The siege at Calais, following the victory at Crécy, was one of Edward III’s greatest successes. I’ve been doing some reading about it, because one of the characters in the series of novels that I’m researching at the moment has her origins in Calais. She survives the siege, but the course of her life is changed by it.
The siege was the first great siege of the Hundred Years War. It lasted for eleven months, from 4th September 1346 to 3rd August 1347. Any hope that Edward might have of invading France and preventing France from invading England lay in having more than one place from which to attack the French king. Aquitaine was a long way from England by sea; the coast around Calais was much nearer. Edward’s attempt to invade France in 1356 was only conceivable because he was able to launch attacks from Calais, Brittany (where he had allies) and Aquitaine. In the event the invasion plans went awry, but they would have been unthinkable without Calais.
Calais had been Edward III’s aim from the start of the campaign. He had landed with his army in Normandy and marched east along the northern coast. Philippe VI gathered an army in the expectation that he would defeat the English soundly. Edward was trying to avoid the French army when they met at Crécy on 26th August. After the surprising English victory Philippe hardly knew what to do. He assumed that the English would head for their Flemish allies and disbanded his own army. It was some time before he realised his mistake and then it proved difficult to recall the army. So devastating had the defeat been, that some French nobles went over to Edward III. They were unwilling to support a king who had shown himself unable to protect his subjects.
Calais was not an important port, since its income was assumed to come from fishing. This assessment was later discovered to be incorrect. It was heavily fortified, because it was only a few miles from the border with Flanders. At this point in the war Flanders was allied with England. Calais had double walls and a ditch. The walls were very high and the town was mostly surrounded by the sea. Its other sides were protected by sand and marsh over which it was impossible to move heavy siege engines. The ground was also too soft to allow mining.
The English army started to arrive outside Calais on 4th September and reinforcements arrived by sea a couple of days later. They built a temporary town of tents and wooden buildings. Over the course of the siege it gained streets and a regular market. This town was larger than any English provincial town and had similar requirements for provisions. The town was called Villeneuve la Hardie (the bold, new town). It had a population of about 30,000 and Flemish merchants flocked to it.
At the beginning the supplies came overland from Flanders. The route was well-guarded to ensure that the supplies got through. Later, supplies also came from England in hundreds of ships which had been requisitioned for the purpose.
By the end of September the camp was considered safe enough to allow Queen Philippa to come from England to stay with her husband. She had had her tenth child in July, but Margaret was left behind. Isabella and Joan, the two oldest princesses, later joined their parents.
In October the Scots took advantage of Edward’s absence and raided the north of England. They were the allies of France and did this at Philippe’s instigation. They were defeated at the battle of Neville’s Cross and King David II was taken prisoner. He was the first of Edward III’s collection of kings.
As Edward III arrived at the town, 1,700 poor people were expelled by the garrison. Edward let them through. Since it was impossible to storm Calais, the inhabitants had to be starved out. This meant that the town had to be blockaded. Initially this was unsuccessful and the town received supplies late in the autumn and in March of the following year. Eventually, however, in April 1347, the English blockade was so effective that supplies were cut off entirely. 700 English ships were positioned in the Channel ensuring that English supplies could get through and French supplies could not.
The autumn was wet and the English had to move their town as the marshes became wetter. They started to become ill and desertion was rife. Many were wounded in attempts to scale the walls. One innovative approach to this involved fishing boats being fitted with scaling ladders. They sailed close to the walls so that soldiers could ascend the ladders up the walls of the town. These attempts failed.
At the end of the year Philippe IV’s contract with some Genoese galleys came to an end and they sailed away. They had caused a great deal of damage to English shipping. Once they were gone it was possible for the English to gain control of the sea.
During the siege there were occasional raids on smaller, less well-defended French towns to keep the army from boredom and the king threw a great feast at Christmas.
During May both sides expected a French army to turn up any day, but it didn’t. The food in the town ran out at the beginning of summer and the wells started to dry up. Even small boats could not get past the English blockade. There was another attempt to get a convoy carrying food to Calais, but many of the ships were sunk by the English and all the cargo was thrown overboard in an attempt to escape.
