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Chapter Three of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University


3. The Black Prince

Eldest son of Edward III, Edward the Prince of Wales was to have been king of England at his father's death. Because his father outlived him by a year, however, Edward had to content himself with being the father of the next king, Richard II. Still, though he was not destined to wear the crown of England, he achieved through his military prowess a fame greater than either his father's or his son's, and he made for himself a name feared and respected more than either of theirs. The Winston Churchill of his time, this man who came to be known as the Black Prince mirrored almost perfectly the military and chivalric ideals of his time and gave England good reason to be proud of herself as a nation.

Edward III became embroiled in situations that gave rise to what was later known as the Hundred Years War. Although it was not a "war" in the usual sense, and though it did not last a hundred years, the series of battles that it entailed became the dominant foreign policy issue for England in the last three-quarters of the fourteenth century. At the death of King Charles IV of France in 1328, Edward III, as a nephew of the previous French king, tentatively advanced his claim to the throne. Philip of Valois, however, a cousin of the previous king, was named king, and Edward let the matter drop for the moment, having more urgent matters to attend to in England.

In 1337 Edward once again advanced his claim to the throne, this time with full military seriousness. A decisive naval victory against a French fleet off the coast of Flanders gave him the confidence to plan a land invasion of Normandy in 1345. Taking his son with him, he once again won a decisive victory against the French at Crecy in 1346. The Black Prince--though only sixteen--played an impressive part in that battle, engaging in direct front-line personal combat. More important, however, he was able to observe both his father's strong leadership and the near invincibility of the English longbowmen when pitted against the lumbering, heavily armored, mounted French noblemen and the slower-firing crossbows of their ground troops.

It was not until a decade later, during the battle at Poitiers in 1356, that the young prince became a full-fledged military commander in his own right, leading English troops against a much larger French army. The Black Prince not only won the battle against a formidable enemy on that enemy's own turf, he also captured John, King of France. He carried his royal prisoner back to London, where King John was treated with full chivalric honor and respect while appropriate terms of ransom were arranged. The battle at Poitiers was a wonderful event for England and for its Prince of Wales. Young, bold, handsome, articulate, graceful, and chivalric, the Black Prince became the military idol of the era. His gallantry properly symbolized the growing confidence of his nation. He became the darling of London and the most admired man in England.

It is not surprising that such a man should have had a number of love affairs and should have fathered several children. But when he came to think of marriage, he was drawn--with apparently substantial encouragement from her--to his cousin Joan of Kent. Widowed in 1360, she was, at 33, a lovely, charming, and amorous woman of the high nobility. Two years her junior, the Black Prince had known his delightful cousin from childhood. He determined to marry no one but her, even though it would require a special papal dispensation for him to marry his own blood relative. The Black Prince's father thought it a stupid marriage, for he had hopes that his son, surely the most eligible bachelor in Europe, would be sensible enough to marry a woman who would bring with her some political advantage on the continent. To the people of England, however, the wedding was a wonderful and romantic event, proof that their chivalric prince would not let practical considerations stand in the way of victory, honor, or love.

The Black Prince's fortunes began to wane when he crossed the channel to take up duties as Prince of Aquitaine, that vast territory in the southwest of what is now France. His victory at Poitiers had gained for England legal right to this vast territory, and the Black Prince was the logical person to manage and control it. He set up court at Bordeaux, and for a time all was well. The Black Prince, however, learned early what others who tried to manage the British Empire would learn later: that it is difficult for a foreigner to rule a people whose nationalistic loyalties lie elsewhere.

In the end financial difficulties, a pointless expedition to defend the throne of Don Pedro of Spain, and a debilitating sickness which he apparently incurred on that Spanish campaign in 1367, all followed by the loss of French lands and the death of Edward, his oldest and favorite son, demoralized the Black Prince. He set sail for home with Joan and Richard, his second son by her, in 1371. Bedridden with dysentery, cirrhosis, or syphilis, he lingered for a few years before dying in 1376.

The name by which he is universally referred today was not conferred until many years later. Apparently it was originally a French term of fear and hatred, for this "prins noire" who had so humiliated them must have seemed, indeed, an emissary of the dark devil himself. To the English, however, he came to symbolize all that was brightest and most noble in a tumultuous century.

The embalmed body of the Black Prince lay in state in Westminster Hall for nearly four months before it was moved for interment to the cathedral at Canterbury, not far from the tomb of St. Thomas. It is entirely possible that Chaucer himself took part in the funeral procession from London, down through Rochester, on the Black Prince's funeral pilgrimage to the cathedral in which the prince had requested, in his will, to be buried. But whether or not Chaucer was on that particular pilgrimage to Canterbury, the death of the exciting and chivalrous heir-apparent to the English throne, followed a year later by the death of the venerable Edward III, removed from public view two living examples of knighthood. The death of the Black Prince meant that Chaucer was to become the subject not of this prototype of medieval manhood, but of that man's weak young son, Richard. Chaucer, then, was to spend his most productive artistic years serving not a bold and dashing man, but a retiring and unfortunate lesser one. There is no way to know whether Chaucer's poetic output would have been different under the kingship of the Black Prince, but it is a curious fact that there are few manly heroes in Chaucer's fiction. The Knight on Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrimage and Arveragus in the Franklin's Tale may be exceptions, but not even they are universally admired by Chaucer's readers.

Chapter Three of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University

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