Stories from English History - Hilda Skae

The Black Prince

Edward III, King of England, was a very warlike prince. When the King of France died he was succeeded by his nephew Philip, but Edward declared that he, being a grandson of the late king, had a better right than a nephew; and he set off with a gallant army and many knights and nobles to enforce his claim.

The war proved a much longer one than Edward had expected. Six years. after the English king's first march into France the two nations were still fighting. By this time King Edward's eldest son was fifteen years of age, and he implored his father to let him accompany him to the French war.

This young prince was a fine spirited youth, and skilful at all manly exercises. In appearance he was very fair, with light hair and laughing blue eyes. Perhaps he was a little vain of his appearance, because in order to show off the fairness of his complexion he always wore dark-coloured armour a habit which led to his being known in after life as Edward the Black Prince.

Seeing his boy's courage and warlike spirit, the king consented to his accompanying him upon his next expedition into France.

In the month of July, 1346, the king and the prince set sail with an army of thirty thousand men, ten thousand of whom were archers.

For seven weeks the English marched through the fair and smiling country of France, meeting with very little opposition, and plundering and burning wherever they went.

At last, by the little village of Crecy on the banks of the river Somme, the English came in view of the French army.

It was not difficult to tell that the army of the King of France numbered at least eight times as many men as were on the side of the English; but King Edward decided that it would never do to betray fear.

"We will go in," he said calmly to his men, "and beat, or be beaten."

It was too late to fight that day; and the English lay down within sight of the enemy.

Early in the morning the English king set his army in order of battle.

King Edward himself was to command one division; two of his earls another; and the eager young prince, assisted by the Earls of Warwick and Oxford, was given the charge of a third.

When the troops were all drawn up in fighting array, the king mounted his horse and rode from rank to rank, cheering and encouraging the men and their leaders.

"He spoke so sweetly," says an old writer, "and with so good a countenance and merry cheer, that all such as were discomfited took courage in seeing and hearing him."

By the time King Edward had gone round the whole army it was about nine o"clock, and the sun was shining warm and bright upon what was soon to be the field of battle. The king sent orders that his men were to "eat at their ease and drink a cup"; and the whole army sat down upon the grass and breakfasted. Then they returned to their ranks again and lay down, each man in his place, with his bow and helmet beside him, waiting until the enemy should be ready to begin the fight.

In the meanwhile the French army was approaching. By the time the king had brought his men within reach of the English lines, the bright morning had clouded over. The day had become dark and threatening, and soon the thunder began to growl, and the lightning to flash overhead. The frightened birds flew screaming for shelter, and the clouds broke and fell in a heavy shower upon the French king's army.

One of his captains advised King Philip not to fight until the morrow. The king gave the order to halt; but the men in the rear, not understanding the message, pressed forward and forced the others to advance, thus throwing the army into confusion.

Finding that it was too late to put off the battle, King Philip ordered to the front a great body of Genoese cross-bowmen, whom he had hired to fight against the English.

By this time the rain was over and the sun had come out; but it shone full in the faces of the cross-bowmen, and prevented them from seeing the enemy. Their bows, too, had become wetted with the rain, and the strings were slackened.

When they heard the king's order the Genoese moved forward; "then," says the historian, "they made a great cry to abash the English; but they stood still and stirred not for all that. A second and a third time the Genoese uttered a fell cry—very loud and clear, and a little stepped forward; but the English removed not one foot."

At last the Genoese sent a shower of arrows into the ranks of the calm, silent English.

The English received the shower quietly; then their reply was prompt. A quick movement went along the line of archers; the ten thousand men advanced one pace, and "their arrows flew so wholly together and so thick that it seemed as if it snowed."

The Genoese required time to wind up their cross-bows before they could reload; and in the meantime the English long-bowmen shot so continuously that the ranks of the Genoese broke in terror and fled.

[Illustration] from Stories from English History by Hilda Skae


Still the archers sent their deadly hail upon the French army, while a number of Welsh and Cornish soldiers, armed with long knives, crept in under the horses and stabbed them, so that both horse and rider fell heavily to the ground. The confusion was rendered still more dreadful by means of a weapon which King Edward used for the first time in battle; small "bombards," or cannon, as they were afterwards called, "which with fire threw little iron balls to frighten the horses."

While the battle raged with great fury on both sides, King Edward was sending out his orders from a windmill from which he could overlook the progress of the fight.

Presently a messenger came from the Earl of Warwick, beseeching to send aid to his son, the Black Prince.

"Is my son killed?" asked the king.

"No, Sire, please God," replied the messenger.

"Is he wounded?"

"No, Sire." "Is he thrown to the ground?"

"No, Sire, not so; but he is very hard pressed."

