Prince Edward of Woodstock, The Prince of Wales, is often referred to as the “Black Prince”. The first known source to use the sobriquet “Black Prince” was the antiquary John Leland in the 1530s or early 1540s (about 165 years after Edward’s death). Leland mentions the sobriquet in two manuscript notes in the 1530s or early 1540s, with the implication that it was in relatively widespread use by that date.
In one instance, Leland refers in Latin to “Edwardi Principis cog: Nigri” (i.e., “Edward the Prince, cognomen: The Black”); in the other, in English to “the Blake Prince”. In both instances, Leland is summarising earlier works – respectively, the 14th-century Eulogium Historiarum and the late 15th-century chronicle attributed to John Warkworth – but in neither case does the name appear in his source texts. In print, Roger Ascham in his Toxophilus (1545) refers to “ye noble black prince Edward beside Poeters”; while Richard Grafton, in his Chronicle at Large (1569), uses the name on three occasions, saying that “some writers name him the black prince”, and elsewhere that he was “commonly called the black Prince”.
Raphael Holinshed uses it several times in his Chronicles (1577); and it is also used by William Shakespeare, in his plays Richard II (written c. 1595; Act 2, scene 3) and Henry V (c. 1599; Act 2, scene 4). In 1688 it appears prominently in the title of Joshua Barnes’s The History of that Most Victorious Monarch, Edward IIId, King of England and France, and Lord of Ireland, and First Founder of the Most Noble Order of the Garter: Being a Full and Exact Account Of the Life and Death of the said King: Together with That of his Most Renowned Son, Edward, Prince of Wales and of Aquitain, Sirnamed the Black-Prince.
The origins of the name are uncertain, though many theories have been proposed, falling under two main themes, that it is derived from Edward’s:
Black shield, and/or his black armour.
Brutal reputation, particularly towards the French in Aquitaine.
The black field of his “shield for peace” is well documented (see Arms and heraldic badge above). However, there is no sound evidence that Edward ever wore black armour, although John Harvey (without citing a source) refers to “some rather shadowy evidence that he was described in French as clad at the battle of Crécy ‘ en armure noire en fer bruni ‘ – in black armour of burnished steel”.
Richard Barber suggests that the name’s origins may have lain in pageantry, in that a tradition may have grown up in the 15th century of representing the prince in black armour. He points out that several chronicles refer to him as Edward IV (the title he would have taken as King had he outlived his father): this name would obviously have become confusing when the actual Edward IV succeeded in 1461, and this may have been the period when an alternative had to be found.
Edward’s reputation for brutality in France is also well documented, and it is possible that this is where the title had its origins. The French soldier Philippe de Mézières refers to Edward as the greatest of the “black boars” – those aggressors who had done so much to disrupt relations within Christendom. Other French writers made similar associations, and Peter Hoskins reports that an oral tradition of L’Homme Noir, who had passed by with an army, survived in southern France until recent years. In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the King of France alludes to “that black name, Edward, Black Prince of Wales”.
John Speed reported in 1611 that the Black Prince was so named “not of his colour, but of his dreaded Acts in battell”; a comment echoed in 1642 by Thomas Fuller, who wrote that he was named “from his dreaded acts and not from his complexion”. Joshua Barnes claimed in 1688 that it was from the time of the Battle of Crécy that “the French began to call [him] Le Neoir, or the Black-Prince”, appearing to cite a record of 2 Richard II (i.e. 1378–9); but his reference is insufficiently precise to be traceable. However, it is unclear how a French sobriquet might have crossed to England, and Barber finds this derivation of the name “unlikely”.