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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor

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THE SIEGE OF CALAIS

[151] AFTER the battle of Crécy Edward with his victorious army marched to Calais, and laid siege to the town. Calais was on the coast, and would be a safe and convenient haven for the English when they wished to sail to France.

It was in September 1346 that King Edward arrived at Calais. He knew that the town was too strong to be taken by assault, but he believed that if he could starve its inhabitants they would be forced to surrender.

So the king prepared for a long siege, building around Calais another town, made of wood, in which he determined to live, summer and winter, until Calais was taken.

The governor of the besieged town was John de Vienne, He soon saw that even with great care the food in the city would not last long. So he ordered the old men, women and children, who could not fight, to leave the town.

One day the sad procession passed slowly out of the gates of Calais, and came to the English town.

The English soldiers asked them why they had left the city. "We are poor," they answered, "and are either too old or too young to fight, so the governor has sent us away, for he cannot feed us during the siege."

When King Edward heard what had befallen these hapless folk, he ordered that they should be given a good dinner. After their meal they were allowed to go away, the king first giving a two-shilling piece to each of the forlorn band, "the which grace," says Froissart, "was commended as very handsome, and so indeed it was."

[152] Winter passed, spring came, and then summer, and during all these months Philip had sent no help to Calais. Famine stared the defenders of the city in the face. Sometimes fisher folk in the neighbourhood had succeeded in getting food into the town, but even this had now ceased to be possible.

John de Vienne wrote in despair to King Philip, "Everything has been eaten, cats, dogs, and horses, and we can no longer find victuals in the town, unless we eat human flesh.

"If we have not speedy succour, we will issue forth from the town to fight, whether to live or die, for we would rather die honourably in the field than eat one another."

At length, in July 1347, Philip with a large army was seen to be approaching. How the starving folk rejoiced when they saw the banners of their king floating in the breeze. Now their hunger would soon be satisfied, now the gates of Calais would soon be flung wide open, and once again they would be free.

But day after day passed, and Philip could find no way to reach the town, so well were all its approaches guarded by the English king. Each day seemed a year to the starving people, yet their hopes were still centred on the king. But alas! while Philip talked of peace he found no way to reach the starving folk.

It had been some comfort to the people to crowd upon the walls of Calais, and look at the tents of Philip's army, where there was food in abundance, food that soon would surely be theirs. But one day in August, to the dismay of the starving folk, they saw that the tents were gone. Philip and his army were marching away from the besieged town. Then indeed the brave inhabitants of Calais were in despair. Their last hope was gone. Their king had not fought a battle to save them; nay, he had not even managed to send them a little food; he had gone away and left them to their fate. Sobs and cries broke from the hearts of the desperate, starving people.

[153] There was now nothing to be done but to submit to the King of England, and Sir John de Vienne tried to make terms with the victor.

But Edward was in no mood to make terms. The siege had lasted long, and the king had lost many brave soldiers and spent much good money while the citizens of Calais had held their city against him.

He sent Sir Walter de Manny to the governor of the town to say that it must be surrendered to him without any conditions, while the inhabitants were to yield themselves to him that he might do with them as he would.

"The terms are too hard," pleaded John de Vienne to Sir Walter. "Go back and beg your king to have mercy upon us."

So Sir Walter went back to King Edward, and besought him to grant easier terms to the brave men of Calais.

At first the king refused to listen, but when all his knights added their entreaties to those of Sir Walter, the king at length yielded.

"Go then," he said, "and tell the governor of Calais that the greatest grace they can find in my sight is that six of the most notable burghers come forth from their town bare-headed, bare-footed, with ropes round their necks and with the keys of the town of Calais in their hands! With these will I do according to my will, and the rest I will receive to mercy."

John de Vienne listened until Sir Walter de Manny had delivered his message, then slowly he went to the market-place, and bade that the great bell of the city be rung. As the clang of the bell, slow and solemn, fell upon the ears of the people, they hastened to the square to hear what their brave governor had to tell.

