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Jacob Abbott

The Black Prince

The father of King Richard the Second was a celebrated Prince of Wales, known in history as the Black Prince. The Black Prince, as his title Prince of Wales implies, was the oldest son of the King of England. His father was Edward the Third. The Black Prince was, of course, heir to the crown, and he would have been king had it not happened that he died before his father. Consequently, when at last his father, King Edward, died, Richard, who was the oldest son of the prince, and, of course, the grandson of the king, succeeded to the throne, although he was at that time only ten years old.

The Christian name of the Black Prince was Edward. He was called the Black Prince on account of the color of his armor. The knights and warriors of those days were often named in this way from some peculiarity in their armor.

Edward, being the oldest son of the king his father, was Prince of Wales. He was often called the Prince of Wales, and often simply Prince Edward; but, inasmuch as there were several successive Edwards, each of whom was in his youth the Prince of Wales, neither of those titles alone would be a sufficiently distinctive appellation for the purposes of history. This Edward accordingly, as he became very celebrated in his day, and inasmuch as, on account of his dying before his father, he never became any thing more than Prince of Wales, is known in history almost exclusively by the title of the Black Prince.

But, although he never attained to a higher title than that of prince, he still lived to a very mature age. He was more than forty years old when he died. He, however, began to acquire his great celebrity when he was very young; he fought at the great battle of Crecy, in France, as one of the principal commanders on the English side, when he was only about seventeen years old.

Crecy, or Cressy, as it is sometimes called, is situated on the banks of the River Somme, in the northeast part of France. The circumstances under which the battle in this place was fought are as follows. The King of England, Edward the Third, the father of the Black Prince, laid claim to the throne of France. The ground of his claim was that, through his grandmother Isabel, who was a daughter of the French king, he was the nearest blood-relation to the royal line, all the other branches of the family nearer than his own being extinct. Now the people of France were, of course, very unwilling that the King of England should become entitled to the French crown, and they accordingly made a certain Prince Philip the king, who reigned under the title of Philip the Sixth. Philip was the nearest relative after Edward, and he derived his descent through males alone, while Edward, claiming, as he did, through his grandmother Isabel, came through a female line.

Now there was an ancient law prevailing in certain portions of France, called the Salic law, by which female children were excluded from inheriting the possessions of their fathers. This principle was at first applied to the inheriting of private property, but it was afterward extended to rights and titles of all sorts, and finally to the descent of the crown of France. Indeed, the right to rule over a province or a kingdom was considered in those days as a species of property, which descended from father to child by absolute right, over which the people governed had no control whatever.

The chief reason why the Salic law was applied to the case of the crown of France was not, as it might at first be supposed, because it was thought in those days that women were not qualified to reign, but because, by allowing the crown to descend to the daughters of the king as well as to the sons, there was danger of its passing out of the country. The princes  of the royal family usually remained in their own land, and, if they married at all, they married usually foreign princesses, whom they brought home to live with them in their native land. The princesses, on the other hand, when they grew up, were very apt to marry princes of other countries, who took them away to the places where they, the princes, respectively lived. If, now, these princesses were allowed to inherit the crown, and, especially, if the inheritance were allowed to pass through them to their children, cases might occur in which the kingdom of France might descend to some foreign-born prince, the heir, or the actual ruler, perhaps, of some foreign kingdom.

This was precisely what happened in Edward's case. The Salic law had not then been fully established. Edward maintained that it was not law. He claimed that the crown descended through Isabel to him. The French, on the other hand, insisted on passing him by, and decided that Philip, who, next to him, was the most direct descendant, and whose title came through a line of males, should be king.

In this state of things Edward raised a great army, and set out for France in order to possess himself of the French crown. The war continued many years, in the course of which Edward fitted out several different expeditions into France.

It was in one of these expeditions that he took his son, the Black Prince, then only seventeen years of age, as one of his generals. The prince was a remarkably fine young man, tall and manly in form, and possessed of a degree of maturity of mind above his years. He was affable and unassuming, too, in his manners, and was a great favorite among all the ranks of the army.

The map on the following page shows the course of the expedition, and the situation of Crecy. The fleet which brought the troops over landed there on a cape a little to the westward of the region shown upon the map. From the place where they landed they marched across the country, as seen by the track upon the map, toward the Seine. They took possession of the towns on the way, and plundered and wasted the country.


