Patriots and Tyrants - Marion Lansing

Queen Philippa and the Citizens of Calais

It took France and England many centuries, and finally a war which dragged along from one generation to another till it was called the Hundred Years' War, to become two separate nations whose kings and people did not interfere with one another. You remember that in the days of William the Conqueror one king tried to rule both kingdoms. Then King John lost all his French possessions; but in the fourteenth century we find an English king, Edward III, claiming the throne of France, and supporting his claim with invading armies. The French liked no better than the English to have their land overrun by foreigners, and the great war began, one incident of which is this siege of Calais of our story. Sir John Froissart, a French knight, wrote down in a very quaint and picturesque style many stories of this war, and no one of them is prettier than this one which I am going to tell to you, keeping as close as I can to his manner of telling.

It was in 1346. The English had won the battle of Crécy, and now an army moved on Calais, one of the strongest French cities, for "the English king was very wroth at the people of Calais for the great damages and displeasures they had done him on the sea before."

When the king of England was come before Calais, he built a camp and a fortress, from which he could lay his siege. He had carpenters make houses and lodgings of great timber, and set the houses like streets, and cover them with reed and broom, so that it was like a little town; and there was everything to sell, and a market place to be kept every Tuesday and Saturday for flesh and fish, houses for cloth, and for bread and wine, and all other things necessary. This the king did because he would not assail the town of Calais, for he thought it but a lost labor. (That was because the walls and towers and defenses of the city were so strong.) He spared his people and his artillery, and said that he would famish those in the town with long siege.

When the captain of Calais saw the manner of the Englishmen's attack, he ordered all the poor people of the city to leave Calais. It would be hard enough for the well-to-do, who could afford to buy provisions, to live through such a siege as was before them. The city must not be burdened by a host of poor people. So on a Wednesday the gates were opened, and there issued out of the town men, women, and children, more than seventeen hundred. As they passed through the English army it was demanded of them why they departed, and they said because they had nothing to live on. Then the English king did them that grace that he suffered them to pass through his host without danger, and gave them meat and drink to dinner, and to every person two-pence in alms.

Then Froissart tells the story of the long siege, how it went on for many months, until the citizens were truly famished for food, since the English camped on every side and allowed none to be brought in to them; how they made sallies and attacks, but could not conquer the great English army; and how at last the French king raised an army and attempted to relieve Calais, but the roads thither were so well kept by English troops that he could not approach.

When they who were within Calais heard that the French king had departed, they knew that their last hope of succor had failed them, and they were in great sorrow. They took counsel together and desired their captain, Sir John of Vienne, to go to the walls of the town and make a sign that he wished to speak with some person from the English host. When the English king heard this, he sent thither two English knights, Sir Gaultier and Sir Basset.

Then Sir John said to them: "Sirs, ye be right valiant knights in deeds of arms, and ye know well how the king of France my master hath commanded us to keep in his behalf this town; and we have done all that lieth in our power. Now our last succor hath failed us, and we be so sore straitened that we have naught on which to live, but must all die of famine, unless this noble and gentle king of yours will take mercy on us: the which we request you to desire him to do,—to have pity on us, and to let us go and depart as we be, and let him take the town and the castle, and all the goods that be therein, the which is great abundance."

Then Sir Gaultier said: "Sir, we know somewhat of the intention of the king our master. Know surely for truth that it is not his mind that ye nor they within the town should depart so. It is his will that ye put yourselves into his will, to ransom all such as pleaseth him, and to put to death such as he decide: for they of Calais have caused him to take much trouble and lost him many of his men, so that he is sore grieved against them."

Siege of Calais

Then the captain said: "Sir, this is too hard a matter to us. We have endured much pain; but we shall yet endure as much pain as ever knights did, rather than to consent that the worst lad in the town should fare any worse than the greatest of us all. Therefore we pray you that you will go and speak to the king of England, and desire him to have pity on us, for we trust that by the grace of God his purpose shall change."

The English knights returned to the king and told him all that had been said, and he declared that he would hear to nothing else but that they should yield to him, for him to do with them according to his pleasure. Then Sir Gaultier protested, saying that if they treated the French knights so, some day, when they themselves were in the hands of the French, they might be so dealt with. All the lords supported him, and the king, saying that he would not go against all his knights, yielded and told Sir Gaultier that he might say to the men of Calais that if they would let six of the chief citizens of the town come out "bareheaded, barefooted, barelegged, and in their shirts, with halters about their necks, and with the keys of the town and castle in their hands," and if these were yielded simply to his pleasure to do with them as he would, he would "take the rest to mercy."

Sir Gaultier returned and found the captain still on the wall, abiding for an answer. When he had heard the message, he begged Sir Gaultier to tarry on the wall a little space while he went to the town and showed this to the citizens who sent him thither.

The captain returned to the market place and sounded the common bell, and all the men and women assembled there, and the captain made report of all that he had done and asked what was their answer. At his report the people began to weep and make much sorrow, and the richest citizen of the town, Eustace of Saint-Pierre, rose and said: "Sirs, great and small, it would be great mischief to suffer so many people to die as be in this town, either by famine or by the pleasure of the king, when there is a way to save them. Wherefore I will be the first to put my life in jeopardy."

Then another honest citizen arose and said: "I will keep company with my friend and neighbor Eustace."

And still another rose, and another, until there were six of the most honorable citizens of the town. They went and appareled themselves as the king desired, and the people went with them to the gate, and there was much weeping and lamentation. Then the gate was opened, and the captain went out with the six citizens and said to Sir Gaultier: "Sir, I deliver to you these six citizens, and I swear to you truly that they be and were to-day most honorable, rich, and notable citizens of all the town of Calais. Wherefore, gentle knight, I require you to pray the king to have mercy on them, that they die not."

"I cannot say what the king will do," quoth Sir Gaultier, "but I shall do for them the best I can."

Then the six citizens went toward the king, and the captain again entered the town.

When Sir Gaultier presented these citizens to the king, they knelt down and gave him the keys, saying that they offered themselves up to submit to his pleasure in order to save the rest of the people of Calais.

The hearts of all the lords and knights were touched at the sight of these noble men, shorn of all sign of rank and all means of defense, offering themselves for their city, but the king looked coldly upon them and commanded that their heads be struck off. Sir Gaultier spoke for them, saying that this was a cruel deed and would hurt the king's fair renown, but his words had no weight. The king turned away, saying, "They of Calais have caused many of my men to be slain, wherefore these shall die."

Then Queen Philippa knelt down before him, and, weeping sorely, said: "Gentle sir, since I have crossed the sea from my home in great peril to be with you, I have desired nothing of you. Now therefore I humbly beg you, in honor of God and for the love of me, that ye will have mercy on these six citizens."

The king looked sullenly at the queen and stood still for a space in a study, and then said: "Ah, dame, I would you had been elsewhere, for if ye make such request to me, I cannot deny you. Wherefore I give them to you, to do your pleasure with them."

The queen caused the six citizens to be brought to her apartment, and had the halters taken from their necks, and had them newly clothed in garments suitable to their station, and gave them their dinner at their leisure. Finally she had each of them brought out of the English host under safe guard and set at liberty.

Wherefore men everywhere honor the six citizens of Calais, that they were willing to give their lives in order to save their people, and hold likewise in loving remembrance the good Queen Philippa, who by her gentleness and mercy did win back their lives.