But when they knew the king's will, the poor starving folk wept bitterly. Even John de Vienne could no longer try to comfort them, for the tears were streaming down his own cheeks as he saw the despair of the people. [154] Bitterly the hungry folk wept, for they deemed that there was not one, and certainly that there were not six, burghers who would give their lives to save them all from death.

Then, so Froissart tells us, as the sobs of the people fell upon his heart, Eustace de St. Pierre, the richest burgher of the town, arose.

"Sir," he said to the governor, "it would be a great pity to leave this people to die by famine or otherwise. . . . I have great hope to find favour in the eyes of our Lord if I die to save this people."

When the people heard these words they threw themselves at the feet of the good man, weeping for joy. Then slowly, one after another, five other burghers stepped forward, and offered to give up their lives for the sake of the other citizens of Calais.

On the 5th August 1347 St. Pierre with five burghers noble as himself, bare-headed, bare-footed, with ropes round their necks, and the city keys in their hands, walked along the streets of Calais, followed by the tears and blessings of the starving folk they were leaving behind.

When they reached the gates they were thrown open, and the six burghers passed bravely out to their doom.

As King Edward gazed upon these men in their pitiful guise, he grew angry, remembering his own good soldiers who had perished during the long siege, and he ordered that the six burghers should at once be beheaded.

The king's knights begged him to be merciful, but Edward only bade them be silent and do his will.

Sir Walter de Manny dared yet again to plead that the burghers' lives might be spared. "Gentle sir," he said to the king, "you have renown for gentleness and nobleness, be pleased to do nought whereby it may be diminished."

But the king turned upon the knight furiously, saying, "Sir Walter, hold your peace. Let them fetch my headsman."

Then his wife, Queen Philippa, fell at her lord's feet. "Ah, gentle sir," she cried, "I pray you humbly, as a special [155] boon, for the sake of Holy Mary's Son and for the love of me, you will please to have mercy on these six men."

As he looked at the queen bending at his feet, the king's heart at last grew kind, and he answered, "Ha, dame, I had much rather you had been elsewhere than here. But you pray me such prayers that I dare not refuse you, and though it irks me to do so, there, I give them up to you; do with them as you will."

Gladly Queen Philippa thanked her lord. Then rising to her feet she speedily led the six burghers to her own rooms. Here they were clothed in clean robes and given a good dinner, for well the queen knew that for many months they had had nought to eat save only enough to keep them alive. Then the brave burghers were sent safely back to the people for whom they had dared so much.

Calais now belonged to the English, and for more than two hundred years it remained an English stronghold.

Philip had suffered heavy losses during the war, and in 1347, when the siege of Calais was over, he was glad to agree to a truce with England for ten years.

Thus, for a time, France was delivered from war. But a terrible calamity, as bad as war itself, overtook her in 1348, for the plague called the Black Death, which had already been causing havoc in Italy, reached France.

Men, women and children were stricken down in a day by the dread disease. And there were few who dared to tend the sick, lest they too should catch the terrible illness. Only a few monks and nuns went bravely in and out among the dying people, carrying with them for protection nought save the Cross of Christ.

For two long years the Black Death claimed its victims. Then, in 1350, it gradually disappeared, and men, women and children were able once again to do their work, to play their games, without fear clutching at their hearts lest they should be the next to be smitten with the Black Death.

While the Black Death still raged, the lord of Dauphiny, [156] chastened it may be by fear of the terrible plague, determined to go into a monastery. He therefore sold his land to Philip, on condition that it should never be joined to the crown of France, but should always belong to the eldest son of the king. From this time, therefore, the eldest son of the French king always bore the title of the Dauphin, and ruled over the land which had once belonged to the lord of Dauphiny.

Philip, like other kings of whom you have read, was often in need of money, and to procure it he had put heavy taxes on his subjects. Before his death he imposed a new tax on salt, called Gabelle. This tax was bitterly resented by the poor people both now and in later years.

In 1350 Philip the Fortunate died. And you have seen for yourselves that never was a less fitting name found for any king than the one the people bestowed on Philip of Valois.


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