This news is a bit old now but I record it here for posterity. I met Guilhem Pépin at Kalamazoo one year; I found his work on the war-cry “Saint-Georges!” most inspiring. Here, he helps to rehabilitate Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales and hero (or villain) of the Hundred Years’ War:
Was Edward the Black Prince really a nasty piece of work?
A newly discovered letter that has lain unread for over 600 years is forcing a rethink of a 14th Century prince with a controversial reputation, writes Luke Foddy.
He was the superstar of his age, winning his spurs in battle aged just 16. But the reputation of Edward of Woodstock – or the Black Prince, as he has become known to history – is still the subject of the same type of dispute that rages over the reputations of Richard III and Oliver Cromwell.
A persistent theory runs that Edward’s nickname refers to the cruelty he inflicted upon the French during the Hundred Years War – the dynastic struggle for the crown of France.
The blackest stain upon Edward’s reputation is the sack of the French town of Limoges in September 1370.
An English possession, it was ruled by Edward as Prince of Aquitaine.
In late summer 1370, the Bishop of Limoges, Johan de Cross – a friend of Edward’s and godfather to his son – betrayed the prince and defected to the French. He welcomed a garrison into part of the town, and held it against the English.
According to the chronicler Jean Froissart, Edward was incensed at the news and stormed it. A massacre followed, says Froissart.
“It was a most melancholy business – for all ranks, ages and sexes cast themselves on their knees before the prince, begging for mercy; but he was so inflamed with passion and revenge that he listened to none, but all were put to the sword. Upwards of 3,000 men, women and children were put to death that day.”
Despite some academics dismissing Froissart’s account, the sack of Limoges has become a well-known aspect of Edward’s career to modern schoolchildren and history buffs. In a recent episode of the BBC’s QI, host Stephen Fry described how the prince “almost destroyed the entire population of Limoges”.
But now, a previously unknown letter written by the prince is shining new light on the controversy.
The letter was discovered by French historian Dr Guilhem Pepin in a Spanish archive.
“The letter was written by the Black Prince three days after the sack of Limoges,” says Pepin, who will be presenting his research at the International Medieval Congress conference in Leeds this week.
“He was writing to the great Gascon lord Gaston Febus, Count of Foix, to tell him what had happened.”
In the letter, Edward describes how he took several high ranking prisoners in the attack, including the bishop of Limoges and Roger de Beaufort, the brother of Pope Gregory XI.
Crucially, however, Edward refers to the number of prisoners he took in the town. “He specifies that he took 200 knights and men-at-arms prisoner,” says Pepin. “When we compare this new evidence with other sources, it becomes very significant.”
One source, the Chandos Herald, says there were 300 men garrisoning the town. “We also have a contemporary, local source written at the abbey Saint-Martial of Limoges, which says there were around 300 fatalities in total in the city,” says Pepin.
“So, when this evidence is combined, it seems that 100 soldiers and 200 civilians were killed, as opposed to Froissart’s claim of 3,000 innocents.”
In the medieval world, the death of hundreds of people during the storming of a town was far from unprecedented. But the cold-blooded murder of 3,000 civilians would have been scandalous. Richard the Lionheart’s decision to execute a similar number of Saracen prisoners at Acre during the Third Crusade in 1191, for example, has led to him being a controversial figure even in modern times.
It is now clear, though, that Froissart greatly inflated the scale of violence at Limoges, making it seem extraordinarily, excessively cruel. That Froissart’s version has stuck is an injustice to Edward, argues Pepin.
“It now seems he doesn’t deserve the ‘evil’ reputation he has for what happened at Limoges.” Froissart’s credibility is further undermined by Edward making no reference to a massacre in his letter.