicuous courage that day. Nine years later he received his first independent command as king’s lieutenant in Gascony, conducting a brutal plundering raid that scorched the earth of Languedoc. But it was at Poitiers, on 19 September 1356, that he won a truly remarkable victory over the numerically superior French, capturing their king, Jean II. In the battle’s aftermath, Jean was forced to accept the terms of a treaty which marked the zenith of England’s dominance in the Hundred Years War.

Edward of Woodstock then became Prince of Aquitaine, ruling – from 1362 – over a vast swathe of territory in southwest France. Five years later, he led an Anglo-Gascon army into northern Spain on behalf of the exiled ruler Pedro of Castile and won his last great success. At Nájera – on 3 April 1367 – he routed the opposing Franco-Castilian army of Enrique of Trastamara and restored Pedro I to the throne.

In purely military terms, the battle of Nájera was the Black Prince’s most impressive achievement. He skilfully reconnoitred the terrain before making a daring night-time march around his opponent’s position, drawn up on a wide plain to the east of the town. As dawn broke, his army made a surprise attack upon Enrique’s left flank. This was instinctive generalship – the Prince deploying his bowmen and dismounted men-at-arms with devastating effect before throwing in his cavalry to pursue and cut down his fleeing foe. The chronicler Henry of Knighton said simply: ‘It was the greatest battle to have taken place in our time.’

Yet, in a broader context, Nájera represented a flawed triumph. The Prince’s conduct of the campaign was on occasions hesitant and lacklustre, and although this was redeemed by a fine victory, its consequences (in which the army succumbed to a dysentery outbreak and Pedro reneged on financial obligations he had promised to repay) left him struggling with sickness and massive debt.

It was the battle of Poitiers that made the strongest impression on contemporaries. Here the Prince showed the full range of his talents: tactical acumen and astonishing courage during the course of the fighting and praiseworthy chivalry – in his treatment of his captured opponent, King Jean II – in its aftermath. It was the summit of his career as England’s warrior-hero.

  •  Do you think the Black Prince would have made a good king?

 The Black Prince passed away on 8 June 1376 – just over a year before the death of his father – after enduring a long and painful illness. His body lay in state in Westminster Hall and his funeral was then held at Canterbury Cathedral, some three and a half months later, on 29 September, amidst an outpouring of national grief. ‘Thus died the hope of the English’, Thomas Walsingham remarked. The poet John Gower hailed the Prince as an exemplar of knighthood: ‘He was never discomfited in a fight…he was a wellspring of courage.’ And in his funeral sermon Thomas Brinton, bishop of Rochester, evoked an era that seemed to be passing: ‘His wisdom appeared not only in his habit of speaking prudently’, Brinton emphasised, ‘but also in his manner of acting, because he did not merely talk like the lords of today but was a doer of deeds.’

Yet an idealised picture was being created. The Prince had, after all, been seriously ill for a long time and it suited contemporaries to remember the glorious victories of his prime rather than his final years in France, which were tarnished by the levying of a hearth tax on his Gascon subjects, the ill-fated resumption of the war and the sack of the French town of Limoges – although here hostile propaganda would play a part in unjustly blackening the Prince’s reputation.

The Black Prince’s generosity towards his fellow fighters left him constantly in debt.  A measure of financial prudence was necessary to be a successful ruler. However, if he had retained his health, his martial standing and easy rapport with the aristocracy would have been considerable assets as king. And at beginning of his rule as Prince of Aquitaine he did indeed show much promise, particularly in his commitment to justice and good government. In contrast, the last days of Edward III’s reign were beset by corruption and mismanagement, making the profound sense of loss at the Prince’s passing only too understandable.

  • Was any part of Richard II’s ‘tyranny’ justified?

Richard II was a very different man from his father. Intelligent and cultivated, he thought carefully about the dignity of kingship, possibly modelling some of his court protocol on what he had learnt of the magnificence of the Black Prince’s rule in Aquitaine. Yet he was no warrior – preferring instead to make peace with France – and his relations with his nobles were marred by distrust and outbursts of petty spite.

The period of ‘tyranny’, a description coined by the chronicler Thomas Walsingham, covered the last two years of Richard’s rule, from 1397-9, when the monarch took his revenge on the Appellants (a group of lords who had restricted his royal powers some eight years earlier), created a host of new aristocratic titles, imposed forced loans upon his subjects and strengthened royal power in the localities. In Richard’s eyes such measures were justified by his own concept of kingship, ‘an obligation laid upon him by God’, but political theory did not match practical reality. He ruled in a climate of fear, alienating many around him and ultimately sowed the seeds of his own downfall.

  • In the fifteenth century, did the Yorkists or the Lancastrians have a better claim to the throne?

