What made the ‘Black Prince’ black? Was it is Armour, his Shield or his Heart?

The only thing we can be sure of when talking of the 14th century is … there is a lot of which we cannot be absolutely sure! The truest sources of information lie in hand-written documents or in pictures drawn from the era.  If no hard evidence exists then we can only speculate at why something happened or, if it happened at all.

One of the questions falling into this category is why is the ‘Black Prince’ called the Black Prince?


Edward of Woodstock kneeling to his father, King Edward III

Edward, son of King Edward III, was born at Woodstock. By virtue of his birthplace he would be known as ‘Edward of Woodstock’ and, as the eldest son, he was destined for the title ‘Prince of Wales,’ first held as a British heir-apparent by his grandfather, Edward II.  We do know Edward of Woodstock never carried the title of ‘Black Prince’ during his lifetime. There simply is no record of it. He would have been thought of as Edward IV, no one doubting that he would succeed his father. But he was never to wear England’s crown. In fact, the first time the ‘Black Prince’ sobriquet is found is in the writing of Richard Grafton’s ‘Chronicle of England’ ( 1568) and by that time another Edward IV had taken the throne (War of the Roses – trust me, he’s another story! )

So how did Edward of Woodstock earn the name of the ‘Black Prince?’

Thoughts are divided but two main ideas emerged and are generally agreed upon. One is for the colour of his armour, as specifically noted by one source as ‘an ornate black cuirass (torso protecting armour), presented to the young prince by his father at the Battle of Crécy.  It is said to be written somewhere in French (location not cited) that Edward at Crécy was ‘en armure noire en fer bruni’ – in black armour of burnished steel.


An example of a cuirass

Or, is it because of the black-coloured background on his coat of arms? This coat of arms had its own story also deriving from the battle at Crécy where the King of Bohemia took up arms on the French side and rode blindly into battle – literally! King John of Bohemia was 50 years of age and had been blind for a decade.  Edward of Woodstock was so impressed by this king’s courage that we are told he took up the king’s coat of arms of three ‘austruch’ feathers and his motto ‘Ich dien’ (I serve) for his own. However, this story too has since fallen into disrepute.  Some debate that the German motto ‘Ich dien’ is too close to the near sounding Welsh phrase of ‘Eich Dyn’  (your man) which has been suggested the Prince used to endear himself to the Welsh. Not a bad idea, especially considering their able men with longbows!  And others declare the King of Bohemia had no such motto and his crest consisted of wings not feathers. It is more likely the feathers came from Edward’s mother’s side, Philippa of Hainault.


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The actual shield and effects (achievements) of the Black Prince hanging in Canterbury Cathedral

Or the other idea is that the name was for the Prince’s brutal reputation towards the French in Aquitaine coupled with the legend of the ‘Angevin’ hot temper; the Plantagenet bloodline. He is described by one French writer as ‘the greatest of black boars.’  And then some credit the title to the prince’s black heart as seen by his siege against Limoges where, breaching the rules of chivalry, he had 3,000 residents including women and children put to death (this number has also been disputed). It is clearly recorded that Edward was in a violent rage and intent on revenge but even chroniclers of the time were horrified by this pointless massacre. One can only wonder why he felt so inflamed on this particular occasion. But again, that has been rebuffed as ‘French bias’ but then are the English chroniclers any less ardent when singing praises? It sounds a bit like fourteenth century propaganda but I’m sure somewhere between the two, lies the truth.

So whether or not it was his armour, his temper, his coat-of-arms or simply someone’s style of writing fashionable to the times, Edward of Woodstock will now always be remembered as ‘The Black Prince.’ And if I may play the devil’s advocate here, to be fair to both sides, I must conclude then that one of Edward’s greatest adversaries, Bertrand du Guesclin, one could say ‘the French counterpart’ to the dear Prince, was also known (in his own time) as the ‘Black dog of Brocéliande.’


I wonder how many times was the Black Prince’s hand bitten by the black dog?

I have had the honour of standing beside both tombs; the Black Prince’s now caged. I’m told it is to stop the public from entirely rubbing off the gold paint on his effigy. And even though the guard sat only feet away, I still could not resist touching it for luck. Tsk! Tsk! Shame on me.

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Such as thou art, sometime was I.
Such as I am, such shalt thou be.
I thought little on th’our of Death
So long as I enjoyed breath.
But now a wretched captive am I,
Deep in the ground, lo here I lie.
My beauty great, is all quite gone,
My flesh is wasted to the bone.


Footnote:  As explained in the back of ‘The Lily and the Lion’ the authors unashamedly use the term ‘the Black Prince’ in full knowledge that it was anachronistic. Their excuse – ‘It was simply too good not to use.’

Cathy T


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