Friday, August 29, 2014

The Burghers of Calais

The Burghers of Calais, by Rodin
The story of the Burghers of Calais is one of those that "everyone knows" and no one bothers to examine critically. Reported first by Jean le Bel (c.1290 - c.1370) and most famously by Jean Froissart (c.1333 - c.1400; he lived a short time at the court of Edward and Philippa and spoke highly of them both), it tells of the result of a siege in Calais during the early stages of the Hundred Years War.

Edward, right after the Battle of Crécy, laid siege to Calais. Philip VI of France could not help, and Calais had to capitulate to avoid starvation. Edward said he would refrain from punishing the city for holding out against him if six of their leaders would sacrifice themselves to him, appearing before him with nooses around their necks. The story gores that Edward was in his rights to hang them, and that no one could persuade him otherwise. No one, that is, until his wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault, spoke to him. She entreated him to mercy, and he relented and set the six burghers free.

The legacy of this anecdote is that the six burghers (whose names are known; they were led by Eustache de Saint-Pierre) were strong and steadfast patriots, that Edward was within his rights to execute them, and that only his love and admiration for his wife's feelings turned his heart and inspired him to mercy.

Rather sweet, actually.

But likely a misinterpretation of the facts of the case, caused by propaganda created by the original chroniclers. Appearing with nooses already around their necks was a common form of public penance, and such a public ceremony took place once the outcome were already complete. Exchequer records of the time show that Eustache de Saint-Pierre received money from Edward, suggesting that there were behind-the-scenes negotiations designed to make everyone feel better about moving forward after this incident. In this regard, the burghers were not brave souls standing up to the King of England; they were beaten men who were agreeing in public that he had won and they were now promising to be subservient.*

History loves seeing brave and defiant underdogs, however, and the reputation of these "common men" standing up to Edward is not likely to be changed in any history books. In Calais now you can find a famous statue of the Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin, created in 1899, the commemorates the incident.

*For more, see Les Bourgeois de Calais: Essai sur un Mythe Historique ["The Burghers Of Calais: An Essay On A Historical Myth"], by Jean-Marie Moeglin of the Sorbonne. It is a very detailed analysis of the history and legacy of this story (I, personally, however, still want to believe that Philippa had some part in softening Edward's heart—even though her intervention was likely superfluous. I guess I'm a romantic.)

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