Gateway to the Classics: Tales from Canterbury Cathedral by Mrs. Frewen Lord
Tales from Canterbury Cathedral by  Mrs. Frewen Lord

The Story of the Black Prince

One sunny June day, as long ago as the year 1330, there were great rejoicings in England, and especially in the palace of Woodstock, near Oxford. For that morning there had been born a baby prince, who was made as welcome as though every one knew that he would one day grow up to be a great soldier whose name would never be forgotten. The baby was christened Edward, after his father King Edward III., who was so proud of his little son that he at once gave handsome presents to the nurse and every one else who had care of the tiny Prince of Wales. Even the "rocker of the Prince's cradle" came in for a share of the good things, and was given 10 a year (which is about 100 of our money) for the rest of her life. So no wonder that this day—the 15th of June, 1330—was a very happy one for many people beside the King and Queen. It is said by one of the many writers who have told the story of the life of the Black Prince (as he afterwards came to be called), that although King Edward was so fond and so proud of his little son, yet he did not seem to have petted or made much of him as a baby and quite a little boy. "The King his father," so we are told, "brought him up not nicely or tenderly, but as soon as he had passed his swaddling clothes, inured him to hardships." But fortunately for the baby prince, his mother—Queen Philippa—was one of the wisest and best of the many wise and good Queens of England; and so the "hardships" probably did little Edward no harm, and as he grew older his father every few years gave him new honours and titles. When he was two years old he made him Earl of Chester, and when he was six Duke of Cornwall.

The first few years of Prince Edward's life were spent in Nottinghamshire. For at that time, and indeed for long afterwards, England and France were generally at war; and so it was thought safer for the Prince to be as far away as possible from the seashore, where the French would land their army should they invade England. Here in the country he lived with his tutor—Dr. Burley—and a few other boys who were educated with him; and here they were all made to work much harder than most small boys of that age are nowadays. Besides their ordinary lessons they were taught music, dancing, riding, and all kinds of athletic exercises. Then they had to learn how to wrestle and use their swords. Hunting and hawking were their chief amusements—all this before they were fourteen years old!

At fourteen, the age when most boys now go to a public school, Prince Edward was sent to Oxford; but he had only been there a year when his father took him away to go with him to France, "making him," as an old writer said, "a Souldier before he was a man." As you most likely know, King Edward III. was for many years of his reign at war with France. He had many possessions there, so many that he determined to make himself King of France—and this King Philip was determined to prevent. The English army, led by the King and the Prince of Wales, had almost reached Paris, when Edward found that he could go no further. He had no food for the soldiers, many of them were ill, and his only hope of safety was to try and reach his own country on the other side of the river Somme. Then at last King Philip thought he saw his chance to beat his enemy and put an end to the war. He followed the English, crossed the river after them, and on August 28, 1346, found his enemy's army encamped close by the forest of Crecy. At four o'clock on that hot Saturday afternoon, the battle of Crecy began. At the same time, too, a great storm which had been gathering up all day, broke. The thunder rolled, the lightning flashed, and the rain poured in torrents. Nowadays, when battles are fought with cannon and rifles, storm and rain are of little account, but in those days things were very different, as you will see. Of all his soldiers, King Philip was perhaps most proud of his troop of Italian crossbowmen. Fifteen thousand men armed with bows and arrows, added to his own Frenchmen, would, he had no doubt, make short work of his enemies. But then came the thunderstorm. The Italians were frightened out of their wits, and what was worse, they forgot to cover up their bows, the strings of which became quite soaked and sodden with the rain. Suddenly—almost as suddenly as it had begun—the storm ceased, and the sun shone out from behind the black clouds, full in the faces of the French and Italians, and almost blinding them. At the same moment came a shower of arrows from the English opposite, who, with the sun at their back, and their arrows and bows perfectly dry, saw and knew the right moment to shoot. The Italians tried to shoot back, but in vain; their bows were useless. Still the arrows of the enemy came, thicker and faster, until the air seemed full of them; and now the Italians fell on every side, wounded and killed by the arrows which showered on them, so it is said, "like hail or sleet." At last they could stand it no more; in spite of all King Philip and his knights could do, they turned and fled, the whole army was thrown into confusion, and so the battle of Crecy was lost. It was not until late at night that the fighting was all over; then fires and torches were lit, and then King Edward, coming down to the field of battle from the hill where he had been watching the fight, kissed Prince Edward before the whole army which he had that day led in battle for the first time, saying, "Sweet son, God give you good perseverance. You are my true son; right loyally have you acquitted yourself this day, and worthy are you of a crown." Indeed he might well be proud of him, for the young Prince had shown himself so brave a knight, and so eager to be in the midst of the fighting, that it was a wonder he was not killed. Once he was in great danger. He was wounded and knocked down, and would certainly have been killed had not a knight—the Earl of Beaumont—come to the rescue. He was carrying the great banner of Wales, and, throwing it over the Prince as he lay on the ground, he stood on it, and fought off the enemies until others came up, and between them they carried off the Prince—the Black Prince, as he was that day called, because he wore a suit of black armour. By this name he has been known ever since.

