Knightly Codes And Piety

Juliet and Malcolm Vale trace through the web of secular status and religious instincts that made up the codes of conduct of English chivalry.

Edward the Black Prince (d.1376), eldest son of Edward III, might be held in many ways to epitomise the ideal of English chivalry. Distinguished in individual feats of arms at an early age, he went on to achieve equal renown as a commander, notably at the battles of Poitiers (1356) and Najera (1376); Froissart called him 'the flower of the world's knighthood at that time and the most successful soldier of his age'. Looking at his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral with the effigy of the prince in armour, the chest emblazoned with his coat of arms, badges, mottoes and devices; the helm, crest and surcoat magnificently embroidered with his coat of arms placed triumphantly above it – a rare survival of standard practice – we are struck by the full force of what appears to be the worldly display of secular values.

Yet this is only one visual strand. The effigy's own eyes are fixed in death on the image of the Trinity painted on the ceiling, or tester, above him. This painting has deteriorated badly over the centuries but has been skilfully reconstructed. In it God the Father sits enthroned above the world, with the crucified Christ between his knees and outstretched arms, whilst the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove flies from his mouth. (This distinctive iconography is known as a Gnadenstuhl Trinity.) For the Black Prince there can be no doubt that this image transcended the heraldic display on the outside of his tomb. This is emphasised by the epitaph which he instructed in his will should be placed 'on our tomb, in a place where it may be most clearly read and seen', including the lines:

On earth I had great riches, which gave me great nobility,
Lands, houses, great treasures, fine cloths, horses, silver and gold.
But now I am a poor caitiff, laid deep in the earth.

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