Six figures clad only in sackcloth, barefoot and with nooses ringing their necks, huddle together awaiting their fate. They appear fearful, resigned, determined, sorrowful, and despairing depending on each individual temperament. These are the six burghers of Calais, who gave up their lives to save the people of their city.
I’ve been fascinated by Auguste Rodin’s statue of the Burghers of Calais ever since visiting the Musée Rodin in Paris when I was in high school. Rodin, the prolific Paris-born sculptor, had been commissioned by the town council of Calais to portray the story of the burghers. He started the sculpture with its six separate figures in 1885, and it was installed outside the Calais town hall in 1895. Another casting of the sculpture appears in the gardens next to the Palace of Westminster in London. Rodin took his inspiration from a close reading of the account of events from Jean Frossiart’s Chronicles, written in the fourteenth century and covering the history of the Hundred Years’ War up to 1400.
Prior to the Hundred Years’ War, the kings of England were also French feudal lords. Friction between England and France developed over French encroachment on the English kings’ lands and French military aid to the Scots. In the late 1320s, Edward III claimed a right to the French throne through his mother’s line, leading to cycles of intense warfare between France and England starting in 1337 and lasting for 116 years.
In 1346, the English defeated the French at the Battle of Crécy and subsequently captured Calais, a prospering seaport just twenty-one miles from the coast of Dover. Edward’s troops laid siege to Calais, which held out as long as possible awaiting action by French King Philip VI. After eleven months, with food supplies depleted, Calais was surrendered to the English. Frossiart reports that Edward demanded the city give over six of its leaders to be executed, as well as the keys to the city and castle, in exchange for sparing the rest of the people of Calais.
These six burghers, led by Eustache de Saint-Pierre, agreed to sacrifice themselves for the people of their city and expected to be put to death. Rodin’s sculpture portrays the humanity and heroism in their sacrifice. However, as Frossiart tells it, the burghers were saved when Edward’s wife, Queen Philippa, persuaded the king to show them mercy.
As the Hundred Years’ War wore on, the English lost all territories in France except for a single city, Calais. The port city was an important bulwark for the English, who otherwise were on the defensive on the continent, as well as a hugely profitable center for trade. Much of the city had been resettled by the English, with the French mostly driven out. England lost Calais to France in 1558, when the city was captured by the Duke of Guise.
The city of Calais is featured in another prominent work of art relevant to British history, this time by London-born painter/engraver William Hogarth. His The Gate of Calais, or, The Roast Beef of Old England, was painted in 1748. The painting, now in the Tate Britain, contrasts Hogarth’s low view of the French with Britain’s wealth and power, symbolized by roast beef.