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Many of you who have visited Queens College, Oxford, will have seen there, hanging in the gallery above the hall, an old engraving of a quaint vaulted room, where it is said the greatest soldier of his age lived while a student in the college.
This afterwards famous student, who was then about twelve years old was Edward Plantagenet, Prince of Wales, later called the Black Prince. He was also sometimes called the Prince of Woodstock, doubtless, from the fact that he was born in the old palace at Woodstock, in 1330.
He was the son of Edward Third and Queen Philippa, and was one of those rare persons who combine in their characters qualities of both his father and mother. Everyone knows the story of the siege of Calais, when the sternness of King Edward and the gentleness of Queen Philippa were so strikingly shown, and it was the union of those two qualities which gave their son, Edward, that high place which he justly occupies, not only among our English princes, but in the history of all Europe.
He was undoubtedly sent to Queens College, not only because it was the most famous college of that day, but also because it took its name from his mother, Queen Philippa, having been founded by her chaplain.
There, at Queens College, we first see the young prince, and although six hundred years have gone by since then, many of the customs of to-day were those of young Edward's time as well. The students then were called to dinner by the blast of a trumpet as they are to-day, and then, as now, the Fellows (or post graduates) all sat on one side of the table, with the Head of the college in their midst, in imitation of the pictures of the Last Supper.
The prince must have seen, too, some customs which we know prevailed in his day, but do not see in ours. Thirteen lame, deaf, blind and maimed beggars came each morning into the college hall to receive their portion of food for the day. The porter of the college made his rounds early every morning, to shave the beards and wash the heads of the Fellows, but these and many other quaint customs have perished long ago and still the picture of the Black Prince hangs on the college wall. Tradition tells us that while the proud young prince was receiving such education as befitted his rank in life, a poor boy in the shabbiest of clothes and forgetful of everything except the books and study he loved, was at Queens College too. The characters and lives of John Wycliff, the great reformer, and Edward the Black Prince, were indeed opposite, but it is interesting to feel that they were educated in the same place, that possibly once in youth, their lives touched, although in later days, one was great in the making of peace and one in the making of war.
The young prince may have been studious, but he also doubtless took advantage of all such diversions as Oxford life offered, and it is natural to picture him in drill and hunt and sports such as were best fitted to his manly vigour, and foreshadowed his enthusiasm in later days for the strenuous game of war.
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A mere lad at Queens, we see him first--then a youth, out in the great world watching with keenest interest the doings of courtiers and king, and then we find him a young knight, following the king, his father, in his first great campaign, and a fine young warrior he was both in looks and character, fearless and strong in his black armour which threw into sharp contrast the fairness of his complexion. A brave, handsome young knight was he, Edward Plantagenet, at the time when the English people under King Edward became inspired with a passion for continental dominion.
The Normans had conquered England and now the English were eager to go out and themselves become conquerors, and to further that ambition King Edward and his army set out and ravaged Normandy, pillaging and plundering their way almost to the gates of Paris, and their march was perfectly consistent with the feudal manner of waging war, which was to desolate the country through which they passed, to burn any town that resisted invasion, and to plunder its inhabitants even though they peacefully submitted to the invaders. In this way, King Edward and his army, which included the young Prince Edward and many other noblemen, passed through Normandy, burning and devastating land and property as they went, and they advanced up the left bank of the Seine--their object being, to cross the river at Rouen and then march on to Calais, where they were to be joined by an army of Flemish archers. But their plans received a sudden checkmate.
Philip, the King of France, was at Rouen
before them, and had not only encamped on the right bank of the river,
but had destroyed the bridges and set guards over all the fords of which
the English might make use in crossing.
The English were in a very dangerous position, whether they retreated or went forward. They were separated from the Flemish allies by not only the Seine, but the Somme River, and Philip with his army, which was daily increasing in numbers, was marching towards Calais on the right bank of the Seine, as were Edward and his army on the left bank.
Edward was as firm in his purpose to meet and defeat the enemy, as was Philip in his, and Edward determined to press on at all odds and face and conquer the French forces, and fortune favoured him.
With extreme difficulty, finally, at low tide, he was able to cross the Somme whither Philip was eager to follow, but before Philip's forces were ready to cross the river, the tide had turned, and he was obliged to wait till morning, while Edward now already on the other side of the river, was pressing forward into the country of Ponthieu, which had been part of the marriage portion of his mother, Isabella of France. It was for this special reason, some historians say, that King Edward encamped there, in the forest of Crecy, fifteen miles from Abbeville, saying:
"Let us take here some plot of ground, for we will go no further till we have seen our enemies."
He also added:
"I am on the right heritage of Madam, my mother, which was given her in dowry. I will defend it against my adversary, Philip of Valois."