It was common in the last days of a siege for those who could not defend the town to be expelled and in July 500 such children, women and the infirm were sent out of Calais, relying on the mercy of the besiegers. It was not incumbent on the besiegers to spare them, however, and Edward III was notoriously lacking in mercy. They were not allowed to pass through the English lines and remained in the ditch, where they died of starvation.
Since the English had complete control of the sea, they started to bring in more troops. By the time Philippe arrived on 27th July, Edward had 5,300 men-at-arms, 6,500 infantry and 20,000 archers. It was the largest English army that had been sent abroad at that point and it was another 200 years before a greater one arrived in Europe. Edward’s Flemish allies had another 20,000 men. When Philippe arrived it was obvious that his own army was much smaller.
Philippe set up his camp at Sangatte, a hill 6 miles from Calais, and his banners were visible to the defenders of the town. They must have thought they were saved, but they were not. All approaches to the town were under English control. Philippe could not approach along the beach because there were palisades (fences made of wooden stakes) along the beach. The beach was also protected by the fleet of English ships, which contained archers and cannon. If he tried to cross the river, he would fail, as the bridge was held by the English. Beyond the bridge were earthworks and trenches.
By the evening of the 29th July Philippe knew that he wasn’t going to be able to relieve Calais. His scouts had reported to him that the town could not be helped. Despite this, he stayed and there were skirmishes between the two armies. A tower that guarded the marshes was attacked and taken. All the English soldiers in the tower were killed, but many Frenchmen lost their lives as well.
Philippe stayed within sight of Calais for a week, trying to work out how to defeat the English. In the end he decided to negotiate, but Edward wasn’t interested in what Philippe offered. On 31st July Philippe proposed that the English come out of the area around Calais and fight in a mutually acceptable location. It was a proposal that Edward III could neither accept nor refuse. Edward was in such a strong position that he could not accept it. Calais was all but his. His reputation, however, was such that he could not turn it down. Edward gave safe conduct to the French knights who were to discuss the location of the battle with his own representatives. Later, Philippe denied that this had happened, since the meeting never took place. The defenders of the town, initially cheered by the army’s arrival, were depressed by its inability to achieve anything. That night (1st August) they signalled that they were going to surrender. The French army burned its camp that same night and departed.
The town sent a message to Edward that they wanted to discuss terms. He refused, saying that they had held out against him for too long and they were all his to ransom or kill as he pleased. His advisers pointed out that this would be a dangerous precedent to set, since it might be used against them in the future. He would doubtless expect them to hold out as long as they could in a similar situation, but they would not do so if they thought they could be killed.
The king was convinced and agreed to spare the people, except 6, who would be executed as an example. Those spared would neither have liberty nor their possessions.
Calais surrendered on 3rd August, eleven months after the beginning of the siege. As commanded by the king, 6 burghers of Calais left the town in their shirtsleeves with nooses around their necks and carrying the keys of the town. They were the prominent men of the town, including the richest man of the town. The whole army was assembled to watch their execution. The king, the queen and the king’s counsellors sat on a dais ready to receive the men. The burghers threw themselves in front of the king and begged for mercy. The king called for the executioner. The king’s advisers protested, but only the queen, by then obviously pregnant with her eleventh child, could persuade him to mercy.
The army entered the town and raised the king’s standard. The inhabitants were forced out and the king went into the town.
The troops were given all movable property as booty. Everything was cleared from all the houses and sorted centrally. Calais proved to be a richer town than expected; it had been a centre for piracy for some time.
A few of the French garrison were held for ransom and sent to England. The townspeople were given food and most of them were sent away. They proved Edward’s point that Philippe could not protect his subjects almost as well as the taking of Calais itself. Philippe allowed them to settle in whichever towns they wanted and gave money and appointments to some.
Calais became an English colony, as Edward called on English merchants to populate it. It was the last English possession to be lost in France, when it fell to the French during the reign of Mary I in 1558.