"Then," said the king, "go back to those that sent you, and tell them that he shall have no help from me. Let the boy win his spurs; for I wish, if God so order it, that the day may be his."

The messenger carried back these words to the prince, who fought harder than ever, and drove off his assailants.

For hours the battle raged, both sides fighting with great fury and determination. On the French side was the old blind King of Bohemia, who remained somewhat apart, mounted upon his warhorse, listening to the din and noise of the battle in which his son was engaged.

After some time he heard a French knight approaching, and asked him how the fight was going.

"The Genoese have been routed," was the reply; "and your son is wounded."

Then the king called to him two of his vassals and said to them, "Lords, you are my vassals, my friends, and my companions; I pray you of your goodness to lead me so far into the fight that I may at least strike one blow with my sword."

Then the two knights drew up, one on each side of their aged king; and all three fastened their bridle-reins together and rode into the fray.

"The king," says the old story-teller, "struck one blow with his sword; yea, and more than four; and fought right valiantly"; until he and his knights disappeared under the heaving, struggling mass of men, never to rise again.

In the meantime the King of France was fighting as hard as any man on the field. Twice he was wounded, and once he had his horse shot under him; but after having had his wounds bound up, he mounted again and rode back into the fight. Many times he led his men in furious charges against the English; but nothing could overcome the coolness and determination of the English forces.

At last the French were vanquished, and had to retire from the field. Their sacred banner, the Oriflamme, or Flame of Gold, was nearly captured, but a brave French knight broke his way through the crowd which was struggling around it, cut the banner from its staff with his sword, and winding it round his body, rode away with it in safety.

The French king, refusing to leave the field, was dragged away, almost by force, by some of his followers.

After riding for some miles, they came to a castle and knocked at the gate.

"Who is there?" shouted the gate-keeper. "It is the Fortune of France," was the reply.

Then the lord of the castle came down himself and opened the gates, and let in his weary, broken-hearted king.

Night was closing in, and the English were lighting their watch-fires upon the battle-field, when King Edward rode forward to meet the son who had fought so bravely. Taking the lad in his arms, he kissed him, and he told him that he had acted nobly, and worthy of the day and of his high birth.

Next morning the king and the prince went to look at the slain, and found among them the old King of Bohemia, lying dead between his two knights. Beside the king lay his shield and helmet, bearing his device, three ostrich feathers, with the motto "ich dien."

King Edward gave orders that the old hero should be borne from the field and buried with royal honours; and then he and the prince moved away in a very thoughtful mood.

"Truly," said Prince Edward, "I think that was well said; 'ich dien,' meaning that a king's duty is to serve his country."

"As thou hast served it well this day, my son," replied his father, "wilt thou take this device for thine own?"

So the prince took for his crest the three ostrich feathers with the motto, in remembrance of his gallant enemy, and the device is borne by the Princes of Wales to this day.

Ten years later, the Black Prince had become a man, and the war was not yet at an end. King Philip was dead, and had been succeeded by his son John, a brave and chivalrous king.

Edward being engaged in fighting with the Scots, the Black Prince took command of the army in France. Near the town of Poitiers he believed that the French king lay somewhere in readiness to give battle; but the English could not find out where he was.

The prince gave orders that the French peasants were to be made to tell him where their king lay encamped; but these poor people were so loyal that neither money nor threats could make them give any information.

Prince Edward was in great perplexity, for his army was now reduced to about ten thousand men; and if the King of France had a larger force, the prince felt that it might be more prudent for him to retire.

One day, quite unexpectedly, the English came in view of the French army, encamped near the town of Poitiers. The whole country, far and near, seemed to be occupied by the force which was to oppose the Prince's little body of ten thousand men.

"There was all the flower of France," says the historian, "for there was none durst abide at home without he were shamed for ever."

"God help us," said the Black Prince; "we must make the best of it."

He posted his army very strongly upon a hill, while the French king marshalled his forces upon the plain below.

That night the two armies lay, strongly guarded, within sight of each other.

In the morning the battle was about to begin when a cardinal came riding in haste to the French king, and implored him to give him leave to try to save the small body of English from rushing upon certain destruction.

"Sire," he said, "you have here all the flower of your realm against a handful of people, for so the English are as compared to your company. I pray you that you will allow me to ride to the prince and show him what danger you have him in."

The king gave permission, and the cardinal came riding over to the Black Prince, who received him courteously.

"Save my honour," he said, when the cardinal offered to try to arrange terms for him, "and the honour of my army, and I will make any reasonable terms."

He offered to give up all the towns and castles he had taken, and to make a truce with the French king for seven years; and the cardinal rode back to his own side with this message.

After an interval of suspense he came riding to the English camp again.

