A Belated Happy Birthday to the Black Prince

On June 15, 1330, Queen Philippa gave birth to Edward III’s first child: his son Edward, known later as the Black Prince, probably because of the color of the armor he favored.

Edward’s birth at Woodstock came at a tense time at the court of Edward III. The seventeen-year-old king was then under the control of his mother, the dowager queen Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. Just three months before, Edward III’s paternal uncle Edmund, Earl of Kent, had been beheaded for treason either (depending upon your viewpoint) after being duped by Isabella and Mortimer into believing that Edward II was still alive or having discovered that Edward II was still alive. Either way, the unfortunate Edmund’s plot to free his brother had led to his execution at Winchester in March 1330. Although the Earl of Kent had been the only person to pay the ultimate penalty for treason, a number of his co-conspirators had been imprisoned. Others had been set free while awaiting trial, and still others had fled abroad. Nonetheless, a number of people had continued to plot against the Mortimer and Isabella regime, and the dowager queen and the Earl of March were undoubtedly relieved at the momentary distraction that the birth of a heir to the throne provided.

The birth was celebrated with all due fanfare. The lucky Thomas Prior, who brought the news to Edward III, received a grant of forty marks a year for his hardly strenuous efforts of walking from one part of Woodstock to another. (Edward II himself had granted eighty pounds a year to the couple who carried the news of Edward III’s birth.)

The young prince was baptized by the Bishop of Lincoln and was supplied with a golden cradle, painted with images of the four evangelists and richly lined. The new mother herself was not neglected. Although Philippa had married Edward III in January 1328, her coronation had been delayed, most likely because Isabella had no desire to be supplanted by her son’s young bride. With Philippa pregnant, however, it was unseemly that she remain uncrowned, and she had at last been given a coronation with all due pomp in February 1330. Her churching–a ritual marking a mother’s purification that took place about a month or so after childbirth–was equally grand. Philippa, known later in life for her free spending, had no intentions of going to her churching underdressed. The pièce de résistance was Philippa’s “squirrel suit,” a five-piece outfit that was decorated with golden squirrels and trimmed with ermine and miniver. (One hopes that the July day was a cool one.) Caroline Shenton, who describes this and other fur-trimmed garments made for the young mother, notes that about 2,000 pounds was spent on the churching.

Beginning at the age of sixteen at the Battle of Crécy, Edward would have an illustrious military career. The first of his achievements, though, came when he was yet a babe in arms, for it was likely his birth that finally doomed the reign of Isabella and Mortimer. With the birth of a son, Edward III’s need to free himself of the dominance of his mother and Roger Mortimer became more intense than ever. He was no longer a young boy to be bossed by his elders, but the father of an heir to the throne. Not only his future, but his young son’s future, depended on what Edward III would do next, and during the course of a night in October 1330, two dozen faithful comrades of the king, acting under his direction, barged into Nottingham Castle through an underground passage and seized the Earl of March, bringing his rule to a swift and inglorious end. Little Edward, sleeping somewhere in his fine cradle that night, had gained a father of whom he could be proud.

3 thoughts on “A Belated Happy Birthday to the Black Prince”

  1. Great post! I’d forgotten it was the BP’s birthday.

    Philippa wore fur in July?? Yikes.

  2. Well, if the wind was as cold as on my day in Carlisle, fur wasn’t such a bad idea. 🙂

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