We do not, of course, know his motives positively, but we may be pretty sure that he would not have been so eager to defend his mother's possessions, had he not felt sure that it would be to his advantage to do so. Accordingly he and his forces encamped in the little village of Crecy, behind which the ground rises into a broad ridge and from here could be seen the surrounding country through which the French army must advance, and the young prince eagerly strained his eyes in search of the advancing enemy, so eager was he to take part in a real battle.
At midnight, when all the army had been cared for and suitably arranged in their tents, King Edward lay down for a much needed rest, but was up again at dawn, when he and the young prince, not only heard mass but also received the sacrament, and we can fancy how that solemn preface to a day which proved so momentous to the Black Prince, must have lingered long in his memory as a sacred recollection.
It was Saturday, the 26th of August, 1346 when King Edward drew his men up in three divisions--one commanded by the prince, assisted by the Earls of Warwick and Oxford, which division consisted of eight hundred men at arms, two thousand archers and one thousand Welsh-men. The second division under Lords Arundel and Northampton had only eight hundred men at arms, twelve hundred archers, while the third division, under the king's own command, had seven hundred men at arms and two thousand archers. This division occupied the summit of the hill, from which the king watched the entire battle, never engaging in it--and for this reason.
King Philip was so determined to destroy the English army, that he had hoisted the sacred banner of France, the great scarlet flag, embroidered with the gold lily which was the emblem of France, as a sign that no mercy whatever would be shown to the English, under any conditions. When this Oriflamme, as it was called, was raised, and King Edward saw it, he realized how great the chances of his death would be, should he engage in the battle, and that this would expose, not only the army, but the whole kingdom to the gravest danger, so throughout the entire battle he remained in the tower of a wind-mill on the ridge overlooking the battle-field, while the young prince, who had only been knighted a month before, was practically left in command of the entire army, and went forward into the very heat of the combat.
When the army had been suitably arranged and every earl, baron and knight knew what he was to do in the hour of battle, King Edward mounted his small white horse and rode slowly from line to line among his men, talking earnestly to them of their duty as warriors, and urging them to defend his rights with all their strength. His words and smile were so stimulating that the men were filled with courage as they listened to him, and every man promised to do as the king wished. Then he ordered them all to eat and drink heartily, that they might be thoroughly refreshed in body as well as in spirit and after fulfilling his command, his small army, sat down on the ground at nine o'clock in the morning with their helmets and cross-bows beside them, and patiently waited for the attack of an enemy of ten times their number.
Meanwhile, King Philip and his army having crossed the Somme at last, were advancing towards them as fast as possible, and when they were only a short distance from Crecy, King Philip sent four knights ahead of the army, to reconnoitre and bring back news to him of the position and condition of the English forces.
When his knights saw the little army of the English sitting quietly on the ground, calm and courageous, ready to fight when the moment for combat should come--they went back to King Philip and advised him to allow his men who were weary after a long, hard march, to halt and rest over night, so that they might be as well fitted for the battle as the English were. King Philip felt that this was good advice and at once issued the command to halt. The foremost ranks of his horsemen obeyed the order, but the horsemen in the rear pressed forward regardless of the order, determined to have the glory of victory at once, and rode on and on, with fast and furious frenzy until they came in sight of that little army, sitting on the high ridge, waiting for their attack, when they suddenly were filled with apprehension and turned back, throwing all the unmanageable multitude of men behind them into the wildest kind of confusion, but on they charged, their every step watched by the English army, and as the young Prince saw them, in his breast beat the heart of a happy warrior on whose broad young shoulders the burden of his first great responsibility rested lightly. He had been dressed for the battle by the king's own hand, in glistening black armour, with shield and helmet of burnished iron and the horse he rode was as black as his armour, from which he gained the title of the Black Prince, which he was called ever afterwards.
On came the French, with Philip at their head--and his great reliance at this critical moment of attack was on the skill of fifteen thousand archers from Genoa who were his most valued allies. They were extremely tired after their long march on foot, and wished to rest before the attack was made, but seeing the confusion into which his ranks had been thrown, Philip commanded them to give battle at once. They murmured, but were about to comply, when nature unexpectedly conspired to help the English forces.
The sky, a few moments before blue and cloudless, became overcast, a tremendous storm gathered from the west, broke in all its fury of rain, hail and thunder and lightning--even a partial eclipse of the sun occurred. There was a terrible downpour, and to the horror of the moment was added the hoarse cries of crows and ravens which fluttered before the storm, and in the gathering darkness, circled around the heads of the army, terrifying the Italian bowmen who were superstitious, and not accustomed to the severity of Northern storms.
At last the sky cleared, the clouds lifted and the sun shone out again in dazzling brightness, shining directly in the eyes of the Italians, and not only were they blinded by it, but their bows had become so wet by the rain that when they attempted to draw them, they found it impossible.
