Famous Men of the Middle Ages
By John H. Haaren (John Henry)
Public Domain Books
Henry the Second
Edward the Black Prince
Lived from 1330-1376
One of the most famous warriors of the Middle Ages was Edward the Black Prince. He was so called because he wore black armor in battle.
The Black Prince was the son of Edward III who reigned over England from 1327 to 1377. He won his fame as a soldier in the wars which his father carried on against France.
You remember that the early kings of England, from the time of William the Conqueror, had possessions in France. Henry II, William’s grandson, was the duke of Normandy and lord of Brittany and other provinces, and when he married Eleanor of Aquitaine she brought him that province also.
Henry’s son John lost all the French possessions of the English crown except a part of Aquitaine, and Edward III inherited this. So when Philip of Valois (val-wah’) became king of France, about a year after Edward had become king of England, Edward had to do homage to Philip.
To be king of England and yet to do homage to the king of Franceto bend the knee before Philip and kiss his footwas something Edward did not like. He thought it was quite beneath his dignity, as his ancestor Rollo had thought when told that he must kiss the foot of King Charles.
So Edward tried to persuade the nobles of France that he himself ought by right to be the king of France instead of being only a vassal. Philip of Valois was only a cousin of the late French King Charles IV. Edward was the son of his sister. But there was a curious old law in France, called the Salic Law, which forbade that daughters should inherit lands. This law barred the claim of Edward, because his claim came through his mother. Still he determined to win the French throne by force of arms.
A chance came to quarrel with Philip. Another of Philip’s vassals rebelled against him, and Edward helped the rebel. He hoped by doing so to weaken Philip and more easily overpower him.
Philip at once declared that Edward’s possessions in France were forfeited.
Then Edward raised an army of thirty thousand men, and with it invaded France.
The Black Prince was now only about sixteen years of age, but he had already shown himself brave in battle, and his father put him in command of one of the divisions of the army.
Thousands of French troops led by King Philip were hurried from Paris to meet the advance of the English; and on the 26th of August, 1346, the two armies fought a hard battle at the village of Crécy.
During the battle the division of the English army commanded by the Black Prince had to bear the attack of the whole French force. The prince fought so bravely and managed his men so well that King Edward, who was overlooking the field of battle from a windmill on the top of a hill, sent him words of praise for his gallant work.
Again and again the prince’s men drove back the French in splendid style. But at last they seemed about to give way before a very fierce charge, and the earl of Warwick hastened to Edward to advise him to send the prince aid.
“Is my son dead or unhorsed or so wounded that he cannot help himself?” asked the king.
“No, Sire,” was the reply; “but he is hard pressed.”
“Return to your post, and come not to me again for aid so long as my son lives,” said the king. “Let the boy prove himself a true knight and win his spurs.”
The earl went to the prince and told him what his father had said. “I will prove myself a true knight,” exclaimed the prince. “My father is right. I need no aid. My men will hold their post as long as they have strength to stand.”
Then he rode where the battle was still furiously raging, and encouraged his men. The king of France led his force a number of times against the prince’s line, but could not break it and was at last compelled to retire.
The battle now went steadily against the French, although they far outnumbered the English. Finally, forty thousand of Philip’s soldiers lay dead upon the field and nearly all the remainder of his army was captured. Philip gave up the struggle and fled. Among those who fought on the side of the French at Crécy was the blind king of Bohemia, who always wore three white feathers in his helmet. When the battle was at its height the blind king had his followers lead him into the thick of the fight, and he dealt heavy blows upon his unseen foes until he fell mortally wounded. The three white feathers were taken from his helmet by the Black Prince, who ever after wore them himself.
As soon as he could King Edward rode over the field to meet his son. “Prince,” he said, as he greeted him, “you are the conqueror of the French.” Turning to the soldiers, who had gathered around him, the king shouted, “Cheer, cheer for the Black Prince! Cheer for the hero of Crécy!”
What cheering then rose on the battle-field! The air rang with the name of the Black Prince.
Soon after the battle of Crécy King Edward laid siege to Calais; but the city resisted his attack for twelve months. During the siege the Black Prince aided his father greatly.
After the capture of Calais, it was agreed to stop fighting for seven years, and Edward’s army embarked for England.
In 1355 Edward again declared war against the French. The Black Prince invaded France with an army of sixty thousand men. He captured rich towns and gathered a great deal of booty. While he was preparing to move on Paris, the king of France raised a great army and marched against him.
The Black Prince had lost so many men by sickness that he had only about ten thousand when he reached the city of Poitiers. Suddenly, near the city, he was met by the French force of about fifty-five thousand, splendidly armed and commanded by the king himself.
“God help us!” exclaimed the prince, when he looked at the long lines of the French as they marched on a plain before him.
Early on the morning of September 14, 1356, the battle began. The English were few in number, but they were determined to contest every inch of the ground and not surrender while a hundred of them remained to fight. For hours they withstood the onset of the French. At last a body of English horsemen charged furiously on one part of the French line, while the Black Prince attacked another part.
