The Secret of 14th Century England’s Black Prince’s Tomb is Revealed

His real name was Edward of Woodstock, which would have made him famous in 1969, but to stand out from the crowd of other Edwards in English royalty he became the Black Prince. The name may have been an honor or a curse depending on whose side you were on during the Hundred Years War, but there was no question that Edward of Woodstock was the eldest son of King Edward III of England and would have succeeded his father had he not died first – putting his own son in line to become Richard II. Anyone who views the effigy of the Black Prince on top of his tomb would think he died in battle, but the truth was carefully hidden by none other than Edward of Woodstock himself in detailed instructions on how he was to be honored in death. The secrets of that effigy have now been revealed for the first time and its insides are as impressive as its exterior.

By Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29259882

“3,000 men, women and children were slaughtered by Edward in a violent passion.”

Burlington magazine pulls no punches in its article on the new research done on the effigy of the Black Prince in Canterbury Cathedral. While the total of French citizens slaughtered is debated by historians, the facts show that as a knight, he was one of the most successful English commanders during the Hundred Years’ War – becoming the scourge of the French army from 1346 to his death in 1376. The slaughter during the siege of Limoges in 1370 was written about by Victorian historian William Hunt and based on another’s account, but modern scholars using later evidence think the total was more like around 300 soldiers and civilians in total. Nonetheless, it solidified Edward’s reputation as the Black Prince. Unfortunately, being a warrior didn’t help him fight his ultimate enemy.

The Siege of Limoges

“His was a more ignoble end, dying of dysentery at Westminster on 8 June 1376. Caused by the shigella bacteria (shigellosis) dysentery is generally contracted through contaminated food or water. The prince would have died in a bed of bloody diarrhea, suffering shooting abdominal pain, long lasting cramps, high-fever and malaise.”

Ancient Origins describes the last day of the Black Prince, but The Art Newspaper reveals that Edward spent at least some of his time while in bed writing detailed instructions for his son, the future Richard II, on his memorial, which depicts him “fully armed in plate of war.” A team of art historians and scientists led by Jessica Barker, a senior lecturer in Medieval Art at The Courtauld Institute of Art, working with Canterbury cathedral to perform an endoscopy (something that might have helped the Black Prince) on the effigy so that no damage was done. A flexible tube tipped with a light and camera was inserted through an existing small opening and it revealed the big secret of the Black Prince effigy — it was cast in sections, probably by an actual knight’s armorer, and held together by an intricate system of bolts and pins. To inspect the details of the exterior, the team used a handheld portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer and determined that the effigy matched the Black Prince’s actual suit of armor hanging above the tomb.

19th-century illustration of the Black Princes’ march through Roncesvalles

The study also shows that poor Richard II had to deal with the death of his father, the death of his grandfather a year later and taking over running England and the war. As a result, he needed to create two memorial effigies and the construction of his father’s actually took ten years. Both are considered today to be works of art — Edward III’s is in Westminster Abbey.

Does this new information about the effigy of the Black Prince make up for the possible massacre? Not really. Did it make anyone forget he died not in battle but in bed from dysentery? We know the answer to that. The best we can say is the research proves death can result in great works of art.

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