The 16 Year Old General
If you were to find yourself on the outskirts of the small village of Crecy, France, on August 26 1346, you would find a sight very strange to modern eyes. Thousands of Englishmen arrayed for battle against the French, and at the head of one of the English divisions, a 16 year old boy.
His name was Edward, and he was the son of Edward III, the King of England. Today he is commonly known as the Black Prince. As the story goes, this was because he wore black armor, but this name seems to have been invented after his death. At the time, he was known as Edward Woodstock. He was only 13 when he was made the Prince of Wales. While that is a ceremonial title today, in the 14th century it involved actually governing the country of Wales. This was a large responsibility to place on a lad who was barely a teenager.
Edward was 16 by the time of the Battle of Crecy, and had a great responsibility placed upon him. The English army was organized into three divisions, or “battles” as they were called. One of them was given to the Prince of Wales. A boy of only 16 commanding about a third of the English army, around 5,000 soldiers. He did have experienced knights surrounding him, such as the earls of Warwick and Oxford, who doubtless gave him plenty of advice. However, it was still a position of great responsibility.
Although the chroniclers differ as to how the English army was positioned, it is likely that the three battles were lined up one in front of another, with the Prince of Wales in front. Whatever his position, it is clear at some point in the battle that his men came under heavy attack. The fighting was so fierce, that a messanger was sent to the King, who was overlooking the battle from a nearby windmill, to ask for succor. The knight said:
Sir, the earl of Warwick and the earl of Oxford, sir Raynold Cobham and other, such as be about the prince, your son, are fiercely fought withal and are sore handled; wherefore they desire you that you and your battle will come and aid them; for if the Frenchmen increase, as they doubt they will, your son and they shall have much ado.1
King Edward answered:
‘Is my son dead or hurt or on the earth felled?’ ‘No, sir,’ quoth the knight, ‘but he is hardly matched; wherefore he hath need of your aid.’ ‘Well’ said the king, ‘return to him and to them that sent you hither, and say to them that they send no more to me for any adventure that falleth, as long as my son is alive: and also say to them that they suffer him this day to win his spurs; for if God be pleased, I will this journey be his and the honour thereof, and to them that be about him.’ Then the knight returned again to them and shewed the king’s words, the which greatly encouraged them, and [repined] in that they had sent to the king as they did.2
The Prince and the rest of the English fought well that day, and at last the French were defeated.
Edward Woodstock lived on to become one of most famous English knights in history. A decade later, in fact, he captured King John of France at the Battle of Poitiers. Although he was next in line to the throne for many years, he never became King of England. He died in 1376 at the age of 45, just one year before his father.