The Strange Story of the Black Prince of Canterbury

Amongst the coffins in the Canterbury cathedral, visitors can find the tombstone of Edward of Woodstock, also known as the Black Prince. The 14th prince was the eldest son of King Edward III and Philippa of Hainault. His biography isn’t impressive, but his tombstone with a sculpture of his deceased body and strange epitaph inscribed upon it brought him lots of fame. Who was Edward of Woodstock and why is he known as the Black Prince?

Monument to Edward, the Black Prince, in Canterbury Cathedral. Source

Monument to Edward, the Black Prince, in Canterbury Cathedral. ()

Fame Without a Reason?

The main reason why Edward became famous was that he was the first English Prince of Wales who didn’t become a King of England. His father died a year after him, so the throne went to Richard II. For all of Edward’s life he was in the army. When he became an adult, he was a charismatic and strong military leader, whose victories over the French during the battle of Poitiers and Crecy made him a national hero for some time. However, he was just one of many great army leaders. He was probably a typical Duke and a leader without a crown. He is also believed to have suffered from amoebic dysentery, which influenced his hot-tempered personality.

Edward is known as the Black Prince due to his cruelty against the French and the rest of his enemies. His life was full of blood and wars. He had no mercy toward his enemies, and due to this he became an iconic character. Although cruel, after the capture of King John the Good, he treated him with the respect he deserved as a king. However, to non-royals he used the most aggressive methods.

Edward, the Black Prince, is granted Aquitaine by his father King Edward III.

Edward, the Black Prince, is granted Aquitaine by his father King Edward III. ()

Edward was married to his cousin, Joan, but he also had many illegitimate children who were born before his marriage. His mistress Edith of Willesford gave him one of his beloved sons – Roger Clarendon (1352-1402). Unknown women also gave birth to his sons Edward, John, and Charles. With his wife Joan he had two sons: Edward and Richard. Both of the boys were born in France, where Edward and Joan had taken up duties as the rulers of Aquitaine.

 [left] Edward of Angouleme and Joan of Kent [right] Richard of Bordeaux

[left] Edward of Angouleme and Joan of Kent () [right] Richard of Bordeaux ()

A Death Which Came Too Soon

Edward died at age 45 due to dysentery and other diseases which were caused by a weak immune system. Some possible illnesses he may have suffered from were nephritis, cirrhosis, and edema. It is also very likely that he had problematic wounds which he got on the battlefield. Due to his poor health condition, doctors suggested he return to England. He may have gone back to his homeland a few months before his death.

Edward spent the last days of his life at Westminster Palace and due to his last wishes, he was buried in the Canterbury crypt. The chapel was also prepared for his wife Joan, Countess of Kent, who joined him many years later. The tomb was decorated with a bronze sculpture representing Edward. His life was summarized by the epitaph on his tomb, which he had stated in his will:

”Such as thou art, sometime was I.
Such as I am, such shalt thou be.
I thought little on th’our of Death
So long as I enjoyed breath.
On earth I had great riches
Land, houses, great treasure, horses, money and gold.
But now a wretched captive am I,
Deep in the ground, lo here I lie.
My beauty great, is all quite gone,
My flesh is wasted to the bone”

This tombstone, which was restored in 2006, brought Edward more fame than was expected. He became more popular to the visitors of the church than to historians. The Black Prince’s legend grew from his death and burial.

Sculpture on the Tomb of Edward.

Sculpture on the Tomb of Edward. ()

The Damage of the Tomb

The Black Prince was almost forgotten until the 17th century. In the 1640s, the cathedral with the tomb of the Black Prince was attacked by Cromwell’s army. The stained glass of the windows which overlook the tomb of Black Prince was destroyed and allowed the sun to disturb the magnificent medieval work.

Tomb of Edward.

Tomb of Edward. ()

The paintwork of the 14th century had been damaged and the colors of the bronze figure of the prince turned black. Could this be the real reason why Edward has been called the Black Prince? Perhaps it had nothing to do with his personality and cruel nature at all, as this was nothing unusual for the time. Another theory says that his nickname was due to the fact that he had a black breastplate to celebrate his courage in battle.

Original Black Prince Heraldic achievements on display in Canterbury Cathedral.

Original Black Prince Heraldic achievements on display in Canterbury Cathedral. ()

The tomb of the Black Prince became one of the most popular attractions of the church. He also became an inspiration for the French TV series ”Thierry la Frode”, which was filmed between 1963 and 1966. The plot of the series talks about a young man who fights against the Black Prince.

Edward became an icon for the church where he was buried, and although his biography is not the most unusual in history, his charisma and nickname made him one of the most legendary people of England.

Top image: ‘The Black Knight’ by 


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