Stories from English History: I - Alfred J. Church

How Calais Was Taken

King Edward had won the Battle of Crécy, he laid siege to the town of Calais, which he was especially desirous of taking because the inhabitants had been accustomed for many years to do great damage to English ships in the Channel. The King did not attack the town, for it was too strong, but he blockaded it, knowing that sooner or later hunger would compel the inhabitants to surrender, unless indeed the French King should come to their help, and of this, after winning so great a victory at Crécy, he had not much fear.

First he encamped his army, building for their better lodgings houses of wood. These made, as it were, a town, being laid out in streets. Twice a week a market was held, where provisions and all kinds of merchandise could be bought, for traders came to it from England and Flanders. As for the Governor of Calais, when he saw what the King was doing, he sent a great number of the poorer people, with women and children, out of the town. King Edward suffered them to pass safely, and gave them besides a dinner and two shillings in money to each of them.

Siege of Calais


After a while the King, finding that the people of Calais received supplies by sea, caused a large castle to be made, so strong that it could not be destroyed, and fortified it with all kinds of instruments of war. This he set up between the town and sea, and put in it a garrison of forty men-at-arms and two hundred archers. By this the harbour of Calais was guarded so closely that nothing could go in or out without being either taken or sunk.

Meanwhile the King of France, being very unwilling to lose his town of Calais, had gathered together a very large army—two hundred thousand men, it was said—for its help. But finding that he could not come near to the town, for King Edward had very skilfully guarded all the approaches, he sent certain nobles with this message: "Sir, the King of France desires to say that he has come to give you battle, but cannot find any means of approaching. Will you send some of your counsellors that they may confer with counsellors that he shall himself send, and choose some place where a battle may be fought." The King of England made this answer: "I have been here some twelve months, and have spent here some great sums of money; by this time, also, I have accomplished so much that I must in a very short time be master of the town of Calais. Therefore I am not inclined to do what the King asks, or to give up that which I have gained. If he and his army desire to pass, they must find some way for themselves."

After this two Cardinals came from the Pope, endeavouring to make peace. So much they accomplished that four nobles of the English and as many of the French met together and deliberated. But they could come to no agreement. In the end the King of France departed, and disbanded his army.

The people of Calais, seeing that all hope of help was lost, and being hard pressed by hunger, desired their Governor to ask for conditions of peace. This the Governor did, but King Edward would grant no conditions whatever. "You must give up yourselves," he said, "to be dealt with as I will. Such as I please I will suffer to ransom themselves, and such as I will I will put to death." But when the English nobles and knights heard this, they said to the King, "You set, Sire, a bad example if you put these people to death; nor shall we, when you bid us go to any of your castles, obey you so cheerfully, fearing lest the King of France may deal with us in the same way, if we should be taken." The King answered, "I will not hold out against you, but on this I am resolved; six of the chief citizens of Calais shall come to me with halters round their necks, their heads and feet bare, and the keys of the town and castle in their hands. With these I will deal as I please."

There was great trouble in the town when this message was given, for how should the six be chosen? At last one Eustace de St. Pierre stood up and said, "It would be a grievous thing that the whole town should perish. I, therefore, trusting to find grace with God, if I die for my townsmen, offer myself as first of the six." Then five others offered themselves.

These six, therefore, with the Governor, went to the King, the Governor riding on a pony because he was wounded. They fell on their knees before him, and begged for mercy. The King would not listen, but commanded that their heads should be cut off. In vain did his chief counsellors beg him to change his purpose, saying that his reputation would be greatly injured, if he should show himself so unmerciful. At last his wife, Queen Philippa, fell on her knees before him, saying, with tears, "I pray you, Sire, for the love that you bear for me, to have mercy upon these men." To her the King answered, "Ah, lady, I could wish that you had been in any other place than this to-day. Nevertheless I cannot refuse the thing which you ask in this way. I give you, therefore, these men to do with them as you please." Thereupon the Queen commanded that they should be taken to her apartments, and should be well clothed and fed. After this, giving to each six nobles, she sent them away.