Historical Tales: 4—English - Charles Morris

The Siege of Calais

Terrible and long-enduring had been the siege of Calais. For a whole year it had continued, and still the sturdy citizens held the town. Outside was Edward III., with his English host, raging at the obstinacy of the French and at his own losses during the siege. Inside was John de Vienne, the unyielding governor, and his brave garrison. Outside was plenty; inside was famine; between were impregnable walls, which all the engines of Edward failed to reduce or surmount. No resource was left the English king but time and famine; none was left the garrison but the hope of wearying their foes or of relief by their king. The chief foe they fought against was starvation, an enemy against whom warlike arms were of no avail, whom only stout hearts and inflexible endurance could meet; and bravely they faced this frightful foe, those stout citizens of Calais.

Port of Calais


An excellent harbor had Calais. It had long been the sheltering-place for the pirates that preyed on English commerce. But now no ship could leave or enter. The English fleet closed the passage by sea; the English army blocked all approach by land; the French king, whose great army had just been mercilessly slaughtered at Crecy, held aloof, nothing seemed to remain for Calais but death or surrender, and yet the valiant governor held out against his foes.

As the days went on and no relief came he made a census of the town, selected seventeen hundred poor and unsoldierly folks, "useless mouths," as he called them, and drove them outside the walls. Happily for them, King Edward was just then in a good humor. He gave the starving outcasts a good dinner and twopence in money each, and passed them through his ranks to make their way whither they would.

More days passed; food grew scarcer; there were more "useless mouths" in the town; John de Vienne decided to try this experiment again. Five hundred more were thrust from the gates. This time King Edward was not in a good humor. He bade his soldiers drive them back at sword's-point. The governor refused to admit them into the town. The whole miserable multitude died of starvation in sight of both camps. Such were the amenities of war in the Middle-Ages, and in fact, of war in almost all ages, for mercy counts for little when opposed by military exigencies.

A letter was now sent to the French king, Philip de Valois, imploring succor. They had eaten, said the governor, their horses, their dogs, even the rats and mice; nothing remained but to eat one another. Unluckily, the English, not the French, king received this letter, and the English host grew more watchful than ever. But Philip de Valois needed not letters to tell him of the extremity of the garrison; he knew it well, and knew as well that haste alone could save him one of his fairest towns.

But he had suffered a frightful defeat at Crecy only five days before the siege of Calais began. Twelve hundred of his knights and thirty thousand of his foot soldiers—a number equal to the whole English force—had been slain on the field; thousands of others had been taken prisoner; a new army was not easily to be raised. Months passed before Philip was able to come to the relief of the beleaguered stronghold. The Oriflamme, the sacred banner of the realm, never displayed but in times of dire extremity, was at length unfurled to the winds, and from every side the great vassels of the kingdom hastened to its support. France, ever prolific of men, poured forth her sons until she had another large army in the field. In July of 1347, eleven months after the siege began, the garrison, weary with long waiting, saw afar from their lookout towers the floating banners of France, and beneath them the faintly-seen forms of a mighty host.

The glad news spread through the town. The king was coming with a great army at his back! Their sufferings had not been in vain; they would soon be relieved, and those obstinate English be driven into the sea! Had a fleet of bread-ships broken through the blockade, and sailed with waving pennons into the harbor, the souls of the garrison could not have been more uplifted with joy.

Alas! it was a short-lived joy. Not many days elapsed before that great host faded before their eyes like a mist under the sun-rays, its banners lifting and falling as they slowly vanished into the distance, the gleam of its many steel-headed weapons dying out until not a point of light remained. Their gladness turned into redoubled misery as they saw themselves thus left to their fate; their king, who had marched up with such a gallant show of banners and arms, marching away without striking a blow. It was hard to believe it; but there they went, and there the English lay.

The soil of France had never seen anything quite so ludicrous—but for its tragic side—as this march of Philip the king. Two roads led to the town, but these King Edward, who was well-advised of what was coming, had taken care to intrench and guard so strongly that it would prove no light nor safe matter to force a way through. Philip sent out his spies, learned what was before him, and, full of the memory of Crecy, decided that it would be too costly an experiment to attack those works. But were not those the days of chivalry? was not Edward famed for his chivalrous spirit? Surely he, as a noble and puissant knight, would not take an unfair advantage of his adversary. As a knight of renown he could not refuse to march into the open field, and trust to God and St. George of England for his defence, as against God and St. Denys of France.