 The Lancastrian dynasty began when Henry Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, deposed the anointed king, Richard II, forcing him to abdicate. The Lancastrian claim to the throne derived from their descent from John of Gaunt (Henry’s father), the third surviving son of Edward III, through the male line. If the female line was given precedence the House of York had the better claim, through their descent from Lionel duke of Clarence (Edward’s second surviving son), through the marriage of Lionel’s daughter, Philippa, to Edmund Mortimer, earl of March – it was the granddaughter of this union, Anne Mortimer, Richard duke of York’s mother, who brought this claim into his family.

However enmity between the houses of York and Lancaster – founded upon this dynastic fault line – a feature of the drift to civil war in the 1450s, was by no means inevitable. Richard duke of York served Henry VI loyally as king’s lieutenant in France and it was only after his replacement by his hated rival Edmund Beaufort, duke of Somerset and fears that Somerset might manipulate the king and challenge York’s position within the realm as heir presumptive (evident in his articles against the duke in 1452) that the Mortimer claim, and the family’s descent from Lionel of Clarence, was once more considered. In short, it was Henry VI’s failure to dispense patronage and political influence even-handedly that propelled the house of York towards asserting its own claim to the throne.

  • Did Margaret Beaufort consistently plot to put her son, Henry Tudor, on the throne, or was she – initially at least – trying to engineer his return to England, and a position within the Yorkist realm?

It is a pleasure to see such a resurgence of interest in Margaret Beaufort – one of the great political survivors of the late middle ages – in fiction, non-fiction and TV. When I undertook my 1992 biography, with Malcolm Underwood, The King’s Mother, little was known about her political role and many of the key facts of her life misunderstood. Tudor historians would later insinuate that Margaret was always trying to advance her son’s claim to the throne but the reality was rather different.

Margaret Beaufort was always the pragmatist – and the archives of St John’s College, Cambridge, show her negotiating with Edward IV to secure a title and marriage for Henry Tudor within the Yorkist polity, a course of action that she continued to pursue at the very beginning of Richard III’s reign. It was only later in the summer of 1483 that Margaret began plotting against Richard. In the words of Polydore Vergil she ‘was commonly called the head of that conspiracy’, but whether her intention at this stage was to promote her son’s claim to the throne or merely to support Buckingham’s rebellion is far from clear. An accessible, recent account of these machinations can be found in the book I wrote with Philippa Gregory and David Baldwin, The Women of the Cousins’ War and in my piece ‘Mother of the Tudors’ in the BBC History Magazine (January 2017).

For Michael Jones’s author website see:


Richard’s great-grandfather (?) and the origin of the House of York

King's Langley

Yet again the rumour about whether or not Edmund of Langley was the father of Richard of Conisburgh. The following article tells a fascinatingly true story of love, betrayal, treachery, revenge and just about everything else of that nature. How anyone cannot be riveted by 14th-15th century England, I really do not know.



Pedro I, Peter the Cruel, was the great great grandfather of Richard III and Edward IV, through Peter’s daughter, Isabella, wife of Edmund of Langley.(Another daughter, Constance of Castile, married John of Gaunt.)

Pedro or Peter has an interesting story—his life, his death and his subsequent reputation.
Born August 30, 1334, Peter was the last of the House of Ivrea, coming to the throne at age sixteen after the plague-related death of his father, Alfonso XI. Standing around 6 foot tall, he was muscular and handsome, with blond hair, fair skin and pale blue eyes. A patron of the arts, Peter was well read and learned…but he had a familiar vice: he ‘loved women greatly.’

He had a powerful and influential mother, Maria, who King Alfonso had seemingly ignored for his mistress, Eleanor or Leonor of Guzman. Maria perhaps imbued young Peter with hatred for his many bastard half-brothers and their mother Eleanor—and when Alfonso died, Queen Maria ordered her rival Eleanor put to death.

Peter did break free of his mother’s influence, however, and took a mistress, the beautiful     Maria Padilla…who he then married in secret. Maria Padilla influenced Peter greatly, causing a fall-out between the young King and one of his top ministers and supporters, Juan Alonso de Albuquerque.

Queen Maria, thinking that Maria Padilla was only her son’s mistress, pressed upon the young man to make a worthy alliance by marrying Blanche of Bourbon. …He reluctantly agreed but this meant he had to deny ever marrying Maria. Almost immediately after the wedding, he abandoned his new Queen, and a few years later Blanche, imprisoned in various castles,  died—reputedly at Peter’s command, though the circumstances are sketchy and controversial, ranging from poison by herbs to being shot with a crossbow. (Removing the unwanted Blanche did not stop Peter’s penchant for bigamy; later, he began another bigamous marriage with Juana de Castro, whom he also promptly deserted. Maria Padilla remained his love throughout all, and they had four children including Isabella and Constance.)