This sudden movement caused confusion among the French. Many of them fled from the field. When the Black Prince saw this he shouted to his men, “Advance, English banners, in the name of God and St. George!” His army rushed forward and the French were defeated. Thousands of prisoners were taken, including the king of France and many of his nobles.
The king was sent to England, where he was treated with the greatest kindness. When, some time afterwards there was a splendid procession in London to celebrate the victory of Poitiers, he was allowed to ride in the procession on a beautiful white horse, while the Black Prince rode on a pony at his side.
The Black Prince died in 1376. He was sincerely mourned by the English people. They felt that they had lost a prince who would have made a great and good king.
William Tell and Arnold von Winkelried
Far up among the Alps, in the very heart of Switzerland, are three districts, or cantons, as they are called, which are known as the Forest Cantons and are famous in the world’s history. About two thousand years ago the Romans found in these cantons a hardy race of mountaineers, who, although poor, were free men and proud of their independence. They became the friends and allies of Rome, and the cantons were for many years a part of the Roman Empire, but the people always had the right to elect their own officers and to govern themselves.
When Goths and the Vandals and the Huns from beyond the Rhine and the Danube overran the Roman Empire, these three cantons were not disturbed. The land was too poor and rocky to attract men who were fighting for possession of the rich plains and valleys of Europe, and so it happened that for century after century, the mountaineers of these cantons lived on in their old, simple way, undisturbed by the rest of the world.
In a canton in the valley of the Rhine lived the Hapsburg family, whose leaders in time grew to be very rich and powerful. They became dukes of Austria and some of them were elected emperors. One of the Hapsburgs, Albert I, claimed that the land of the Forest Cantons belonged to him. He sent a governor and a band of soldiers to those cantons and made the people submit to his authority.
In one of the Forest Cantons at this time lived a famous mountaineer named William Tell. He was tall and strong. In all Switzerland no man had a foot so sure as his on the mountains or a hand so skilled in the use of a bow. He was determined to resist the Austrians.
Secret meetings of the mountaineers were held and all took a solemn oath to stand by each other and fight for their freedom; but they had no arms and were simple shepherds who had never been trained as soldiers. The first thing to be done was to get arms without attracting the attention of the Austrians. It took nearly a year to secure spears, swords, and battle-axes and distribute them among the mountains. Finally this was done, and everything was ready. All were waiting for a signal to rise.
The story tells us that just at this time Gessler, the Austrian governor, who was a cruel tyrant, hung a cap on a high pole in the market-place in the village of Altorf, and forced everyone who passed to bow before it. Tell accompanied by his little son, happened to pass through the marketplace. He refused to bow before the cap and was arrested. Gessler offered to release him if he would shoot an apple from the head of his son. The governor hated Tell and made this offer hoping that the mountaineer’s hand would tremble and that he would kill his own son. It is said that Tell shot the apple from his son’s head but that Gessler still refused to release him. That night as Tell was being carried across the lake to prison a storm came up. In the midst of the storm he sprang from the boat to an over-hanging rock and made his escape. It is said that he killed the tyrant. Some people do not believe this story, but the Swiss do, and if you go to Lake Lucerne some day they will show you the very rock upon which Tell stepped when he sprang from the boat.
That night the signal fires were lighted on every mountain and by the dawn of day the village of Altorf was filled with hardy mountaineers, armed and ready to fight for their liberty. A battle followed and the Austrians were defeated and driven from Altorf. This victory was followed by others.
A few years later, the duke himself came with a large army, determined to conquer the mountaineers. He had to march through a narrow pass, with mountains rising abruptly on either side. The Swiss were expecting him and hid along the heights above the pass, as soon as the Austrians appeared in the pass, rocks and trunks of trees were hurled down upon them. Many were killed and wounded. Their army was defeated, and the duke was forced to recognize the independence of the Forest Cantons.
This was the beginning of the Republic of Switzerland. In time five other cantons joined them in a compact for liberty.
About seventy years later the Austrians made another attempt to conquer the patriots. They collected a splendid army and marched into the mountains. The Swiss at once armed themselves and met the Austrians at a place called Sempach. In those times powder had not been invented, and men fought with spears, swords, and battle-axes. The Austrian soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder, each grasping a long spear whose point projected far in front of him. The Swiss were armed with short swords and spears and it was impossible for them to get to the Austrians. For a while their cause looked hopeless, but among the ranks of the Swiss was a brave man from one of the Forest Cantons. His name was Arnold von Winkelried (Win’-kel-ried). As he looked upon the bristling points of the Austrian spears, he saw that his comrades had no chance to win unless an opening could be made in that line. He determined to make such an opening even at the cost of his life. Extending his arms as far as he could, he rushed toward the Austrian line and gathered within his arms as many spears as he could grasp.
“Make way for liberty!” he cried Then ran, with arms extended wide, As if his dearest friend to clasp; Ten spears he swept within his grasp. “Make way for liberty!” he cried Their keen points met from side to side. He bowed among them like a tree, And thus made way for liberty.
Pierced through and through Winkelried fell dead, but he had made a gap in the Austrian line, and into this gap rushed the Swiss patriots. Victory was theirs and the Cantons were free.