Philip, thereupon, sent four of his principal lords to the English king, saying that he was there to do battle, as knight against knight, but could find no way to come to him. He requested, therefore, that a council should meet to fig upon a place of battle, where the difference between him and his cousin of England might be fairly decided.

Surely such a request had never before been made to an opposing general. Doubtless King Edward laughed in his beard at the naive proposal, even if courtesy kept him from laughing in the envoys' faces. As regards his answer, we cannot quote its words, but its nature may be gathered from the fact that Philip soon after broke camp, and marched back over the road by which he had come, saying to himself, no doubt, that the English king lacked knightly honor, or he would not take so unfair an advantage of a foe. And thus ended this strange episode in war, Philip marching away with all the bravery of his host, Edward grimly turning again to the town which he held in his iron grasp.

The story of the siege of Calais concludes in a highly dramatic fashion. It was a play presented upon a great stage, but with true dramatic accessories of scenery and incident. These have been picturesquely preserved by the old chroniclers, and are well-worthy of being again presented. Froissart has told the tale in his own inimitable fashion. We follow others in telling it in more modern phrase.

When the people of Calais saw that they were deserted by their king, hope suddenly fled from their hearts. Longer defence meant but deeper misery. Nothing remained but surrender. Stout-hearted John de Vienne, their commander, seeing that all was at an end, mounted the walls with a flag of truce, and made signs that he wished to speak with some person of the besieging host. Word of this was brought to the English king, and he at once sent Sir Walter de Manny and Sir Basset as his envoys to confer with the bearer of the flag. The governor looked down upon them from the walls with sadness in his eyes and the lines of starvation on his face.

"Sirs," he said, "valiant knights you are, as I well know. As for me, I have obeyed the command of the king, my master, by doing all that lay in my power to hold for him this town. Now succor has failed us, and food we have none. We must all die of famine unless your noble and gentle king will have mercy on us, and let us go free, in exchange for the town and all the goods it contains, of which there is great abundance."

"We know something of the intention of our master," answered Sir Walter. "He will certainly not let you go free, but will require you to surrender without conditions, some of you to be held to ransom, others to be put to death. Your people have put him to such despite by their bitter obstinacy, and caused him such loss of treasure and men, that he is sorely grieved against them."

"You make it too hard for us," answered the governor. "We are here a small company of knights and squires, who have served our king to our own pain and misery, as you would serve yours in like case; but rather than let the least lad in the town suffer more than the greatest of us, we will endure the last extremity of pain. We beg of you to plead for us with your king for pity, and trust that, by God's grace, his purpose will change, and his gentleness yield us pardon."

The envoys, much moved by the wasted face and earnest appeal of the governor, returned with his message to the king, whom they found in an unrelenting mood. He answered them that he would make no other terms. The garrison must yield themselves to his pleasure. Sir Walter answered with words as wise as they were bold,—

"I beg you to consider this more fully," he said, "for you may be in the wrong, and make a dangerous example from which some of us may yet suffer. We shall certainly not very gladly go into any fortress of yours for defence, if you should put any of the people of this town to death after they yield; for in like case the French will certainly deal with us in the same fashion."

Others of the lords present sustained Sir Walter in this opinion, and presented the case so strongly that the king yielded.

"I will not be alone against you all," he said, after an interval of reflection. "This much will I yield. Go, Sir Walter, and say to the governor that all the grace I can give him is this. Let him send me six of the chief burgesses of the town, who shall come out bareheaded, barefooted, and barelegged, clad only in their shirts, and with halters around their necks, with the keys of the tower and castle in their hands. These must yield themselves fully to my will. The others I will take to mercy."

Sir Walter returned with this message, saying that no hope of better terms could be had of the king.

"Then I beg you to wait here," said Sir John, "till I can take your message to the townsmen, who sent me here, and bring you their reply."

Into the town went the governor, where he sought the market-place, and soon the town-bell was ringing its mustering peal. Quickly the people gathered, eager, says Jehan le Bel, "to hear their good news, for they were all mad with hunger." Sir John told them his message, saying,—

"No other terms are to be had, and you must decide quickly, for our foes ask a speedy answer."

His words were followed by weeping and much lamentation among the people. Some of them must die. Who should it be? Sir John himself shed tears for their extremity. It was not in his heart to name the victims to the wrath of the English king.