Campaign of Crecy

They advanced in this manner until at length they reached the river opposite Rouen, which was then, as now, a very large and important town. It stands on the eastern bank of the river. On reaching Rouen, Edward found the French army ready to meet him. There was a bridge of boats there, and Edward had intended to cross the river by it, and get into the town of Rouen. He found, however, on his arrival opposite the town, that the bridge was gone. The French king had destroyed it. He then turned his course up the river, keeping, of course, on the western and southern side of the stream, and looking out for an opportunity to cross. But as fast as he ascended on one side of the river, Philip ascended on the other, and destroyed all the bridges before Edward's armies could get to them. In this way the two armies advanced, each on its own side of the river, until they reached the environs of Paris, the English burning and destroying every thing that came in their way. There was a good deal of manœuvring between the two armies near Paris, in the course of which Edward contrived to get across the river. He crossed at Poissy by means of a bridge which Philip had only partially destroyed. While Philip was away, looking out for his capital, Paris, which Edward was threatening, Edward hastened back to get possession of the bridge, repaired it, and marched his army over before Philip could return.


View of Rouen, from the West Side of the River

Both armies then struck across the country toward the River Somme. Philip reached the river first. He crossed at Amiens, and then went down on the right or eastern bank of the river, destroying all the bridges on the way. Edward, when he reached the river, found no place to cross. He tried at Pont St. Remi, at Long, and at other places, but failed every where. In the mean time, while his own forces had gradually been diminishing, Philip's had been rapidly increasing. Philip now divided his force. He sent down one portion on the eastern side of the river to prevent the English from crossing. With the other portion he came back to the left bank, and began to follow Edward's army down toward the mouth of the river. Edward went on in this way as far as Oisemont, and here he began to find himself in great danger of being hemmed in by Philip's army in a corner between the river and the sea.

He sent scouts up and down to try to find some place where he could cross by a ford, as the bridges were all down; but no fording-place could be found. He then ordered the prisoners that he had taken to be all brought together, and he offered liberty and a large reward in money to any one of them that would show him where there was a ford by which he could get his army across the river. He thought that they, being natives of the country, would be sure to know about the fording-places, if any there were. One of the prisoners, a country-man named Gobin, told him that there was a place a little lower down the river, called White Spot, where people could wade across the river when the tide was low. The tide ebbed and flowed in the river here, on account of its being so near the sea.

This was in the evening. King Edward was awake all night with anxiety, expecting every moment that Philip would come suddenly upon him. He rose at midnight, and ordered the trumpets to sound in order to arouse the men. The officers were all on the alert, the young prince among them. All was movement and bustle in the camp. As soon as the day dawned they commenced their march, Gobin leading the way. He was well guarded. They were all ready to cut him to pieces if he should fail to lead them to the ford which he had promised. But he found the ford, though at the time that the army reached the spot the tide was high, so that they could not cross. Besides this, the king saw that on the opposite bank there was a large body of French troops posted to guard the passage. Edward was obliged to wait some hours for the tide to go down, being in a terrible state of suspense all the time for fear that Philip should come down upon him in the rear, in which case his situation would have been perilous in the extreme.

At last the tide was low enough to make the river fordable, and Edward ordered his troops to dash forward into the river. The men advanced, but they were met in the middle of the stream by the troops that had been posted on the bank to oppose them. There was a short and desperate conflict in the water, but Edward at last forced his way through, and drove the French away.

It then required some hours for all his army to cross. They had barely time to accomplish the work before the tide came up again. Just at this time, too, Philip's army appeared, but it was too late for them to cross the ford, and so Edward escaped with the main body of his army, though a portion of those in the rear, who were not able to get across in time, fell into Philip's hands, and were either killed or taken prisoners on the margin of the water.

The young prince was, of course, as much rejoiced as his father at this fortunate escape. The army were all greatly encouraged, too, by the result of the battle which they had fought on the bank of the river in landing; and, finally, Edward resolved that he would not retreat any farther. He determined to choose a good position, and draw up his army in array, and so give Philip battle if he chose to come on. The place which he selected was a hill at Crecy. Philip soon after came up, and the battle was fought; and thus it was that Crecy became the scene of the great and celebrated conflict which bears its name.

