Edward III. of Windsor—The Story of the Siege of Calais
FIVE days after the battle of Crecy, Edward began to besiege the town of Calais. He did not fight, for the fortifications were so strong that he knew it would be useless. He made his men build a ring of wooden houses round Calais, in which they could live until the people of the town were starved into giving in.
When the Governor of Calais saw what Edward was doing, he gathered all the weak, poor, and old people, who were not able to fight, and sent them out of the town. He did this so that there would be fewer people to feed, and therefore the food they had in the town would last longer.
King Edward was surprised to see all these people leave the town, and he asked them what it meant. "We have no food nor money, and cannot fight," they replied, "so the Governor has sent us away."
Then Edward, instead of making them return into the town, gave them a good dinner and some money, and allowed them to go safely through his camp, to the country beyond.
For nearly a year Calais held out bravely. Day after day the people hoped that the King of France would come with his army to help them. But day after day passed and no one came. "We have eaten everything," wrote the Governor to Philip, "even the cats, and dogs, and horses, and there is nothing left for us but to die of hunger unless you come soon. You will get no more letters from me, but if you do not come, you will hear that the town is lost and all we who are in it also."
At last one morning, the watchman on the walls saw the gleam of spears, and heard the drums and trumpet-call of the French army.
When the good news was told, the joy in Calais was great. Pale and thin from want of food, hardly able to walk or stand, the people yet crowded to the walls. Oh, what joy! At last they would be free! The king had not forgotten them.
But the day passed. There was no movement in the French camp. No battle-cry was heard, no sounds of war. "To-morrow," said the men of Calais sadly, "to-morrow the king will fight. To-morrow we will open our gates to our victorious army."
But the next day and the next passed by, while the King of England strengthened his camp, and the King of France talked of peace.
Then one morning the sun shone upon the army of Philip of France, with its gay banners and glittering spears, as it turned and marched away, without having struck one blow for the town and its brave defenders.
Calais was left to misery and tears. All hope was lost. "Our king has forsaken us," said the people sadly.
When the Governor saw that there was indeed no hope, he mounted upon the walls, waving a white flag. King Edward saw the signal and sent two of his knights to talk with the Governor.
"Are you willing to give up the town?" they asked.
"Yes," replied the Governor, "we have kept the town well and truly for our king, but now we can hold out no longer. We have nothing more to eat, and we are all perishing of hunger. I will yield the town and castle, with all its riches and treasures, if King Edward will grant us our lives."
"Nay," replied the knights, "our noble King will not accept these terms. You and your people have been too stubborn in resisting him, and have cost him too much. You must give yourselves up, freely and entirely. Whom he pleases he will set free, whom he pleases he will put to death."
"These terms are too hard," replied the Governor, "we have only done our duty, we have fought for our King and master, as you have for yours. We know the King of England is noble and generous. It cannot be that he will deal so hardly with us. Go back, I entreat you, and beg him to have pity."
So the two knights rode back and told King Edward what the Governor had said.
But Edward was stern. "I will listen to no conditions," he said. "What! am I to wait twelve months, and then have the saucy rascals make conditions? No, let them yield themselves entirely into my hands."
But Edward's knights were so full of admiration for the noble men of Calais, and they begged their King so earnestly to be merciful, that at last he gave way.
"My lords," he said, "I cannot hold out against you all. Go back to the Governor; tell him to send to me six of the chief men of Calais. They must come dressed in their shirts, with bare heads and feet, with ropes round their necks, and with the keys of the castle and town in their hands. These six shall be mine to do with what I will. The rest shall go free."
One of the knights who had before spoken to the Governor, now returned and told him what the King had said.
"I beg of you," said the Governor, "to wait until I have spoken to the townspeople. It is they who must give the answer."
"I will wait," said the knight.
The Governor left the walls, and going to the market-place told the bellman to ring the great bell. At the sound of it all the people of Calais, both men and women, hurried to the town hall. They were full of wonder and hope. They knew something great must have happened. "What is it?" they asked, "what is it?"
When the people were all gathered together the Governor stood up among them and spoke. He told them of all that he had said and done, and what a hard answer the King of England had returned.
When he had finished speaking, the men groaned and the women wept. They were all worn with suffering and hunger. For weeks and weeks they had not had enough to eat, and they could no longer bear the pain of it. But, where would six men be found brave enough to give their lives for the others? Even the Governor who, all through the terrible year, had encouraged and cheered the people, now lost heart. Hiding his face in his hands he, too, burst into tears.
For a few minutes there was dreadful silence, broken only by low sobs. Then a brave man called Eustace de St. Pierre stood up. He was one of the richest and most important men of the town.
"Friends," he said, "it would be a great wrong to allow so many people to die if in any way it could be prevented. I have such faith and trust in God that I pray He will not forget me if I die to save my fellow townsmen. I offer myself as the first of the six."
When Eustace had finished speaking, the people crowded round him. They fell at his feet, they kissed his hands, they thanked and blessed him. Then, amidst the sobs and cries of the people, another and another man rose, till six of the richest merchants of Calais stood together, ready to die for their friends.
With ropes round their necks, with bare feet and heads, and carrying the keys of the town in their hands, these six brave men walked through the streets, followed by the townspeople, who wept and sobbed and blessed them as they went.
The Governor, who was hardly able to walk, rode before them, mounted upon a poor, little thin pony. When they came to the gates of the town, he commanded them to be opened, and the gates, which for a whole year had opened neither to friend nor foe, now swung wide. The Governor passed out and, with bent heads, the six men followed, feeling that they were saying farewell for ever to their beloved town. Then the heavy gates were closed again behind them.
The Governor led the way to the outer wall where the English knight still waited. There he stopped.
"As Governor of Calais," he said, "I deliver up to you these six citizens. I swear to you that they are no mean men, but the richest and greatest of our town. I beg of you, gentle sir, out of the goodness of your heart, to pray the King that he will not put them to death."
"I cannot answer for what the King will do," replied the knight, "but this I swear to you, I will do all that is in my power to save them."
Then the barriers were opened, the six brave men passed out, and the Governor slowly and sadly returned to the town.
The knight at once brought the six men of Calais to the King's tent. There they fell upon their knees, presenting the keys of the city to him. "We are yours to do with what you will," they said, "but, noble King, pity our misery and spare us."
The King looked at them darkly. He hated the people of Calais, not only because they had held out against him for so long, but because they often fought with his ships at sea and did them much damage. So, instead of listening to the prayers of the brave men, he ordered their heads to be cut off.
All the lords and knights round him begged him to have mercy, but he would not hear. The knight who had brought the men from Calais, begged hardest. "All the world will say that you have acted cruelly, if you put these men to death," he said. "They come of their own free will, and give themselves into your hands in order to save their fellows. Such a noble deed should be rewarded, not punished."
But the King only waved his hand, as if to say that he did not care what all the world said, and ordered the headsman to be sent for.
Then Queen Philippa fell upon her knees beside him, weeping. "Ah, my dear lord," she said, "I have never before asked a favour from you, but now I beg you, by the love you have to me, let these men go."
The King looked at her in silence, and tried to raise her from her knees, but still she knelt, and still she begged for the lives of these brave men.
"Ah, lady," said Edward at last, "I would you were anywhere but here, for I can refuse you nothing. Take the men. They are yours. Do with them as you please."
Then there was rejoicing indeed. The Queen led the men away to her own rooms. She ordered clothes to be given to them, and made a great feast for them. They had not had such a dinner for many months. When they were clothed and fed Queen Philippa sent them away, each with a large sum of money.
So ended the siege of Calais.