Leeds Nostalgia: Black Prince not as ‘black’ as all that

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The Black Prince is one of the most prominent symbols of the city of Leeds but few would claim to know why or even who he was - now new information may change our ideas of him.

It may just have been given a makeover in the form of a yellow T-shirt for the Tour de France but for decades the imposing statue has symbolised some of the enduring qualities people from the city strive to uphold: those of industry, honour and pride.

But who was the Black Prince and what is his connection to Leeds? The answers to those questions lead us almost back to the time of William the Conqueror and stir up long forgotten rivalries from the past.

History records the eldest son of Edward III was a ruthless warrior who led the English army to victory across Europe and that he was often merciless in his treatment of those who stood in his way.

It has even been suggested that his attack on the French town of Limoges earned him his posthumous nickname, albeit not in his lifetime.

Now a new book argues the former heir to the English throne - in many ways the king who never was - perhaps did not deserve his reputation, or even his name.

David Green, a lecturer at Harlaxton College, Lincs and author of Edward the Black Prince: Power in Medieval Europe, is an expert on the Black Prince and said new work done by a French scholar - Guilhem Pépin - had unearthed a letter which cast doubt on the official record.

“It’s an idea that’s been around for some time,” explained David. “But this letter confirms what was suspected and that is that the attack on Limoges was nowhere near as harsh as has been recorded. It could have been propaganda and an effort to cast Edward in a bad light.

Edward was born on 15 June 1330 at Woodstock in Oxfordshire, the eldest son of Edward III. He was created prince of Wales in 1343. He showed military brilliance at an early age, playing a key role in the defeat of the French army at the Battle of Crecy when he was only 16. In 1355, he was appointed his father’s lieutenant in Gascony and the following year led another significant victory against the French at Poitiers, taking the French king prisoner.

However, when he returned and levied taxes on the nobility, there was an uprising and after he laid seige to the French town of Limoges, some 3,000 of their inhabitants were said to have been massacred.

However, the discovery of a letter in a French archive appears to question whether the seige resulted in so many casualties or was as vicious as has been made out. There was no doubt Edward was a hero figure and his military conquests created the sense of a golden age for England. However, the king in waiting died in 1376, a year before his father, which meant the throne passed to Edward’s young son, Richard (who became Richard II), who was at the time only 10.

Mr Green said: “As far as I know the statue of the Black Prince was commissioned when Leeds was granted its city status and I think he was meant to represent new beginnings. leadership and good government, which in some ways seems ironic. As far as I know he had no local connections.

“There is no getting away from the fact he was nasty but having said that he was no worse than other people around at the time. He fought in the vanguards at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 and in a later campaign in 1356 he captured the King of France. It was a great moment because the English kings had finally regained lands they had historically owned in France. Since William the Conquerer came over English kings had owned parts of France but they ended up losing some. Thanks to Edward England had about a third of France.”

Why he is called the Black Prince remains a point of contention. Some say it was because he tended to wear black armour, while Mr Green suggested the term could have been derogatory and in reference to the alleged massacre at Limoges.

The statue itself was the idea of Colonel Thomas Walter Harding (1843-1927), the head of Tower Works. Wealthy and ambitious, he paid for the City Square scheme, including the famous statue, which was carved in Holland and brought to the city via barge.

Legend has it that at one point Harding learned the statue was being transported facing backwards, so he ordered the barge be turned around so the statue would enter the city facing the right way.

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