History enthusiasts can travel France in the footsteps of the Black Prince
The colourful character of the medieval 'Black Prince' perhaps owes as much to legend as to fact, and many places in France have a legacy to the English Prince who conquered so much of France in the early decades of the Hundred Years War.
In many places in France you are likely to come across mention of the Black Prince, from a quiet town in Gascony to the site of a battlefield in central France, and a little knowledge of the 'life and times' of the Black Prince makes a visit more interesting
We explore France through the towns that the Black Prince knew, and visit the sights of the great battles, by travelling the length of France from his first important battle as a young man at Crécy in the north, then continuing down to southern France and across the Spanish border, before heading perhaps to Limoges in central France - site of the brutal Siege of Limoges almost 25 years after the Black Prince first set foot in France.
A brief background history
Deep in the heart of the Middle Ages the French and the English were battling for control of much of France. These battles over territory were the cause of what is now known as the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) - a very long and difficult series of wars and conflicts if not one continuous war - and over the years both sides had notable victories and defeats, covering much of western and southern France.
Who was the Black Prince?
Son of King Edward the Third and father to King Richard the Second, the Black Prince himself was never crowned King because he was outlived by his father. He had several 'official' titles: among them Earl of Chester, Prince of Wales, Prince and Duke of Aquitaine and Duke of Cornwall, and his 'real' name was Edward of Woodstock. The most important role held by the Black Prince was as the representative of the King of England in Aquitaine (south-west France) where he lived with his wife (and cousin), Joan of Kent.
The name 'Black Prince' is thought to have been given to the Prince long after his death, almost certainly because he was often shown wearing black armour into battle.
The Black Prince in France - the earlier excursion
The 14th century was a time of great conflict between the French and the English, who at that time held large amounts of territory in France. These battles over territory were the cause of the Hundred Years War (1337 - 1453) between the English and the French. It was as a successful military leader in the battles between France and England that the Black Prince gained his reputation and popularity, and he played a key role in several very important battles.
The first major experience of battle for the Black Prince was at The Battle of Crecy (near Calais) in 1346. At this battle, when the Prince was only 16 years old but still played an important role in the battle, troops under Edward III had a great victory over the French army, despite being outnumbered by three to one.
It took the French many years to recover from their defeat, during which time England substantially increased their foothold in northern France. Their position was helped by their conquest of Calais, after a siege that lasted almost a year and which gave the English a defended port, enabling provisions to be delivered to France.
* suggested travel destination: Crecy-en-Ponthieu, south of Calais - the site of the battle is marked by a memorial next to the road between Crécy and Estrées-les-Crécy
The Black Prince in France - the later excursion
After returning to England, it was in the years from 1355 onwards that the Black Prince returned to France, this time based in the south-west of the country.
Several places and buildings in the region have associations with the Prince - one of our favourites is Monflanquin, where the house of the Black Prince can be seen on the corner of the main square. The excursions of the Black Prince in 1355 moved from Gascony to Aquitaine and then south through Languedoc and Aquitaine. The following year (1356) the Black Prince headed north from Bergerac, eventually reaching as far north as the Loire Valley.
The extensive excursions by the Black Prince into French territory were sometimes welcomed, sometimes not. It was a withdrawal from the Loire region that led the Prince to be at Nouaillé-Maupertuis near near Poitiers in 1356 - site for the Battle of Poitiers in 1356, one of England's greatest victories in the Hundred Years War.
By now the Black Prince was an experienced military leader, who also remembered the lesson from Crecy that tactics are more important than numbers of soldiers. The French, who outnumbered the English at Poitiers, were soundly defeated and the French King John II was captured.
The English forces continued to reinforce their postion over the coming years, although failing in their attempts to seize the important city of Reims (1360), and it was with the Treaty of Bretigny signed in 1360 near Chartres that these gains were consolidated - England now controlled much of western France, from Brittany to Perigord and south to Spain, but their claim to the French throne was rejected.
The last major battle under the Black Prince was the Siege of Limoges in 1370. Limoges had recently fallen to the French, but after a siege the Black Prince managed to reclaim the city - at which point several thousand residents were slaughtered.
* suggested travel destinations: the historical centres of Reims and Chartres and also Limoges, where there is little trace of the original city which was largely destroyed in the siege but there is an interesting historical centre to the town
Not such a happy ending
Shortly after this a combination of health problems and money problems forced the Black Prince to return to England. It is thought that the Prince had contracted an illness in France (or possible Spain during an incursion there) although it is also thought possible he had cancer or multiple sclerosis. He died a few years later, in 1377, a year before the death of his father Kind Edward III.
With his withdrawal the early conquests of the Hundred Years War came to an end, although it was not until the middle of the 15th century that the Hundred Years War was to end and the last English were driven out of France, notably when the French had the help of Joan of Arc.