At length the richest burgess of the town, Eustace de St. Pierre, stepped forward and said, in tones of devoted resolution,—

"My friends and fellows, it would be great grief to let you all die by famine or otherwise, when there is a means given to save you. Great grace would he win from our Lord who could keep this people from dying. For myself, I have trust in God that if I save this people by my death I shall have pardon for my faults. Therefore, I offer myself as the first of the six, and am willing to put myself at the mercy of King Edward."

He was followed by another rich burgess, Jehan D'Aire by name, who said, "I will keep company with my gossip Eustace."

Jacques de Wisant and his brother, Peter de Wisant, both rich citizens, next offered themselves, and two others quickly made up the tale. Word was taken to Sir Walter of what had been done, and the victims apparelled themselves as the king had commanded.

It was a sad procession that made its way to the gate of the town. Sir John led the way, the devoted six followed, while the remainder of the towns people made their progress woeful with tears and cries of grief. Months of suffering had not caused them deeper sorrow than to see these their brave hostages marching to death.

The gate opened. Sir John and the six burgesses passed through. It closed behind them. Sir Walter stood waiting.

"I deliver to you, as captain of Calais," said Sir John, "and by the consent of all the people of the town, these six burgesses, who I swear to you are the richest and most honorable burgesses of Calais. Therefore, gentle knight, I beg you pray the king to have mercy on them, and grant them their lives."

"What the king will do I cannot say," answered Sir Walter, "but I shall do for them the best I can."

The coming of the hostages roused great feeling in the English host. Their pale and wasted faces, their miserable state, the fate which threatened them, roused pity and sympathy in the minds of many, and not the least in that of the queen, who was with Edward in the camp, and came with him and his train of nobles as they approached the place to which the hostages had been led.

When they were brought before the king the burgesses kneeled and piteously begged his grace, Eustace saying,—

"Gentle king, here be we six, who were burgesses of Calais, and great merchants. We bring you the keys of the town and the castle, and submit ourselves fully to your will, to save the remainder of our people, who have already suffered great pain. We beseech you to have mercy and pity on us through your high nobleness."

His words brought tears from many persons there present, for naught so piteous had ever come before them. But the king looked on them with vindictive eyes, and for some moments stood in lowering silence. Then he gave the harsh command to take these men and strike off their heads.

At this cruel sentence the lords of his council crowded round the king, begging for compassion, but he turned a deaf ear to their pleadings. Sir Walter de Manny then said, his eyes fixed in sorrow on the pale and trembling victims,—

"Noble sire, for God's sake restrain your wrath. You have the renown of all gentleness and nobility; I pray you do not a thing that can lay a blemish on your fair fame, or give men cause to speak of you despitefully. Every man will say it is a great cruelty to put to death such honest persons, who of their own will have put themselves into your hands to save the remainder of their people."

These words seemed rather to heighten than to soften the king's wrath. He turned away fiercely, saying,—

"Hold your peace, Master Walter; it shall be as I have said.—Call the headsman. They of Calais have made so many of my men to die, that they must die themselves."

The queen had listened sadly to these words, while tears flowed freely from her gentle eyes. On hearing the harsh decision of her lord and king, she could restrain herself no longer. With streaming eyes she cast herself on her knees at his feet, and turned up to him her sweet, imploring face.

"Gentle sir," she said, "since that day in which I passed over sea in great peril, as you know, I have asked no favor from you. Now I pray and beseech you with folded hands, in honor of the Son of the Virgin Mary, and for the love which you bear me, that you will have mercy on these poor men."

The king looked down upon her face, wet with tears, and stood silent for a few minutes. At length he spoke.

"Ah, dame, I would you had been in some other place this day. You pray so tenderly that I cannot refuse you. Though it is much against my will, nevertheless take them, I give them to you to use as you will."

The queen, filled with joy at these words of grace and mercy, returned glad thanks to the king, and bade those near her to take the halters from the necks of the burgesses and clothe them. Then she saw that a good dinner was set before them, and gave each of them six nobles, afterwards directing that they should be taken in safety through the English army and set at liberty.

Thus ended that memorable siege of Calais, with one of the most dramatic incidents which history has to tell. For more than two centuries the captured city remained in English hands, being theirs long after they had lost all other possessions on the soil of France. At length, in 1558, in the reign of Queen Mary, it was taken by the French, greatly to the chagrin of the queen, who is reported to have said, "When I die, you will find the word Calais  written on my heart."