Thanks to Medical Technology, the Black Prince’s Tomb Reveals Its Secrets

Researchers used advanced technology to discover how the effigy of Edward of Woodstock was crafted more than 600 years ago

An overhead view of the armor-clad effigy on the Black Prince's tomb at Canterbury Cathedral in England. Dean and Chapter of Canterbury

Historians have long wondered how the realistic knight’s armor on the tomb of the infamous Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock and heir to the English throne who died in 1376, was crafted. Now they think they know.

Using X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and other medical imaging equipment, researchers have discovered that the metal armor on the effigy was likely made by an actual armorer, reports Maev Kennedy of the Art Newspaper. A team of historians and scientists from the Courtauld Institute of Art used noninvasive techniques to look inside the effigy on the tomb at Canterbury Cathedral in England.

Their examination of the protective plating on the reclined figure shows an intricate system of bolts and pins holding it all together, demonstrating the designer had a detailed knowledge of medieval armor, according to Jennifer Ouellette of Ars Technica. The effigy armor is very similar to knight’s armor actually worn by the Black Prince, which is displayed at the cathedral.

“There is something deeply affecting about the way his armor is depicted on the tomb,” team co-leader Jessica Barker, a senior lecturer in Medieval Art at the Courtauld, says in a statement. “This isn’t just any armor—it is his armor, the same armor that hangs empty above the tomb, replicated with complete fidelity even down to tiny details like the position of rivets.”

The tomb of Edward of Woodstock with armor and artifacts he wore in battle above it. Jessica Barker

It is not known how Edward of Woodstock, son of King Edward III and father of King Richard II, acquired his nickname. Some historians believe it may trace back to the dark armor he wore in battle. Others claim it comes from his savagery as a military commander, states the Art Newspaper. In 1370, the Black Prince ordered the slaughter of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of men, women and children following the Siege of Limoges in France.

Edward of Woodstock died six years later of dysentery at the age of 45. Before his passing, he left detailed instructions on how his tomb should look, the Courtauld team states in its findings published in the Burlington, a monthly magazine covering the fine and decorative arts.

According to researchers, the Black Prince wanted his tomb effigy to be made of metal and “fully armed in plate of war,” which was “unprecedented” in England at the time, reports Owen Jarus of Live Science. The likeness on this gravesite is one of just six surviving large cast-metal sculptures from medieval England.

A closeup of the Black Prince's gauntlets folded in prayer on his tomb. Jessica Barker

Originally, historians believed this tomb was constructed shortly after Edward of Woodstock’s death in 1376. However, the metal alloys in this effigy are almost identical to those used in another created for the Black Prince’s father, Edward III, which was built in 1386, according to the researchers’ findings.

The team now suspects both tombs were constructed at about the same time by Richard II, who may have used them as propaganda to support his faltering reign. The king’s unpopularity at that time was due to the threat of another war with France and the strain it placed on the nation’s finances.

“Until now though, a lack of documents about the Black Prince’s tomb and effigy has limited our understanding of their construction, chronology and patronage so our scientific study of them offers a long-overdue opportunity to reassess the effigy as one of the country’s most precious medieval sculptures,” Barker says in the statement. “By using the latest scientific technology and closely examining the effigy, we have discovered so much more about how it was cast, assembled and finished.”

An interior view of the effigy taken with a video probe. Waygate Technologies

Scientific analysis also reveals the effigy was made by a team of medieval artisans with an expert’s understanding of battle armor.

“Although the names of the artists are lost to history, by looking very closely at how the sculpture was made, we have reconstructed the artistic processes, background and training of the artists, and even the order in which the sculpture’s many pieces were assembled,” research co-leader Emily Pegues, a PhD student at the Courtauld and assistant curator of sculpture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., says in the statement.

In addition to using x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy on the effigy, the researchers inserted a video probe through existing openings to look at the interior construction of the tomb’s figure, reports the website Similar to an endoscopy, the device features a long tube with a light and camera for examining hidden things.

“It was thrilling to be able to see the inside of the sculpture with the endoscope: we found bolts and pins holding the figure together which show it put together like puzzle pieces, revealing evidence of the stages of its making which no one had seen since the 1380s,” Pegues says.

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