The next day King Edward, walking over the field of battle with the young Prince, and talking over with him all that had happened on that never-to-be-forgotten day, said, looking at the fifteen-year-old knight, "And now, what think ye of a battle: is it a pleasant game?"

For a time there was peace, and ten years passed away. Then another war broke out between the two countries. Once again the Black Prince was in France to fight his father's battles (for this time Edward III. himself could not leave England) with King John, the son of that King Philip who had fought the battle of Crecy. Once again the English won a great victory, at the battle of Poitiers (September 19, 1356). Not only were the French beaten, but their King and his youngest son, Philip, who was with him, were taken prisoners. "And now though King John had the hard hap to fall into the hands of an Enemie," for so the story is told in the quaint words of an old history, "yet he had the happiness to fall into the hands of a noble Enemie." Indeed, the Black Prince treated him as a guest and a King, rather than as a prisoner. The first evening after the battle he gave a great supper. King John and Prince Philip sat at one table, and all the lords and knights at another. The lords were waited on by the Prince's servants, but the King was waited on by the Black Prince himself. He would not be persuaded to sit down by so "great a Prince as the King" of France; and in this way he showed all who were with him how he wished and expected the captive King to be treated.

Soon afterwards they set out for England, and on their way to London stopped for a day at Canterbury, to visit the cathedral and to pray at the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. They then rode on to meet King Edward in London. You all probably know the story of how the Black Prince was welcomed home, and how the French King rode through the streets on a magnificent cream-coloured horse, while his conqueror was by his side on a little black pony.

For three years King John was a prisoner in England. Then at last, on June 30, 1360, he left the Savoy Palace, and went to a farewell banquet given in his honour by Queen Philippa at the Palace of Eltham. The next day he began his journey. Once again he was in Canterbury and once again he went to the cathedral to pray at the shrine of Thomas Becket, as he had done three years before. But his prayer this time was most likely a thanksgiving that his imprisonment was over, and that he was on his way to his own country. On the 5th of July he reached Dover, and ate his last dinner in England at Dover Castle with the Black Prince. The next day he went on board one of the ships sent by the King to take him across the Channel, and arrived in France at last, not in an hour and a half, as we do nowadays, but in two days. On the 8th of July, so we are told, he reached Calais in safety.

Another three years passed quietly away, and then the Black Prince married his cousin Joan, who was so beautiful that she was always called the Fair Maid of Kent. In memory of his wedding-day, he founded in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral, the chapel which is still called the Black Prince's Chantry. In Chapter II. I told you that one part of the crypt is walled off from the rest, and is still used for service. It is this very part which used to be the Black Prince's chapel, and the guide will show you where the old altars used to stand, and where, on the roof, you can still see his coat-of-arms, the coat-of-arms of Edward III., and in one place a face, which is supposed to be the face of Joan.

