Interview with David Green

We are pleased to interview Dr. David Green, professor at Harlaxton College.  Dr. Green has also taught at the universities of Sheffield, St Andrews and Trinity College, Dublin. His current research interests lie in later medieval British, Irish and European history including kingship, Plantagenet colonialism and concepts of national identity. His publications include: The Black Prince (2001) and The Battle of Poitiers, 1356 (2002).  Here he discusses his latest book Edward the Black Prince: Power in Medieval Europe.

In the introduction to Edward the Black Prince: Power in Medieval, you write that “although the book provides insight into the life of the Black Prince it is not a biography.” If it is not a biography, could you describe what the book is?

In the book the Black Prince’s life and career form a narrative foundation for an examination of some of the key features of late medieval life. It’s an attempt to combine a thematic and narrative approach. The book looks from the prince’s perspective to try and understand the changing world in which he lived. Particular incidents from his life are used as hooks on which to hang discussions of wider themes. For example, the battle of Crécy is used to study the so-called military revolution; the household in Aquitaine provides a starting-point for an analysis of lordship and sovereignty; the Good Parliament forms the basis for consideration of the growing power of the Commons and the changing character of the ‘community of the realm’. Overall, the book offers an examination of the realities of power in the later middle ages: the prince’s career gives a window into the mindset and values of “the tumultuous fourteenth century”.

Your work goes on to deal with the many events and trends that occurred in Prince Edward’s lifetime, such as the Black Death, the increasing importance of Parliament, the Lollard movement, and more. In some of these the Black Prince has a limited role (the Black Death for instance), but do you think that Edward’s life and career was very influential in others?

With regard to the prince and the plague evidence is somewhat limited. One can see how the Black Death (and the subsequent outbreaks) affected Edward’s income and the varying response of his administrators in the different lordships, but his own attitude to it is much more difficult to determine. We can’t know, for example, how he reacted to his sister’s death in 1348. There’s no question though that plague became a fundamental element shaping a wide range of aspects of royal and aristocratic life, both secular and religious. A book that aims to look at the changing nature of fourteenth-century power – broadly defined – had to consider the plague even though detailed evidence focused on the prince is somewhat limited.

Turning to the wider question, the Black Prince strikes me as highly influential in many different fields of activity, although not always as a consequence of his successes. As earl of Chester, duke of Cornwall, and prince of Aquitaine he was all-but sovereign ruler of huge estates. After 1346 he became the king’s chief military lieutenant and, as such, was responsible for the capture of Jean II at Poitiers in 1356 which had major repercussions for the war effort.   Clearly contemporaries revered him as a military leader and it’s for his deeds on the battlefield that he’s best remembered, mainly because of the influence of Froissart, Chandos Herald and others. But his strategic and tactical ability is, I think, somewhat questionable. Matters could easily have been very different at Poitiers had the French not attacked prematurely. Similarly, he did not manage the Nájera campaign (to Castile in 1367) with great skill, although crossing the Pyrenees in February should be considered a logistical triumph. This may be overly critical, he certainly took full advantage of the ‘Edwardian’ military developments (revolutionary or not) and he clearly inspired his men on the battlefield. This was also bound up with one of his particular talents – talent-spotting. He was a fine judge of men and built up a highly significant military retinue recruited from throughout the English lordships.

Something I’ve tried to do in the book is show the prince’s role and influence outside the purely military sphere. As the first member of the Order of the Garter, after the sovereign, he helped shape the court’s chivalric character which, as Juliet Vale and others have shown, was created for a range of political purposes. Additionally, the prince and his retinue played important roles in parliament, even if he was not so influential in the Good Parliament (1376) as Thomas Walsingham and other chroniclers suggested. He also influenced religious patronage and his household certainly became a centre sympathetic to some aspects of Lollardy although it was hardly a hotbed of heresy.  His influence also lies in his failures. His regime in Aquitaine helped precipitate the rebellion which reopened the Hundred Years War and the subsequent loss of almost everything the English had gained since the conflict began. Finally, his death was hugely significant. His example became a stick with which to beat Richard II, and his premature demise coloured English political fortunes, arguably, until 1415 and the confirmation of the Lancastrian regime at Agincourt. One can play an interesting counterfactual game: what if he lived for another five or ten years after 1376? No Appellants, no deposition in 1399, no Wars of the Roses.

This is your second book on the Black Prince. Have your views about Edward and his role in English history changed since your first book came out in 2001?

The first book developed out of material I examined for my PhD thesis on the prince’s household and military retinue (University of Nottingham, 1999). Because of Richard Barber’s 1978 work, Edward Prince of Wales and Aquitaine, which remains the best formal biography, the book mainly looked to take account of recent scholarship and develop the role of the prince’s military and political circle.  The current book takes a much broader approach and considers the prince’s role in a wider range of activities. I hope this shows him as a more rounded individual not just, as he’s sometime painted, a military and chivalric figure.

A review of your book has already come out in the Times Literary Supplement (July 6, 2007). The reviewer, Alex Burghart, gives a very positive analysis, calling the book “an excellent, impressively sourced work of history which cleanly dissects the big issues of fourteenth-century politics, society and historiography.” I was wondering how you feel about being reviewed – is it something that you secretly dread, or do you look forward to seeing what your colleagues think of your books?

Obviously the process of reviewing and being reviewed is important. There needs to be some sort of formal ‘discussion’ of published work. I’m particularly in favour of some of the online review sites which allow for a dialogue between author and reviewer.   Personally I tend to feel an element of trepidation although perhaps less so with regard to this book. A number of friends and colleagues have been very generous with time and suggestions; most of the chapters have been read by specialists in the field, and drafts of the whole text by Professors Michael Jones and Julia Smith which has helped a great deal with both argument and presentation.

Finally, you gave a paper at this year’s International Medieval Congress in Leeds on “The Statute of Kilkenny: Legislation and the State.” Could you tell us a little something about this paper and any plans you have for research in this area?

The paper was an attempt to contextualise the 1366 Statute brought in by the prince’s brother, Lionel of Clarence, to deal with the ‘degeneracy’ (gaelicization) of the Anglo-Irish colonists, among other concerns regarding the lordship of Ireland. It’s an area in which I’ve become interested since teaching at Trinity College, Dublin, partly because the various problems faced by English administrations in Ireland struck me as very similar to those facing the Black Prince in Aquitaine and earlier English regimes in Gascony. A paper comparing the prince’s and Lionel’s administrations will be published next year in the Journal of British Studies.

However, aspects of the Statute of Kilkenny also reflect English post-plague measures to deal with social and political instability such as the Statute of Labourers, the sumptuary and game laws. The paper argues that the 1366 legislation, which has been described as “the most famous condemnation of the Irish and their way of life”, although undoubtedly shaped by anti-Irish feeling needs to be considered in a wider context, namely that of state development. I hope to publish this after I’ve completed more work on concepts of the state beyond the Marx-Weber models. Plantagenet colonialism, building on work by Rees Davies and Robin Frame, seems a fertile area of research, by developing some later medieval material, taking Gascony into account, and undertaking a prosopographical investigation into ‘colonial staff’.

We thank Dr. David Green for answering our questions.

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