Whilst researching for a short book about the earls of Cornwall I’ve come to the end of the story in 1337 when the earldom was transformed into a duchy. This is the period which I know a bit more about having written an article titled ‘The Cornish Historian & the Black Prince’ that was printed in The Cornish Banner back in February 2007 (p.11-12). This article is the focus of today’s post below.
Crecy! Poiters! The War of One Hundred Years – words that stir interest in any proud Englishman, harking back to a chivalrous age and golden period for medieval kings. However, this period of history, dominated by a fight between two of royal stock, would on the surface have little to do with those who lived in Cornwall. Yet a direct link via a figurehead is much discussed, with it fair to say even boasted of, that being its very first duke.
Here comes the story of Edward of Woodstock, Duke of Cornwall – better known to history as the Black Prince. Of course, much of the man is commonly known; the Prince is a national figure, yet he also remains special to the Cornish, creating a lasting effect in the county. This in itself is amazing, considering the man only ever set foot on Cornish land three times.
Despite the minimal time spent in contact with his western subjects, the Prince remains a popular figure with the Cornish historian and romantic reader. Almost everyone has mentioned Edward in their respective histories of Cornwall, from Payton to Halliday. His figure is one of great interest. Elliot-Binns, in his history of Cornwall in the medieval age, hails the Prince with the kaleidoscope description of being ‘one of the bravest, cruellest, and most tragic figures of the age of chivalry’. Perhaps these words suit him best when relating to his nickname – the Black Prince – with which he was never known as during his own lifetime. There remains contention as to where this arose; the colour of his armour or the complexion of his skin.
His time is set against the backdrop of the Hundred Years War, his fame secured by victories upon the French mainland. Born in 1330, his father, the ambitious King Edward III, bestowed on him a wealth of titles, the natural order of the day for a first born son to royalty. Earl of Chester in 1333, Prince of Wales in 1343, and finally Prince of Aquitaine in 1362 – yet it is his Cornish title in which we find interest.
In 1337 King Edward created his six-year-old son the first Duke of Cornwall. The previous ruler of the region, the King’s younger brother, was the last Earl, with the county being elevated to a Dukedom. Its like was unprecedented for the time, with Edward of Woodstock becoming the first known Duke in England in a ceremony in what David Burnett calls ‘shot through with medieval splendour’.
The Duke’s father was not content to simply create titles for those around him – he had a desire for more, most notably the French crown. In the late 1330s, in the new Duke’s boyhood, both England and France locked horns over various disputes. The two nations fought for the first few years without any decisive land battles. With the French reluctant to attack it fell to the King of England to take the fight to them with battles upon the continent. The climax of these campaigns was Crecy. The year 1346.
The battle was where the Duke, now 16-years-old, found his fame. Payton calls the battle ‘one of the great victories of the 100 Years War’, yet before battle the signs did not look promising for the English forces. Repelled from Paris they now were desperate to reach the coast for home, but the might of a strong French force, led by kings, princes and counts, were prepared to stop them at all costs. The French were joined by the King of Bohemia, a blind-man who predicted that he would meet his death. He did – as did many others.
A chronicler of the time, Le Baker, describes Edward’s part, showing ‘his valour to the French, piercing horses, laying low the riders, shattering helmets and breaking spears, helping his men, and showing an example to all’. The Duke became bogged down, and his father, on hearing word, sent 20 knights to help his son, finding him and his men leaning on spears and swords ‘taking breath and resting quietly on long mounds of corpses’.
The English won the battle and marched on to lay siege to Calais, taking the town and keeping it in English hands for 200 years. The King and his son returned home to great acclaim – founding the Order of the Garter, based upon Arthurian legend, to celebrate the victory of the campaign. However, such celebrations were sadly cut short when the Black Death reached the shores. To attempt a description of the devastation across the county would be folly in this writing. But Cornwall, like the remainder of Europe, suffered, yet ultimately survived.
It is with the fading of this first attack of the plague when Edward first visited his Duchy in 1354, with the plan to board a ship for further campaigning in France. However, a lack of wind kept him within the Cornish border for 6 weeks – much to the delight of the locality. The castle of Restormel, indeed, the whole of Cornwall, welcomed his arrival. He revealed himself to his people – ‘a young man of twenty-four in the prime of life and fame’, says Halliday with a certain pride for the county. Many came to the castle to catch a glimpse of their Duke, as well as many of the knights who had fought with him at the great victory of Crecy in 1346.
Restormel, states Henderson, was his ‘chief halting-place’, continuing: ‘it was the only castle which was sufficiently up to date to accommodate him and his knights’. Arthur Mee, author of that most excellent series of a-z information, The King’s England, gives the castle better service by calling Restormel ‘one of the Seven Wonders of Cornwall’, and also stating: ‘a spectacle almost too great for words’. Cornishmen came to do homage or present petitions (the borough of Helston was granted a charter), enjoying as much as they could of their Duke, until his leaving on 4th September. There appear to be no complaints of the Duke towards the tenants of his Duchy, with Crispin Gill describing Edward as ‘conscientious and attentive to the affairs of his tenants’, ending by calling him ‘a vigorous landlord’.
