Tales from Froissart

edited by Steve Muhlberger, Nipissing University

The Burghers of Calais

After the king of France abandons Calais to its fate, the city, which has been beseiged for a year, seeks terms.

Book I, ch. 145 (Johnes, v. 1, pp. 186-88). After the departure of the king of France, with his army, from the hill of Sangate, the Calesians saw clearly that all hopes of succour were at an end; which occasioned them so much sorrow and distress, that the hardiest could scarcely support it. They entreated, therefore, most earnestly, the lord John de Vienne, their governor, to mount upon the battlements, and make a sign that he wished to hold a parley. The king of England, upon hearing this, sent to him sir Walter Manny and lord Basset.

When they were come near, the lord de  Vienne said to them, “Dear gentlemen, you who are very valiant knights, know that the
 king of France, whose subjects we are, has sent us hither to defend this town and castle from  all harm and damage: this we have done to the best of our abilities. All hopes of help   have now left us, so that we are most exceedingly straitened; and if the gallant king, your  lord, have not pity upon us, we must perish with hunger. I therefore entreat, that you   would beg of him to have compassion on us, and to have the goodness to allow us to depart  in the state we are in, and that he will be satisfied with having possession of the town and  castle, with all that is within them, as he will find therein riches enough to content him.”

To this sir Walter Manny replied: “John, we are not ignorant of what the king our lord’s · intentions are; for he has told them to us: know then, that it is not his pleasure you should  get off so; for he is resolved that you surrender yourselves solely to his will, to allow those  whom he pleases their ransom, or to put them to death; for the Calesians have done him so  much mischief, and have, by their obstinate defence, cost him so many lives and so much  money, that he is mightily enraged.”

The lord de Vienne answered: “These conditions are  too hard for us. We are but a small number of knights and squires, who have loyally served  our lord and master, as you would have done, and have suffered much ill and disquiet; but  we will endure more than any men ever did in a similar situation, before we consent that  the smallest boy in the town should fare worse than the best. I therefore once more entreat you, out of compassion, to return to the king of England, and beg of him to have pity on
us he will, I trust, grant you this favour: for I have such an opinion of his gallantry as to  hope, that, through God’s mercy, he will alter his mind.”

The two lords returned to the king, and related what had passed. The king said he had no intentions of complying with the request, but should insist that they surrendered themselves unconditionally to his will.

Sir Walter replied: “My lord you may be to blame in this, as you will set us a very bad example; for if you order us to go to any of your castles, we shall not obey you so cheerfully, if you put these people to death; for they will retaliate upon us, in a similar case.” Many barons who were then present supported this opinion.

Upon which the king replied: “Gentlemen, I am not so obstinate as to hold my opinion alone against you all: sir Walter, you will inform the governor of Calais, that the only grace he must expect from me is, that six of the principal citizens of Calais march out of the town, with bare heads and feet, with ropes round their necks, and the keys of the town and castle in their hands. These six persons shall be at my absolute disposal, and the remainder of the inhabitants pardoned.”

Sir Walter returned to the lord de Vienne, who was waiting for him on the battlements, and told him all that he had been able to gain from the king. “I beg of you,” replied the governor, “that you would be so good as to remain here a little, while I go and relate all that has passed to the townsmen; for, as they have desired me to undertake this, it is but proper they should know the result of it.”

He went to the market-place, and caused the bell to be rung; upon which all the inhabitants, men and women, assembled in the townhall. He then related to them what he had said, and the answers he had received; and that he could not obtain any conditions more favourable, to which they must give a short and immediate answer. This information caused the greatest lamentations and despair; so that the hardest heart would have had compassion on them; even the lord de Vienne wept bitterly.

After a short time, the most wealthy citizen of the town, by name Eustace de St. Pierre, rose up and said: “Gentlemen, both high and low, it would be a very great pity to suffer so many people to die through famine, if any means could be found to prevent it; and it would be highly meritorious in the eyes of our Saviour, if such misery could be averted. I have such faith and trust in finding grace before God, if I die to save my townsmen, that I name myself as first of the six.” When Eustace had done speaking, they all rose up and almost worshipped him: many cast themselves at his feet with tears and groans Another citizen, very rich and respected, rose up and said, he would be the second to his companion, Eustace; his name was John Daire. After him, James Wisant, who was very rich in merchandise and lands, offered himself, as companion to his two cousins; as did Peter Wisant, his brother. Two others then named themselves, which completed the number demanded by the king of England.

The lord John de Vienne then mounted a small hackney, for it was with difficulty that he could walk, and conducted them to the gate. There was the greatest sorrow and lamentation all over the town; and in such manner were they attended to the gate, which the governor ordered to be opened, and then shut upon him and the six citizens, whom he led to the barriers, and said to sir Walter Manny, who was there waiting for him, “I deliver up to you, as governor of Calais, with the consent of the inhabitants, these six citizens; and I swear to you that they were, and are at this day, the most wealthy and respectable inhabitants of Calais. I beg of you, gentle sir, that you would have the goodness to beseech the king, that they may not be put to death.”

“I cannot answer for what the king will do with them,” replied sir Walter, “but you may depend that I will do all in my power to save them.” The barriers were opened, when these six citizens advanced towards the pavilion of the king, and the lord de Vienne re-entered the town.

When sir Walter Manny had presented these six citizens to the king, they fell upon their knees, and, with uplifted hands, said, “Most gallant king, see before you six citizens of Calais, who have been capital merchants, and who bring you the keys of the castle and of the town. We surrender ourselves to your absolute will and pleasure, in order to save the remainder of the inhabitants of Calais, who have suffered much distress and misery. Condescend, therefore, out of your nobleness of mind, to have mercy and compassion upon us”

All the barons, knights, and squires, that were assembled there in great numbers, wept at this sight. The king eyed them with angry looks, (for he hated much the people of Calais, for the great losses he had formerly suffered from them at sea,) and ordered their heads to be stricken off. All present entreated the king, that he would be more merciful to them,
but he would not listen to them.

Then sir Walter Manny said, “Ah, gentle king, let me beseech you to restrain your anger: you have the reputation of great nobleness of soul, do not therefore tarnish it by such an act as this, nor allow any one to speak in a disgraceful manner of you. In this instance, all the world will say you have acted cruelly, if you put to death six such respectable persons, who, of their own free will, have surrendered themselves to your mercy, in order to save their fellow-citizens.”

Upon this, the, king gave a wink, saying, “Be it so,” and ordered the headsman to be sent for; for that the Calesians had done him so much damage, it was proper they should suffer for it.

The queen of Eng land, who at that time was very big with child, fell on her knees, and with tears said, “Ah, gentle sir, since I have crossed the sea with great danger to see you, I have never asked you one favour: now, I most humbly ask as a gift, for the sake of the Son of the blessed Mary, and for your love to me, that you will be merciful to these six men.”

The king looked at her for some time in silence, and then said; “Ah, lady, I wish you had been anywhere else than here: you have entreated in such a manner that I cannot refuse you; I therefore give them to you, to do as you please with them.” The queen conducted the six citizens to her apartments, and had the halters taken from round their necks, after which she new clothed them, and served them with a plentiful dinner: she then presented each with six nobles, and had them escorted out of the camp in safety.

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