Here I must explain how it came about that this part of the crypt is used, as I told you it is, for a French service in French. Just about two hundred years after the Black Prince founded his chapel, Queen Elizabeth was reigning over England. As you know, Queen Mary, her sister, who was then just dead, was a Roman Catholic, and wished to make England a Roman Catholic country. So determined was she to do this, that people who refused to become Roman Catholics were burnt alive. All over England fearful things were done, and hundreds of men and women were killed, until Mary, as you know, came to be called "Bloody Mary." Then Elizabeth came to the throne, and all Protestants were safe in England. But in France they were still being persecuted, and so at last a band of French Protestants, called Huguenots, left their own country and came to England for protection. They were mostly silk-weavers, and they brought with them their looms. Then came the question what was to become of this poor French people who had settled down in Canterbury, and who spoke no language but French. The Queen, of course, soon heard about them, and she gave to them the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral. Part of it (the Black Prince's Chantry) they made into their church, and in part of it they set up their looms, and there they worked at their silk-weaving. In this little church underneath the great cathedral the descendants of those French Huguenots still have their French service on Sundays, and when you walk round you will see painted up on the walls texts and verses to remind them of the times of horror their forefathers went through before they came to find shelter and peace in England. The looms were, of course, long ago moved away. On the ceiling the Verger will show you a carving of the head of Joan, and also the arms of the Black Prince, the Lions of England, and the Lilies of France.

Having told you all this, we must go back and finish the story of the Black Prince. Ten years after the battle of Poitiers, England was once again at war, but this time with Spain. About that war I must not stop to tell you much. It was a long and a sad one; and it was there, in Spain, that the illness, from which the Black Prince at last died, began.

For four years after he came back to England he was too ill to do anything or go anywhere, and lived quite quietly at his palace at Berkhampstead. But things were not going well in England. His father, King Edward III., was very old, his advisers thought more of themselves than of their old master and their country, and money was being wasted, and much that was wrong was done. When the Black Prince saw and heard all this, he determined that it must all be put a stop to. Parliament met, and, ill as he was, he was carried—for he could no longer ride—to his palace of Westminster, in London. From there he was carried across to the House of Parliament, and there he made a great speech, showing all that was wrong, and pointing out how the wrong was to be righted. Then he was carried away, but he felt that he had done the last and best thing he could for his country. And it was, indeed, the last, for he soon became very much worse, and on the 8th of June, Trinity Sunday, he died.

The last thing he did was to call his nobles and knights to him, and say, pointing to his little son Richard, who was standing by his bed, "I recommend to you my son, who is yet but young and small, and pray that as you have served me, so from your heart you would serve him."

When the news of his death became known, all England was full of sorrow. And not only did all Englishmen feel that the world had lost a great prince and a brave soldier, but even in France he was mourned, and King John ordered a funeral service in his own chapel to be said in memory of his "noble Enemie."

The Black Prince had often said that he wished to be buried in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral; and so, when he died, his body was taken there from London with great honours. Dean Stanley, who tells the story of the Black Prince in his "Memorials of Canterbury Cathedral"—a book you will all like to read some day—says that the procession was one of the most magnificent ever seen. It "started from Westminster Palace; it passed through what was then the little village of Charing, clustered in the open fields of St. Martin, round Queen Eleanor's Cross. It passed along the Strand, by the houses of the great nobles, who had so often fought side by side with him in his wars, and the Savoy Palace, where, twenty years before, he had lodged the French King as his prisoner in triumph. It passed under the shade of the lofty tower of the old Cathedral of St. Paul's, which had so often resounded with 'Te Deums' for his victories. It descended the steep hill overhung by the grey walls of his own palace, above London Bridge, and over that ancient bridge, then the only bridge in London." So out of the city and through the country to Canterbury. Just before the procession reached the town, two horses, ridden by two knights in armour came out to meet it—"one was to represent the Prince in his splendid suite as he rode to war, the other to represent him in black as he rode to tournament. Four black banners followed. So they passed through the streets of the city, till they reached the gate of the precincts. Here, according to the custom, the armed men halted, and the body was carried into the cathedral." Then, followed by his brother, John of Gaunt, and a great company of nobles and knights, the coffin was carried to the tomb which had been built, not in the crypt—for that was thought too out-of-the-way a part of the cathedral for the resting-place of so great a hero—but in Trinity Chapel, just behind the high altar. Here, in the middle of Trinity Chapel, stood the shrine of Thomas Becket; and here, close to what was supposed at that time to be "the most sacred spot in England," had the tomb of the Black Prince been made. When you go to Canterbury Cathedral, you will see on the outside of the tomb his monument. He lies in his armour, with his head on his helmet and his spurs on his feet. On a bar above hang his velvet coat—now very much faded and worn, but on which the embroidery can just be seen—his gauntlets, and his helmet and shield.

On the tomb are written in French some verses which he himself had chosen, and which he had begged might be carved there "clearly and plainly that all might read them."

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