Book Review: The Black Prince and the Capture of a King

Synopsis from Goodreads: The capture of a king in the course of a battle was a relatively rare event. This, the climactic event of the Black Prince’s first campaign as commander, came at the end of nearly of a year of campaigning across the southwest of France. The battle of Poitiers in 1356 is less well known than more famous clashes such as Agincourt, however, Poitiers was no less dramatic, and equally important in terms of the course of the Hundred Years War. The capture of King Jean brought France to the brink of total defeat, and led to one of the most devastating and destructive periods in French history. It is not exaggeration to say that the battle of Poitiers changed the course of history for both France and England.

In the summer of 1356 the Prince and his army drove northward towards the Loire, attacking once again deep into French territory. This time he met real opposition: the full French army led by King Jean and many of the leading nobility of France, some of them veterans of the defeat at Crecy ten years before. Outnumbered, the Prince fell back, but in September he turned near the city of Poitiers to make a stand.

The battle that followed was a tense encounter. The French had learned much from the disastrous defeat at Crecy, and took time to organise and prepare before attacking. Their advance was deliberate and well planned. Yet the result was the same. Once again, English and Welsh archers wrought mayhem among the French ranks. The French formations disintegrated, and a violent counter-attack by English men-at-arms caused it to dissolve entirely. King Jean and his eldest son made a final stand with some of their followers, but in the end they were forced to surrender and were taken back to England as prisoners.

The core of the book is a day-by-description of the campaign of July-September 1356, climaxing with a detailed description of the Battle of Poitiers itself. The detailed account and analysis of the battle and the campaigns that led up to it has a strong focus on the people involved in the campaign: ordinary men-at-arms and non-combatants as well as princes and nobles. 

This book is a nonfiction book, well-researched (as much as can be from the distance of several centuries) of the events leading up to the Battle of Poitiers as part of the larger Hundred Years’ War events in the mid-14th century. Agincourt is probably better known but Poitiers was an important turning point in events for Edward III’s claim to portions of French territory. The book focuses on the previous military engagements in France which had been lead by Edward III of England, but which were a training ground for his son, Edward, also known as The Black Prince, whose military exploits over his relatively short life proved him to be a very successful military commander and Poitiers was the battlefield on which he really came into his own as an adult.

The political situation between England and France had been tense for many years, with various smaller battles resulting in changing political liasons and treaties, and certain military leaders of both sides opting to support the French king, or the English king, or just themselves. The author paints a fairly broad picture of this past history and then delves into the specifics of the events in the summer of 1356 through the Battle of Poitiers.

The places where I think this book shines are really in the descriptions of the battle, how the troops were moved and how the commanders plotted to use their strengths to best advantage on the battleground. Even taking into account the need to make some logical deductions about The Black Prince’s motivation and that of the King Jean of France without having specific documents to reference, this was an exciting and compelling description of the events over the course of several days where both Edward and Jean attempted to outmaneuver each other and work around the topography, questionable supply lines, and a long campaign that had tired their soldiers.

There is a lot of historical data in this one (it is, after all, nonfiction) and a lot of dates to remember, so it may not be the best read unless you are particularly interested in the history of the time period. I do wish that the author had spent a bit more time on The Black Prince himself, his personality, and the intriguing question of why he is called The Black Prince as I appreciate that type of more “social history” history, but if you are interested in military history and the mid-14th century, I’d recommend this one for a nice in-depth analysis of this portion of the Hundred Years’ War conflicts.

One thought on “Book Review: The Black Prince and the Capture of a King

  1. Sounds like a neat read! I don’t know much about military history, and will also tend to go more for the social history type when picking books for myself. Still, it’s great when you can tell books like this have been well-researched!

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