King Edward arrayed his troops in successive lines on the declivity of the hill, while he himself took his station, with a large reserve, on the summit of it. He committed the general charge of the battle to his generals and knights, and one of the chief in command was the young prince, who was placed at the head of one of the most important lines, although he was at this time, as has already been said, only seventeen years old.

The King of France, with an immense host, came on toward the place where Edward was encamped, confident that, as soon as he could come up with him, he should at once overwhelm and destroy him. His army was very large, while Edward's was comparatively small. Philip's army, however, was not under good control. The vast columns filled the roads for miles, and when the front arrived at the place where Edward's army was posted, the officers attempted to halt them all, but those behind crowded on toward those in front, and made great confusion. Then there was disagreement and uncertainty among Philip's counselors in respect to the time of making the attack. Some were in favor of advancing at once, but others were for waiting till the next day, as the soldiers were worn out and exhausted by their long march.


Genoese Archer

There was a large body of Genoese archers who fought with cross-bows, a very heavy but a very efficient weapon. The officers who commanded these archers were in favor of waiting for the attack till the next day, as their men were very weary from the fatigue of carrying their cross-bows so far. They had marched eighteen miles that day, very heavily laden. Philip was angry with them for their unwillingness to go at once into battle.

"See," he cried out, "see what we get by employing such scoundrels, who fail us at the very moment when we want them."

This made the archers very angry, but nevertheless they formed in order of battle at the command of their officers, and went forward to the van. There went with them a large troop of horsemen under the French general. The horses of this troop were splendidly equipped, and were fierce for the fight.

While these preparations were making, a very black cloud was seen rising in the sky, until the whole heavens were darkened by it. The wind blew, and immense flocks of crows flew screaming through the air, over the heads of the army. Presently it began to rain. The rain increased rapidly, until it fell in torrents, and every body was drenched. There was, however, no possibility of shelter or escape from it, and the preparations for the fight accordingly still went on.

At length, about five o'clock, it cleared up, just as the battle was about to begin. The Genoese archers were in front with the horsemen, but the English, who had all this time remained calm and quiet at their posts, poured such a volley of arrows into their ranks that they were soon broken and began to be thrown into confusion. Other English soldiers ran out from their ranks armed with knives set into the ends of long poles, and they thrust these knives into the horses of the troop. The horses, terrified and maddened with the pain, turned round and ran in among the Genoese archers, and trampled many of them under foot. This made the whole body of archers waver and begin to fall back. Then Philip, who was coming on behind at the head of other bodies of troops, fell into a great rage, and shouted out in a thundering voice,

"Kill me those scoundrels, for they only stop our way without doing any good."

Of course, this made the confusion worse than ever. In the mean time, the English soldiers, under the command of Prince Edward and the other leaders, pressed slowly and steadily forward, and poured in such an incessant and deadly fire of darts and arrows upon the confused and entangled masses of their enemies, that they could not rally or get into order again. Some of the French generals made desperate efforts in other parts of the field to turn the tide, but in vain.

At one time, when the battle was very hot in the part of the field where the young English prince was fighting, messengers went up the hill to the place where the king was stationed, near a wind-mill, whence he was watching the progress of the fight, to ask him to send some succor to the troops that were fighting with the prince.

"Is my son killed?" asked the king.

"No, sire," said the messenger.

"Is he unhorsed or wounded?" asked the king.

"No, sire," replied the messenger. "He is safe thus far, and is fighting with his troop, but, he is very hard beset."

"No matter for that," said the king. "Go and tell him he can not have any help from me. I intend that the glory of this victory shall be for him alone, and for those to whom I have intrusted him."

Things went on in this way for some time, until at length the whole French army was thrown into utter confusion, and the men were flying in all directions. Night was coming on, and it was beginning to be impossible to distinguish friend from foe. A French knight rode up to the King of France, and, seizing his horse by the bridle, turned him away, saying to the king,

"Sire, it is time to withdraw. By remaining here any longer you will only sacrifice yourself to no purpose. Reserve yourself to win the victory some other day."

So the king turned and fled, a small party of his officers accompanying him. He fled to a castle in the neighborhood, called the Castle of La Broye, and sought refuge there. When the party arrived the gates were shut, for it was late and dark. They summoned the castellan, or keeper of the castle. He came out upon the battlements and demanded who was there.

