The Burghers of Calais: it has a happy ending, really it does…

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Whenever I talk about Auguste Rodin‘s famous “Burghers of Calais,” a prominent feature of Stanford life since the six condemned men are plopped in front of its main quad, I usually conclude with, “Well, you know what happened to them, don’t you?”  Then the smiles disappear and the faces fall, and I always get this answer, “Yeah, they were killed.”  And so it happened when I spoke to Peter Carroll a week or so ago after his poetry reading (read about it here).  My answer to him was the same as it is to everyone.  “No, no, no, no!”

burgher2Only I know the true story, and I shall tell it to you, for free.  Here’s what everyone knows: At the beginning of the Hundred Year’s War, King Edward III‘s men approached Calais, but the city’s substantial walls and moats could not be breached. Edward received aid from England and Flanders.  Two months later, in November 1346, the English were supplied with cannon, catapults, and long ladders, but still they failed.  The English king began a siege the following February. The British royals were broke in those days – not like today – and the king pawned the Queen’s crown to pay for the siege.  The city held out for almost a year. They survived on dogs and rats in the end, when they survived at all.

The inevitable happened. Calais was defeated, and knew it. King Edward wanted to put the whole city to the sword, with sacking and pillaging and much mayhem.  He wasn’t a friendly kind of guy in the best of circumstances, and would go completely bats later in his life.  He was dissuaded from his original plan, however, but demanded instead that the city’s six leading citizens should be brought outside the city gates, in chains, to meet his pleasure.  “Pleasure,” for King Edward, could take some rather inventive and brutal turns, so you can imagine the feelings of the citizens.  The mayor, Eustache de Saint Pierreled the way in “a shirt and a rope around his neck,” and was joined by five other volunteers.

eustacheSo then … slow torture and death, yes?  No!  Enter someone who should be better known, Queen Philippa of Hainault (chronicler Jean Froissart called her as “the most gentle Queen, most liberal, and most courteous that ever was Queen in her days”).  She threw herself down on her knees before her husband, and begged for clemency for these six brave citizens, for her sake, and the sake of the child she was carrying (one of thirteen).  He scowled … but he relented.  And so they all went to a feast together and told long, funny stories, no doubt.

I read about this after I bought a small book at Her Majesty’s Stationery Office back when I lived in Old London Town.  I still have it.

From Barbara Softly‘s short Queens of England:

“Philippa is one of those few characters from the past who, in Shakespeare’s words from The Merchant of Venice, shone ‘like a good deed in a naughter world’.  The world of the Middle Ages was a grim place of constant disease – lack of sanitation affected everyone and the court moved from castle to castle, palace to palace as each building became too unpleasant to live in. Famine, early death, war, intolerance, cruel sport and cruel punishment were an accepted way of life. Philippa, one of the four daughters of the Count of Hainault, with her loving nature, humility, compassion and strength of character managed to lighten this darkness while she was Edward’s queen. When she died, ‘beloved of God and all men’, Edward, as with so many of the Plantagenents, was completely broken and the better side of his nature, together with the better side of court life, came to an end.”

burgher3She went on to bring her native Flemish weavers to England, since the backward nation had plenty of wool, but didn’t know quite what to do with it “any more than the sheep that bore it.” Her weavers settled in Norwich, and a booming industry was launched.  I understand some stained-glass Madonnas were modeled on her, but I don’t know where to find them.  All I ever find as a reliable likeness is the effigy, which looks like she has a jeweled toilet roll affixed to each side of her face.

So that’s the story.  Does it spoil things for you?  Admit it:  you were hoping for something gory, a bit of nasty to polish off your weekend, weren’t you?

Ah, but that’s only the story behind the story.  Here’s the story behind that:  After the birth of their first child, Edward the Black Prince, in Woodstock, seventeen years before Calais, the King hastily arranged a tournament in Cheapside.  A special stand was provided for the queen and the ladies of the court.  It collapsed.  No one was injured, but everyone was shaken.  The furious king demanded to have the carpenters come forward and be put to death.  You guessed it … the then-16-year-old queen came forward, threw herself on her knees before the king, and asked for mercy.  And got it.  So was the gig at Calais a set piece, a planned intervention to show off the wild king’s mercy?  There have been whispers.  Who knows?

And why should you care about all this anyway?  Well, if you’re English, or even half, as I am, a number of scholars and statisticians estimate that there’s an 80 percent chance you’re descended from him.  One source here says the percentage may be even higher.

Anyway, Peter Carroll (who looks like Jean d’Aire, as I said before)  was relieved to find out everyone was okay.  And, coincidentally, his wife, the photographer Jeannette Ferrary, who also teaches a course on food writing at Stanford, happened to be on campus recently and was photographing … the Burghers of Calais.  “They are so moving, aren’t they? If you really look at them, you can barely stand it,” she wrote.  She offered to share her dramatic photos. How could we refuse?  All photos are by Jeannette Ferrary.  Un grand merci, Jeannette.

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4 Responses to “The Burghers of Calais: it has a happy ending, really it does…”

  1. Linda Says:

    I am half English too ! Mother was a war bride after WW 2. Married a GI. So, I may be descended from a king, huh? Interesting!

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Good chance of it. We’re all descended from slaves and kings, depending on which direction and how far back you look.

  3. john st. pierre Says:

    I am related to him. This tale blows my mind! Could this happen today?

  4. mr. whitely Says:

    there is a bit of solid evidence about the burgers living, history is full of deceit

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