In the civil wars that troubled Spain, Peter soon became ‘notorious’ for a number of murders, including slaying a contingent of Moors at a banquet in order to replace their leader with someone more in line with his cause. Meanwhile, his half-brothers from his father’s relationship with Eleanor Guzman assailed him with armies composed mainly of mercenaries. Eventually, driven from his lands, he fled to Galicia, where he ordered the murder of an Archbishop and a Dean who opposed him. While there, he also met with one of his half-brothers, Fadrique, who had supposedly come looking for reconciliation. Apparently as they spoke, he had Fadrique hit over the head with a mace by an assassin…and then Peter sat down calmly and ate his lunch overlooking the cooling body.

Peter’s main rival was his half-brother Enrique (Henry). Henry liked to insult Peter by calling him such names as ‘King of the Jews’ to foment unrest against him through anti-Semitic feeling. Peter himself was known to be quite fair to Jews, and took measures against any activities harmful to Spain’s Jewish population.

Edward the Black Prince threw in his lot with the exiled Peter and used his strength and military prowess to return him to the throne. However, Peter was unwilling or unable to repay the debts he owed Edward after the campaign, and, as his health declined, the Black Prince left him and returned to England.

Henry continued to wage war against Peter. Eventually, Peter holed up in the fortress of Montiel, where he attempted negotiations with a well-known ‘double dealer’, Bertrand du Guescelin. Bertrand promptly fared to Henry’s camp and informed him of all Peter’s plans, and asked Henry for additional funds if du Guescelin would betray the King.

Henry agreed to his terms, and du Guescelin persuaded Peter to come to his tent on a matter of importance. When he arrived, Henry was hiding inside. Peter’s rival half-brother pulled a dagger, fell upon the king and promptly stabbed him to death. His body was left lying on the ground for three days, and was abused and mocked by his foes—similar to the fate off his descendant, Richard III, after the battle of Bosworth.

So was the ‘terrible tyrant’ Peter, deposed by the supposedly ‘noble Henry’, a thoroughly evil and universally hated man who eventually got his just deserts? Certainly Peter was a hard King, a fierce and uncompromising warrior who carried vengeance to an extreme; however the civil wars of the Iberian peninsula did have a particularly bloody character, even beyond those that took place in England, with personal vendettas carried to extreme levels …and certainly not all of those vendettas were carried out on Peter’s behalf.

Some time after his demise, Peter received another name besides Cruel—Peter the Just. Many said that he only killed those who would not submit to the law, and that he ruled fairly over common men. The main source of the evil legends about him came from one work—that of the Chronicler Pero Lopez de Ayala, who was serving under King Henry, Peter’s usurping bastard half-brother. Naturally, he had to bolster his new master’s rather shaky claim to the throne by ramping up the crimes of the former king.

As with some of chroniclers writing about Richard III, even Ayala’s essentially hostile tract does in fact mention positive points about the king—in Peter’s case, that many of his subjects regretted his death, especially the merchant classes.

Some of the more lurid tales about Peter seem, just as with Richard, somewhat folkloric and apocryphal in nature. Did he kill his unwanted wife Blanche by poison or by crossbow? The question might actually be, did he kill Blanche at all…the circumstances of her death remain an unproven legend, and contemporary accounts other than the biased Ayala’s state she died of ‘natural causes.’ The other macabre story of Peter calmly eating lunch over his murdered half-brother Fadrique’s body also smacks of legend rather than reality—it is similar in tone to Shakespeare’s lines in his play, Richard III, when Hastings is dragged away for execution and Richard says; Off with his head! Now, by Saint Paul I swear,
I will not dine until I see the same.

Interestingly, the English remembered Peter the Cruel in a much more positive light than the nobles of  Henry of Trastamare’s court—Chaucer even mentions Peter in The Monk’s Tale and recalls him as noble and honourable, rather than cruel.


Clara Estow—Peter the Cruel of Castile
Barbara Tuchman—A Distant Mirror

Constanza of Castile

In this excellent blog post Kathryn Warner refreshes our understanding of Constanza, Duchess of Lancaster, with her usual eye for false myth.

However, one particularly interesting fact arising from the post (in that it relates to the House of York) is that Pedro I, King of Castile, (Constanza’s father) was six feet tall with light blond hair!

This will be a shock to those who mistakenly believe that all Spaniards are dark-haired. (They are not and never have been.) It is also an indication that Catherine of Aragon’s light colouring may not have come purely from her Lancastrian ancestors, but also from her Spanish ones.

Moving lightly on, we should recall, of course, that Constanza’s sister, Isabella, or Isabel, married Edmund of Langley, first Duke of York. So the House of York will have inherited these genes as well. (It seems likely that Langley himself was also blond or auburn-haired and he was almost 6ft tall himself.)

It seems strange then that it is often assumed that Edward IV inherited his (supposed) blond colouring and stature from the Nevilles. Especially as I have yet to see evidence that the Nevilles were particularly tall or particularly tall.

(Reblogged from The Yorkist Age.)

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