A year later Cornwall’s Duke would be at the head of an army in Gascony, one of the disputed regions throughout the whole of the conflict. Ahead would be a bigger victory than that of Crecy, nay, the greatest victory in the life of Cornwall’s Duke – that of Poiters in 1356. The original plan of that year’s campaigning was for Edward to strike northward to join his brother, John of Gaunt, to raid the lands for profit. However, the Duke suffered a series of setbacks, which saw his force dwindle to 4,000 men. The situation was given further seriousness when news reached him of the French King’s army, 20,000 strong, marching his way.
Massively outnumbered, and with a determined king upon him looking to avenge the defeat of Crecy, somehow luck came down upon Edward in abundance. The French plan of attack was flawed, when the French nobility charged forward – without their horse. Winston Churchill describes the confusion: ‘The French chivalry encumbered by their mail, plodded ponderously forward amid vineyards and shrub’. Many fell with the fire of arrows, with others to the English spear and axe men who charged against the disordered French. The English triumphed, and more than the spoils of Crecy, this time they took home the French King as prisoner, his nobility slain and his country, seemingly, in ruins.
‘Cornwall no doubt shared in the general rejoicing’ says Elliott-Binns. He returned as the ‘hero of England’, writes Payton, ‘but also specifically of Cornwall’. The people of the county were able to pay their respect to the victorious Duke, whom Gill describes spending the Christmas of 1362 at Restormel. Here he received ‘many of his tenants, offering a blessing to a couple who wished to wed and receiving homage from others’.
It was around this time when Edward set up one of the most brilliant courts in the whole of Europe in Bordeaux. Invested with much power by his father he became the practical ruler of the Gascon lands on the west of France and made a home with his newly married wife, Joan of Kent, the “fair maid of Kent”, a renowned and admired beauty (‘after whose blue riband’, writes Burnett, ‘dropped at a ball, the Order of the Garter had been named’).
But like all things, the Prince’s glamorous life was not to last. In the 1360s he became restless for adventure, and having no fight on his doorstep (with the English and French in truce) he relished the chance to do battle in the Iberian peninsula. Yet this Spanish adventure would prove to be Edward’s undoing. Fighting there almost solely as a mercenary, he helped restore the horrifically named Pedro the Cruel to the throne of Castile. Although he was successful, he returned to his Bordeaux court as a dying man. Upon the ‘hot Spanish plains’, writes Halliday, ‘he had contracted a lingering and mortal disease’.
When war resumed with the French the Duke continued fighting, but the victory and glory of earlier campaigns was now a distant memory. Instead we find the massacre of the people of Limoges in 1370 by an unstable and different Black Prince, and further destruction by his brother, John of Gaunt, from Calais to Bordeaux. A ‘trail of slaughter’, adds Halliday sorrowfully.
The Black Prince was forced to leave his court and return home to England. His last sight of his Duchy would have been in 1371 when he landed at Plymouth, ‘a hopeless invalid’, writes Elliott-Binns. He eventually passed away in 1376, aged just forty-six, dying a ‘sad, broken figure, no longer the dashing prince in black armour’ (Lee). His father, the King, would follow him a year later, leaving the future of the kingdom in the hands of the Prince’s son, Richard – a mere 10 year old. The reign that had reaped so much glory had ended in neglectful pain.
From this time the French took the advantage in the war. Cornwall was affected directly with the burning of Fowey in 1378. The tables would turn again and in the new century England would have a new hero to cheer for in Henry V, and great victories to boast of, notably that of Agincourt. But Agincourt aside, where Cornish archers are popularly noted, the war would never again hold a special Cornish element as it had during Edward’s time.
No other medieval duke would visit his Duchy, and after the Black Prince’s death the castles, especially that of Restormel, fell into what Halliday calls ‘silent ruin’. Mee cites the words of an older historian of the county (remaining anonymous) upon the fall of Restormel:
‘Time and tirranie hath wrought desolation and the castle beginneth to mourne and to wringe out hard stones for tears; visted and delighted with great princes, it is now desolate, forsaken, and forlorn’.
And so went Cornwall’s first Duke, and perhaps its last real ruler of English royal stock. Although Edward never held the same commitment of earlier Earls, most notably that of Edmund in the thirteenth century, he gave the county magnificence, and through his victories gave Cornwall, and its many historians, a hand to dip into wider world affairs. This is a reason why so many Cornish historians incorporate the Black Prince into their books and writings. The romance between the two is confirmed and looks set to continue for many a year to come.
David Burnett, A Royal Duchy, 1996
Elliot-Binns, Medieval Cornwall, 1955
Crispin Gill, The Duchy of Cornwall, 1987
F.E. Halliday, A History of Cornwall, 1959
John Hatcher, Rural Economy and Society in the Duchy of Cornwall 1300-1500, 1970
Charles Henderson, Essays in Cornish History, 1963
Christopher Lee, This Sceptred Isle, 1997
Arthur Mee, The King’s England – Cornwall, 1967
Philip Payton, Cornwall A History, 2004