The Burghers of Calais

Bronze group by Rodin. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena CA

From 1346 to 1347 England’s King Edward III laid siege to the city of Calais.

The citizens of Calais were by now near starvation; the commander had already expelled “all poore and meane people” — those who could not contribute to the defence of the town and simply constituted extra mouths to feed — to the number of 1,700. Further resistance was pointless. [Garrison commander Jean de Vienne] now signalled his readiness to surrender, provided only that the King would promise safe conduct for all the citizens. Edward first refused point-blank: Calais had cost him vast quantities of money and the lives of countless soldiers and sailors, together with almost a year of his own. But when his two envoys, Lord Basset and Sir Walter Manny, returned to report that in that event the city would continue to resist, he relented. Manny was sent back to Jean de Vienne with new conditions: six of the principal citizens must present themselves before the King, barefoot and bare-headed, with halters round their necks and the keys of the city and of the castle in their hands. With them he would do as he pleased; the rest of the population would be spared.

The English terms were proclaimed in the marketplace, and immediately the richest of all the burghers, Master Eustache de Sainte-Pierre, stepped forward. Five others joined him. There and then the six stripped to their shirts and breeches, donned the halters, took the keys and made their way to the gates, led by Jean de Vienne himself mounted on a pony, his sword reversed in token of submission. On their arrival before the King they knelt before him, presented him with the keys and begged for mercy. Edward refused to listen, and ordered their immediate execution. Sir Walter pleaded with him in vain. Only when Queen Philippa, then heavily pregnant, threw herself on her knees before her husband and begged him to spare them did he finally relent.

You can learn the entire story of the 14th century Siege of Calais as well as read about the lives and times of the English Kings from Edward II all the way to Henry VII in John Julius Norwich’s lively Shakespeare’s Kings — from which the lengthy quote above was filched. Norwich examines the eight (plus one) “history plays” of Shakespeare, outlining the bare (albeit sometimes hair-raising) facts as determined by punctilious historians and comparing them with the story as made zippy by Shakespeare who, after all, had a theater to keep filled with satisfied customers.

The photo at the top of this post is of a grouping of six slightly larger-than-life-sized bronzes by Rodin from 1889 entitled The Burghers of Calais. It stands near the entrance of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA.

Shakespeare’s Kings
The Great Plays and the History of England in the Middle Ages: 1337-1485
by John Julius Norwich
(Scribner Book Company, Paperback, 432pp.)


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