In September of 1356, after the English triumph on the battlefield at Poitiers over a substantially larger but outflanked French army, Edward of Woodstock, known by the sixteenth century and forever more as the Black Prince, performed a grandly chivalrous gesture. He personally served his prize captive, King John II of France, dinner. The medieval chronicler of the Hundred Years' War, Jean Froissart, never one to downplay an act of courtesy, reports the Black Prince praised King John's high renown and valiant conduct on the battlefield, despite the fact that John's overconfidence had resulted in a disastrous defeat. The dinner vignette makes a lovely set piece to illustrate idealized noble conduct, and a useful trope for lamenting the demise of the chivalric ethos in the present generation. Froissart recounted such scenes for the benefit of future readers, so young men might be inspired to comport themselves in a correspondingly gallant manner. The didactic possibilities were not lost on later periods, as Barbara Gribling documents in her fascinating and detailed study of the deployment of an equally romanticized image of the Black Prince in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In the 1780s, George III commissioned American artist Benjamin West to paint the Black Prince, receiving King John of France after the battle of Poitiers, along with four other history paintings of the Black Prince, depicting similarly embellished scenes of late fourteenth-century chivalry, such as The institution of the Order of the Garter. West worked closely with George III, and upon completion the paintings were displayed to the public at Royal Academy exhibitions where they received mixed reviews. In 1796, the West series was moved to the king's audience chamber in Windsor Castle as part of George III's reestablishment of Windsor as a royal residence. Gribling's concise and carefully researched book considers why segments of Georgian and Victorian society developed a fascination with the Black Prince some four and five hundred years after his lifetime.
The Black Prince's premature death in 1376, while the aging Edward III still ruled, made his son Richard of Bordeaux heir to the throne. Given the disastrous end to Richard II's rule, there has often been an uncritical note of wistfulness attached to reflections of his father the Black Prince for what might have been. For Georgian and Victorian royals, the appeal of associating oneself with a heroic martial figure from a romanticized and distant past whose life was cut short before being compromised by the demands of the crown is perhaps obvious. That the Black Prince's most celebrated deeds are associated with the early English successes at Crécy and Poitiers in the Hundred Years' War is significant, for this was a period when England was toying with proto-nationalistic ideas of just what it meant to be English. In 1348, after victory at Crécy and Calais, Edward III formed an order of knights dedicated to St. George, the Order of the Garter. Membership in the order was the monarch's gift alone, and Edward III intended the order to embody a uniquely English expression of chivalry associated with the Round Table, but one respected on the international stage and admired by continental aristocrats. Gribling observes that paintings depicting the foundation of the Order of the Garter were commissioned by George III and by Victoria and Albert. Such images associated the crown with imagined medieval ceremonies emphasizing the traditional powers of the monarchy. Albert became a member of the order prior to his wedding to Victoria. Gribling suggests this was meaningful because parliament had prevented Albert's admission to the British peerage.
Gribling's book focuses on which Black Prince was conjured during the Georgian and Victorian periods at various critical moments, and why. The book is divided into two parts, the first examining late Georgian and then Victorian royal uses of the Black Prince and the late medieval past, and the second part considering how the image of the Black Prince was received, reimagined, and contested in modern Britain. Edward of Woodstock in turn appears as a courageous adolescent warrior winning his spurs at the battle of Crécy, as the gallant victor of the battle of Poitiers, as a brutal and unrestrained aggressor who sacked the city of Limoges and refused to spare the innocent, and as the champion of the Commons and the people for exposing fiscal corruption and promoting government reform during the Good Parliament. The evocation of these various Black Princes, in sources as diverse as popular histories and school books, theatricals, games, writing blanks, and novels, demonstrates the exemplary value of chivalry for Georgians and Victorians, particularly during the Napoleonic wars or the project of imperial expansion, as well as chivalry's obvious limitation. Later civic-minded Victorians called into question chivalry as an edifying code of conduct, worrying that the image of the knight-errant promoted elitism, class tension, and violence towards lower classes.
Gribling's study is a valuable reminder that medievalism is much older than the current academic fascination with the subject would suggest. Chivalry and its associated pageantry are the theater of the ruling class, and both late medieval and modern monarchs knew as much. When the curtains are drawn back on the stage, Gribling suggests that not everyone in the audience will believe in the innate worth of the spectacle on display, and later Victorian criticism and opposition to romanticizing chivalry are here documented with care. Criticism often corresponded to changing tastes in masculinity, the desire to promote males who were benevolent figures of domesticity and good citizens who would attend to the affairs of the nation, over earlier images of robust and manly warriors seeking adventure on the battlefield. While Gribling's careful compilation of sources is fascinating, the analysis of the ever-changing applications of the late medieval past in modern Britain is equally so.