"The King of France consents to make peace," said the cardinal, "on condition that you will yield yourself up a prisoner, with a hundred of your knights."

The prince's face darkened.

Here would be shameful news to send to his father and the people of England!

As the King of France refused to make peace upon any other conditions, Prince Edward broke off the treaty and turned to his army, saying quietly, "God defend the right; we shall fight to-morrow."

All that day the English worked hard to make their position more secure. The sides of the hill were covered with woods and vineyards, and the principal approach was by means of a lane with hedges on either side, behind which a number of archers posted themselves. All the weaker places were strengthened by means of palisades.

On the following morning, when all was in order of battle, the prince addressed his men.

"Sirs," he said, "although we be but a small company compared with our enemies, we must not lose courage. If it is to be our good fortune to win the day, we shall be the most honoured people in all the world; and if we die in our right quarrel, I have the king my father and my brothers, and you have good friends and kinsmen, and they will avenge our deaths. I beg that each of you will do your duty to-day, and if God be pleased and St. George, this day you will see me a true knight."

After this the battle began.

The French cavalry charged up the lane, hoping to break the lines of archers, but the men who were posted behind the hedges received them with such a volley of arrows that the horses refused to advance, and some of them fell, blocking up the way.

Then a body of English knights, galloping down the hill, threw the foremost of the French lines into confusion.

Lord James Audley, who during the first part of the battle had been by the side of the prince, now said to him, "Sir, I have always truly served my lord your father and yourself also, and I shall do so as long as I live. I once made a vow that in the first battle that your father or any of his children should be in, I should be the first setter-on and the best combatant, or else die; therefore I beg of you that you will allow me to leave you in order that I may accomplish my vow."

The prince took him by the hand and said, "Sir James, God give you this day the grace to be the first knight of all"; and Lord James rode away into the battle and fought until he had to be carried, sorely wounded, from the field.

In the meantime the battle raged with great fury upon all sides, and many French and English knights were engaged in deadly combat.

[Illustration] from Stories from English History by Hilda Skae


An English knight, Sir John Chandos, who had never left the prince, said to his master, "Ride forward, noble prince, and the day is yours; let us get to the French king, for truly he is so valiant a gentleman that I think he will not fly, but may be taken prisoner; and, sir, I heard you say that this day I should see you a good knight."

"John," said the prince, "let us go forth; you shall not see me turn back this day, but I will ever be with the foremost"; then the prince and his friend rode into the thickest of the fight.

Where the battle raged most fiercely the French king, with his young son Philip by his side, was laying about him with his battle-axe. When the nobles around him were slain or had fled, the brave lad refused to leave his father, who made his last stand with the blood streaming down from a wound in the face.

At last the king was forced to yield, and he gave his glove to a banished French knight, Sir Denis de Marbeke, in token of surrender.

When the French were fleeing from the field, the Black Prince had become so exhausted with fighting that Sir John Chandos persuaded him to retire to his tent and take some rest.

Presently the news came to the royal tent that the king had been taken prisoner, and was on his way to the English camp. The prince immediately sent two of his lords to meet him, and had him brought to his own tent, where he received his brave enemy with the greatest respect.

After the king had rested and refreshed himself, the prince invited him and the other captive nobles to a supper in his tent, and Prince Edward himself waited upon King John, saying that he was not worthy to sit at table with so great a prince and so valiant a man.

Soon after this the .English returned to their own country, bringing with them the French king and many other prisoners.

The victorious army was received with the greatest joy; and on the day when the Black Prince entered London, the people crowded by thousands into the streets to see him pass as he rode on a little pony by the side of his prisoner, King John of France, whom he had mounted upon his own magnificent cream-coloured charger.

King John was kept, an honourable prisoner, until a peace was made with France. Then he was allowed to return to his own country upon condition that the French should pay, within six years, a sum of money for his ransom.

Until the ransom should be paid, the French king's three sons agreed to remain as hostages in the town of Calais, which belonged to the English. They were allowed to ride into French territory as often as they pleased, provided that they gave their word of honour not to remain away longer than four days at a time. King Edward and his son, knowing how honourable their father was, trusted in the honour of these young princes.

One day, however, one of the princes yielded to temptation, rode away, and never came back to Calais at all. Upon hearing the news the French king was so shocked that he returned to England and yielded himself up a prisoner once more.

"If honour is to be found nowhere else," he said, "it should find a refuge in the breast of kings."

King Edward gave him a palace to live in, and he and his people did all they could to show the imprisoned king how much they loved and admired him for his noble conduct.

But King John never returned to his own country. Three months after his arrival in England he died, his end hastened by sorrow at the base and thoughtless conduct of his son.