A medieval tale and the shaping of Europe
To mark Europe Day and the 70th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration on 9 May, Dr Maria Castrillo, Head of Special Collections, explores past European relations through the lens of one of Senate House Library’s medieval treasures: the Chandos Herald’s manuscript poem of Edward, Prince of Wales, also known as the ‘Black Prince’...
The poem is an eyewitness account of some of the key events and actors of the Hundred Years War, a conflict that had a profound impact on the shaping of Europe in the late Middle Ages.
The Herald, the Warlord and the ‘Black Prince’
The manuscript’s authorship is attributed to the domestic Herald of Sir John Chandos, an English knight who was the closest friend and associate of Edward the ‘Black Prince’. Chandos was one of the leading military strategists of the Hundred Years War that raged between France and England throughout the 14th century and early 15th century. Medieval historian Jean de Froissart described him as a wise and resourceful warlord whose un-timely death in 1369, was met with widespread regret by his French and English contemporaries.
Little is known about the identity of the Herald and author of the poem. As his title indicates, he must have performed ceremonial duties and accompanied his lord in battle carrying messages and proclamations, similar to a modern diplomat. One significant detail that yields some light into his origins is that he wrote the poem in Anglo-Norman French, a dialect of Old French that England’s social and political elites had used since the Norman conquest. Some sources also suggest that the Herald came from Hainaut, a region in modern Belgium.
The Herald wrote his account in verse to celebrate the military successes of Edward, Prince of Wales, also known as the ‘Black Prince’. It is unclear why Edward was referred to as the ‘Black Prince’. Some sources indicate he wore a black armour, whilst others cite his brutality towards the French in battle as the reason for the nickname.
Game of Thrones
The manuscript at Senate House Library is dated around 1385, nine years after the death of Edward, and chronicles his life and most significant feats of arms during the Hundred Years War. This intermittent conflict saw five generations of English and French rulers vying for political and military supremacy in the European continent. Moreover, it led to the widespread use of technological innovations in warfare such as the longbow, and contributed to the assertion of strong national identities on both sides of the Channel.
One of the most interesting aspects of the chronicle, which highlights its value as a trusted source of historical evidence, is that the author was very close to the events narrated in the account. As well as covering Edward’s French campaigns and military victories in Crécy, Calais and Poitiers, it also recounts how the Anglo-French conflict extended into the Iberian Peninsula.
A significant proportion of the Herald’s poem deals with Edward’s participation in the confrontation between Peter I, the deposed king of Castile and León, and his half-brother Henry of Trastamara, who challenged him to the throne. Edward’s military gamble to intervene in Iberian affairs was no coincidence. Both England and France had a strong interest in obtaining the backing of the largest and most powerful of the Iberian kingdoms, and in doing so gain access to its resources and strategic position in the boundaries of continental Europe. Whilst the ‘Black Prince’ sided with the legitimate monarch of Castile, France sought to support his half-brother and fierce rival.
Despite early success at the battle of Nájera in 1367, Edward abandoned Castile shortly afterwards disillusioned with affairs there, and returned to Aquitaine where he became unpopular with the local nobility for raising taxes to pay for the Spanish campaign. In 1370 the prince returned to England where he died in 1376 as a result of an illness possibly contracted in Spain.
A manuscript fit for a Prince
The Chandos’s Herald poem is a metrical chronicle in 70 leaves with 40 lines to a page in lettres bâtardes, a cursive form of Gothic script that was extensively used in French and other European vernacular texts. The use of verse for a chronicle narrative, whilst unusual in 14th century Europe, signals the Herald’s high level of literacy at a time when the ability to read and write was reserved to a small elite of people.
One of the most striking characteristics of the manuscript poem that renders it such an enthralling object is the full-page illumination at the beginning of the volume. It depicts the Holy Trinity at the top and beneath the ‘Black Prince’ wearing full armour, flanked by two ostrich feathers symbolising his military victory at Crécy and adorned with his personal motto: ‘Ich Dene’ (‘I serve’). In this scene, Edward is portrayed as the ideal medieval knight, kneeling on a red cushion with his hands in prayer and seeking the protection of a superior spiritual entity. The symphony of gold, red, blue and green pigments on both the illumination and the decorative borders, as well as the use of vellum, the most prestigious and durable of materials for a medieval manuscript, demonstrate the importance and status of the main subject of the poem. Meanwhile, the use of historiated initials and red characters throughout the manuscript is intended to guide readers to find their way around the text.
Visible traces of ownership and provenance inside this medieval manuscript present us with another fascinating journey that reveals how it was used and read throughout the ages, and how, when and why it came to Senate House Library. An inscription at the beginning of the volume indicates that English medieval author and Chaucer’s transcriber John Shirley was its first owner.
A later bookplate shows that Sir Thomas Mostyn, who travelled extensively across Europe and was a keen book and manuscript collector, owned it in 1744. The family’s collection was sold to Sotheby’s in 1920 from whom the book dealer Maggs purchased the Chandos manuscript. A year later the University of London acquired the volume as a present for another Edward, Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII), when he was conferred an honorary degree on 5 May 1921. According to the records held in the University of London Archive, Edward decided to deposit the manuscript in the University Library (subsequently Senate House Library) for the use of future students and researchers.
Today the Chandos Herald poem continues to enthuse and captivate audiences from all over the world. Its value for the teaching and learning of Palaeography and Manuscript Studies is testament to Senate House Library’s role as a centre of excellence for the discipline. Moreover, it has enduring cultural and historical significance for it records a turbulent and violent period of European history, in stark contrast with the values of European cooperation, peace and unity advocated in the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950 that led subsequently to the celebration of Europe Day on this day.
Dr Maria Castrillo,
Head of Special Collections and Engagement
Richard Barber, The Life and Campaigns of the Black Prince: from Contemporary Letters, Diaries and Chronicles, including Chandos Herald's Life of the Black Prince, Woodbridge: Boydell, 1986.
David Green, The Hundred Years War: A People’s History, Yale University Press, 2015.
Barbara Gribling, The Image of Edward the Black Prince in Georgian and Victorian England: Negotiating the Late Medieval Past, Woodbridge: Royal Historical Society, 2017.
Reginald Arthur Rye, Catalogue of the Manuscripts and Autograph Letters in the University Library at the Central Building of the University of London ... with a Description of the Manuscript Life of Edward, Prince of Wales, the Black Prince, by Chandos the Herald, London: University of London Press, 1921.