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31 May 2008

The Black Prince: What's in a Name?

Years ago, I bought a Euro-rail pass and spent a summer wandering around England. One afternoon, I visited Canterbury Cathedral and was so entranced by the surrounding history I stayed until they closed the doors. I missed my train home and ended up paying what was then a fortune for a cab back to my hotel---but the expense was so worth it. I will never forget the hours I spent in the caverness cathedral just taking it all in. I was alone and for some reason, there were few other tourists there that day. The ambiance was incredible. Surrounded by centuries of relics, I felt like I had walked back in time.

Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales, (June 15, 1330 – June 8, 1376), popularly known as the Black Prince, is interred in the cathedral. His tomb consists of a bronze effigy with his heraldic achievments hung above. He was the eldest son of King Edward the III and father to King Richard the III. Edward, an exceptional military leader and popular during his life, died one year before his father. He never ruled as king (becoming the first English Prince of Wales to suffer that fate).

Amazingly, although Edward is almost always now called the Black Prince, there is no record of this name being used during his lifetime. He was instead known as Edward of Woodstock, after his place of birth. The Black Prince sobriquet is first found in writing in Grafton's "Chronicle of England" (1568). Its origin is uncertain; according to tradition, it derived from an ornate black cuirass presented to the young prince by Edward III at the Battle of Crecy.

It is possible that the name was first coined by French chroniclers in reference to the ruinous military defeats he had inflicted on France or his cruelty in these. Also possible is the idea that Edward garnered the nickname from his explosive Angevin temper; the legendary Angevin temper was associated with his family's line since Geoffrey d'Anjou.

As I sat that day in a cathedral pew close to Edward’s tomb, I listened to a docent tell some schoolgirls the real reason Edward became known as the Black Prince--because his bronze effigy had tarnished and turned black in the years after his death. Eventually, it was forgotten that the effigy was once bronze. Edward was named the Black Prince by the city locals and cathedral attenders.

Sometime during the 1800’s a cathedral janitor was cleaning the effigy and noticed that the black tarnish was exactly that—the more he rubbed, the more came off. The bronze beneath was rediscovered. The tarnish was removed but the Black Prince will keep his nickname, probably forever.

And so the story goes.

We may never know how the Black Prince really got his name, but I think the janitor’s discovery could be closer to the truth. It just seems so plausible. No matter, I love the name the Black Prince and I think it fits the life and time of Edward.

Do you have a historical “myth buster” you’d like to share? Quotes attributed to someone who never said the words? Credit given to a historical figure for something they didn’t do? Please share!

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13 Comments:

Blogger Lynna Banning said...

Fascinating, Kathrynn. When I traveled through Europe with my husband, we stopped at Aachen...
and there in the cathedral lies an
effigy of some Edward (English), enclosed in a glass coffin/case, and I thought it was identified as the Black Prince! Couldn't have been, huh?

So... who was that? The display also included one of his gloves.

11:27 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I'm fascinated by the Black Prince, too -- such a romantic sounding nickname (like The Green Knight in the Arthurian tales). I would sort of hate to hear that he received his name from the tarnish on his effigy! I was researching one of Edward's younger brothers (John of Gaunt) for ROYAL AFFAIRS and everything I read referred to Edward the Black Prince as though he was called that in his lifetime -- although it wasn't specifically stated as such in the bios of John of Gaunt which I was reading.

As far as other historical mythbusters, evidently Marie Antoinette never said "Let them eat cake." And my recent research on Eleanor of Aquitaine and her family indicates (per the Alison Weir bio of her) that Richard I (not known as the Lionheart or versions thereof until a decade after his death -- yet another busted myth) was certainly not gay (as many 20th c. historians like to posit). He may have slept with men, although there's no eveidence anywhere to prove it, but he most certainly got a number of royal bastards off several women, proving at least that he inherited his father's outsized libido.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Lynna,

I too came across several BLACK PRINCES in my travels across England. Seems like the name was popular...but there are surviving pieces of Edward of Woodstock's personal armor and clothing-- dispersed in several cathedrals as I recall. And many replicas have been made of his effigy. Maybe that was what you saw at Aachen?

1:45 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Wow, Amanda, Richard the I was not known as the Lionheart until a decade after his death????

I am stunned. ;-)

Thanks for posting that!

1:47 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

I have to agree, Kathrynn. Canterbury has an other worldly feel to it. It is one of my favorite places to sing as the acoustics are incomparable. To wander around that marvelous space is like stepping back in time. I remember thinking I could see knights in armor out of the corner of my eye. Rather than me looking at history, I felt as if history was watching me. Does that make sense?

9:08 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Doglady, it totally makes sense!

When I was there, I was so cognizant of the hundreds of thousands of souls who had walked on those stones before me. . . it felt like every nook had a relic or reminder of just who some of those people were--so many who lived during the black death, the resortration, the inquisition...

9:58 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

"Like history is watching me..." That's how I've felt when I've gone to Venice. And I feel very much the same way about parts of Bath.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

"Like history is watching me..." cool, Amanda.

Makes me smile, though I know where history is concerned, I will pass by in anononymity.

Which I is okay by me. ;-)

7:00 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Kathrynn! I've always thought Edward, the Black Prince (whatever he was called during his lifetime) was an intriguing historical character. I like the posthumous portrait of him in Anya Seton's "Katherine," through the eyes of his widow, Joan of Kent (who is a very interesting character herself).

Teasing out reality from myth is one of the greatest challenges of the historical knowledge. So many well known stories (such as Napoleon meeting Josephine when here son Eugène went to Napoleon to ask for his father's sword) probably didn't happen, at least not in the manner in which they are popularly recounted.

7:06 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Napoline met Josephine how, Tracy?

I'm intrigued! Showing my ignorance here but what's the story? ;-)

7:31 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

The myth is that Catherine the Great died while having sex with a horse, when the reality was that she had a stroke after using the water closet. Which is the more interesting version?

7:40 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Whoa, Elizabeth. I won't say which I think is the better story. ;-)

12:46 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

The legend is that fifteen-year-old Eugène de Beauharnais protested surrendering his father's sword (his father was an aristocrat who became a republican leader and ied in the Terror) when a directive was issued that unauthorized weapons must be surrendered to the authorities. Eguène was told he had to take his protest up with General Bonaparte. Eugène did so and so impressed Bonaparte that he only allowed Eugène to keep the sword, he asked to meet the boy's mother. Or in some versions it's Josephine who asks to meet Bonaparte to express her gratitude.

In reality, Napoleon met Josephine at the home of her protector, Barras, the most powerful of the Directors.

10:42 PM  

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