The Black Prince by Michael Jones

the black prince.jpg

It's been well over a century since Louise Creighton wrote her Life of Edward the Black Prince, which went straight into every lending library in England and became a hit of a very predictable kind, a soaring celebration of a figure who was for centuries a major secular saint in English history, the eldest son of the great King Edward III, Prince Edward, known as “The Black Prince” and a legend even in his own lifetime, the very beau idéal of chivalry and gallantry. In the intervening century the idea of chivalry has complicated and smudged, the Black Prince's star has consequently fallen. He's no longer the inevitable subject of breathless historical romances, and if an artist were somehow to think about painting him, the result certainly wouldn't be the contemplative dreamboat on the US cover of Michael Jones' new book The Black Prince: England's Greatest Medieval Warrior, courtesy of painter Georgian Benjamin Burnell.

Jones isn't the wordsmith that Mrs. Creighton was, naturally – no living popular historian is. But Jones, author of a shelf of very good histories, has an advantage that predecessors of a century ago might not have thought to do so thoroughly and that Jones' more recent predecessors haven't done so extensively or engagingly: the very same squinting skepticism of the age that now sniffs at the alleged glories of the Black Prince animates Jones' book from start to finish. He frequently allows himself the kinds of pageantry that typically enlivens books like this:

The English army on the move was certainly an imposing sight. Its knights rode out in their best armour and equipment; the mounted archers kept good order and discipline. In the baggage train were masses of carts, hand-mills for grinding corn, ovens for baking the flour into bread, forges for repairing weapons and armour and shoeing horses, collapsible leather boats, ornate canvas tents and even thirty falconers with their hawks and 120 hounds with their harriers.

But the bulk of his book is a bracing, point-by-point assessment of the Black Prince – his youth, his relationship to his august father, his participation in some of the most crucial battles of the Hundred Years War, including of course Poitiers in 1356, and, fascinatingly, the full extent of the separate court and center of power that formed in the Prince's person. Jones explores all the issues surrounding the Black Prince and brings his world into sharp relief.

The darkest blot on the reputation of the Black Prince happened on a military campaign in 1370, when the Prince, ailing and reportedly carried to the field on a stretcher, attacked the city of Limoges and slaughtered its inhabitants in a sweep of barbarism that shocked even his more sanguine age. The tough and agile way Jones interrogates his primary sources is on full display in unraveling this black mark on the Black Prince – one source in particular: Jean Froissart, whose passages about the incident are as purple and vivid as everything else Froissart wrote. Jones has studied the evidence, and he unequivocally exonerates the Prince – and implicates the historian:

Froissart had left English employ after the death of Queen Philippa and subsequently secured the patronage of the French aristocrat Guy de Châtillon, count of Blois, becoming the count's chaplain. Hearing of the destruction of much of the cité of Limoges, he began to weave his own account together, based on eddies of fact, supposition and rumour, drawing upon the Prince's illness, his anger and frustration, the death of civilians and the literary tradition of the fallen hero. Froissart's great gift was his empathy with those he met and talked to, and his ability to weave their reminiscences into a striking narrative of his age. But the chronicler's love of a good story also led him to invent passages of his history – to simply make things up.

This direct and engaging narrative line runs throughout The Black Prince, and it makes for an involving reading experience. A popular account of this storied figure that frees him from mythology of both his admirers and his detractors is a very welcome thing.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.