The sun was shining at the back of the English archers, who could consequently see just where to aim, and as they had kept their bows in cases during the storm, they were perfectly dry, and now the English began to shoot--shot so well and so fast that their arrows poured down like rain on the Genoese, who had never before encountered such archers as these. Unable to stand the storm of shots, they turned and fled ignominiously and from the moment of their flight the panic of the French army was so great that the day was lost.
Seeing the uselessness of the fleeing archers, King Philip was enraged at them and ordered the soldiers to kill them, as they were simply barring the way of his other men to no purpose. So the poor archers were cut down by the swords of their own comrades, and the French horsemen waded through their blood and approached the English.
The confusion among the ranks of the French increased. The old King of Bohemia who was blind, but filled with zeal for the cause, being surrounded by his followers, asked how the battle was progressing. When told the truth he begged to be led forward that he might strike one blow with his sword for the deliverance of France. His followers consented to his wish, but fearing that they might lose him in the press of battle, they tied the reins of their bridles together, with him in their midst, but alas, all were killed together. The crest of the King of Bohemia which consisted of three white ostrich feathers, with the motto Ich dien (I serve) were taken by the Black Prince in memory of that day, and the crest and motto have ever since been used by the Prince of Wales.
During all the time that the battle was raging, King Edward was watching from his hill-top, his glance never for one moment straying from the panorama of the battlefield, as the combat deepened into a mortal one. The French cavalry was close upon the Black Prince. He and his men were in great danger. He was young and inexperienced. The Earl of Northampton hastily sent a messenger to the king, begging him to come down to his son's aid.
King Edward, who had been watching the prince's manoeuvres with breathless interest, and had determined on his course in regard to the lad, answered the messenger with a question.
"Is my son killed?"
"No sire, please God," replied the messenger.
"Is he wounded?"
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"Is he thrown to the ground?"
"No, my lord, not so, but he is in the thick of the fray and is in great need of your assistance."
"Return to those who sent you," answered the king, "and tell them not to send for me again while my son is still alive, but to let the youth win his spurs, for I intend if it please God that this day be his."
Such a retort as this showed plainly that King Edward had the greatest confidence in his son's courage and ability and the bold words being repeated to the prince and his men, so raised their spirits that they fought more valiantly than before. Again and again the French army charged on the enemy, but it was of no use. At one moment, the Black Prince was in mortal danger, having been wounded and thrown to the ground, and was only saved by a brave knight, Richard de Beaumont, who was carrying the huge banner of Wales, and who, seeing the prince fall, instantly threw the banner over him as he lay on the ground, and stood on it until he had driven back the enemy, after which the prince was raised up and revived, and took his place again in the battle.
Through all that long summer evening of August 26th, and far into the night, the Black Prince and his army fought the army of France, fought until the flower of the French force lay dead, and their troops were utterly discouraged, and disorganised.
Then seeing that the case was hopeless for them, and that the victory had been won by the sturdy little English army, John of Hainault seized the bridle of King Philip's horse and led him away, led him away from the danger and tumult of the battle-field. Out into the quiet country they rode in silence, with five horsemen only following them. On they journeyed through the blackness of the night and on until they reached Amiens. But of their flight or journey or destination, not one of the victors thought or cared, for the battle-field had become the seat of wild rejoicing and of revelry.
On the field of Crecy great fires were being lighted by tired but jubilant warriors, and torches flamed high to celebrate the victory of the Black Prince and his army over an enemy ten times as strong in numbers. And as the torches flashed and the fire-glow flamed high, King Edward came down from his hill-top and before the whole army, in the red glow of the blazing fires put his arms around the young prince, his son, who had given battle so bravely to the French, and said with solemn earnestness:
"Sweet son, God give you good perseverance. You are my true son, right royally have you acquitted yourself this day, and worthy are you of a crown."
What a moment that was for the young prince!
With the reverence due not only to a king but to his father, for so were sons taught in those chivalrous days, Edward the Black Prince, though hot with the joy of victory, bowed to the ground before his father and gave him all the honour, as his king and commander.
And so ended the great day on which was fought the memorable battle of Crecy, the result of which was not only deliverance of the English army from an imminent danger, but also later the conquest of Calais, which King Edward almost immediately besieged and won, and which remained in the possession of the English from then until the time of Queen Mary.
And from that day, the Black Prince became the idol of the English people, and the terror of the French, who cherished an almost superstitious fear of his youthful valour and strategy in battle, and the king, realizing that there was stern stuff in his son, from that day treated him as an equal, and discussed matters of gravest importance with him, as with one in whose counsel he had implicit confidence, and on the day after the battle, they might have been seen arm in arm, walking together on the field of the combat, talking it over in detail, and as they walked, the king asked his son:
"What think you of a battle? Is it an agreeable game?"
What the prince answered we do not know, but we do know that in after years whenever he had the game of war to play, he played it in such a masterly manner that his name has come down to us as the most famous warrior of his age. And he won his spurs, remember, at the battle of Crecy, when only a boy of sixteen years!