The king called out,

"Open, castellan, open. It is the fortune of France."

The castellan knew the king's voice, and ordered the gate to be opened, and the drawbridge to be let down. The king and his party, which consisted of only five persons, went in. They remained at the castle only a short time to take some wine and other refreshment, and then set out again, at midnight, with guides furnished them by the castellan, and rode to Amiens, which, being a large and well-fortified town, was at least a temporary place of safety.

But, though the king himself thus made his escape, a great many of the knights and generals in his army would not fly, but remained fighting on the field until they were killed. There was one of the king's allies, the King of Bohemia, whose death, if the legends which have come down to us respecting this battle are true, occurred under very extraordinary circumstances. He was present with the army, not as a combatant, for he was old and blind, and thus completely helpless. He came, it would seem to accompany his son, who was an active commander in Philip's army. His son was dangerously wounded, and forced to abandon the field, and the old king was so overwhelmed with chagrin at the result of the battle, and so enraged at the fate of his son, that he determined to charge upon the enemy himself. So he placed himself between two knights, who interlaced the bridle of his horse with the bridles of theirs, for the king himself could not see to guide the reins, and in this manner they rode into the thickest of the fight, where the Black Prince was contending. They were all almost immediately killed.

Prince Edward was so much struck with this spectacle, that he adopted the motto on the old king's shield for his. This motto was the German phrase Ich dien, under three plumes. The words mean I serve. This motto and device have been borne in the coat of arms of the Prince of Wales from that day to this.

At the close of the battle the soldiers kindled up great fires on account of the darkness of the night, and in the light of them King Edward came down from his post on the hill, his heart full of exultation and joy at the greatness of the victory which his army had achieved, and at the glory of his son. In front of the whole army, he took his son in his arms and kissed him, and said,

"My dear son, God give you grace to persevere as you have begun. You are my true son, for loyally you have acquitted yourself this day, and well do you deserve a crown."

Edward received these honors in a very modest and unassuming manner. He bowed reverentially before his father, and attributed to others rather than to himself the success of the day. His modesty and generosity of demeanor, connected with the undaunted bravery which he had really evinced in the fight, caused the whole army to feel an enthusiastic admiration for him, and, as fast as tidings of these events extended, all Europe was filled with his fame.

After gaining this great battle Edward marched to Calais, a very important sea-port on the coast, to the northward of the mouth of the Somme, and laid siege to that town; and, although it was so strongly fortified that he could not force his way into it, he succeeded at length in starving the inhabitants into a surrender. He was so exasperated at the obstinate resistance of the people, that at last, when they were ready to surrender, he declared that he would only spare their lives on condition that six of the principal inhabitants should come out to his camp barefooted, bareheaded, and with halters about their necks, in order that they might be hung immediately. These cruel terms were complied with. Six of the principal inhabitants of the town volunteered to give themselves up as victims. They proceeded to Edward's camp, but their lives were saved by the interposition of Philippa, the queen, Prince Edward's mother. The king was exceedingly unwilling to spare them, but he could not resist the entreaties of Philippa, though he said he wished she had been somewhere else, so as not to have interfered with his revenge.

Edward and all his army, with the queen and Prince Edward, marched into Calais with great pomp and parade. Soon after their entrance into the town a daughter was born to Philippa, who was called, from the place of her nativity, Margaret of Calais.

Besides this sister Margaret, Prince Edward had a brother born on the Continent of Europe. His name was John, and he was born in Ghent. He was called John of Ghent, or, as the English historians generally wrote it, John of Gaunt.

After the taking of Calais there were other campaigns and battles, and more victories, some upon one side and some upon the other; and then, when both parties were so exhausted that their strength was gone, while yet their hostility and hate continued unappeased, a truce was made. Then after the truce came new wars, and thus years rolled on. During all this time the Black Prince distinguished himself greatly as one of the chief of his father's generals. He grew up to full manhood; and while, like the other warlike chieftains of those days, his life was devoted to deeds of rapine and murder, there was in his demeanor toward those with whom he was at peace, and toward enemies who were entirely subdued, a certain high-toned nobleness and generosity of character, which, combined with his undaunted courage, and his extraordinary strength and prowess on the field of battle, made him one of the greatest lights of chivalry of his age.