I am fortunate to be from a family that surrounds itself with books, especially history, an equal passion of my mother’s and mine. If you would be kind enough to indulge me, I would like to read you a story from one of them. It comes from The New Primary Histories by C.F. Strong O.B.E., M.A., Ph.D., Book Two: Brave Men and Women, 1973 edition, pages 51-56.
8. Queen Philippa and the Men of Calais
There was once a King of England named Edward. His mother was a French princess, and when he was a boy she took him with her to France and to a land next to France called Hainault. While the Queen was in Hainault with young Edward she stayed with the ruler of that land who was an Earl. There Edward met one of the daughters of the Earl, whose name was Philippa. When Edward grew up he married Philippa and so she became Queen of England.
While Edward was still a boy his father was turned off the throne because he ruled the people so badly. As soon as he was old enough Edward was crowned King of England and began to govern the country. He was a good King and was fond of music and books and fine buildings. He was also a good soldier and he was happiest when he was leading his army.
Now because his mother was French, he was very fond of France. Indeed, he liked France so much that he wanted to be King of France as well as King of England. When he declared that he would claim the throne of France, the King of France and his leading men, of course, would not agree. Edward gathered an army and crossed the sea to fight the French. So a long war began between the English and the French. It went on for so long that it was called the Hundred Years’ War.
King Edward won a big battle at a place called Crecy. At this battle cannons were used for the first time. But it was really won by the good shooting of the English archers with their longbows against the crossbows of the enemy. As you see in the pictures opposite, these weapons were very different from those used nowadays.
After the battle of Crecy, King Edward wanted to make sure that he would have a clear way across the sea from England to France. So he made up his mind to capture the town of Calais. This is the place in France which is nearest to England at Dover. On a fine day, if you stand on the cliffs of Dover, you can see the French coast.
King Edward stayed with his army outside the walls of Calais waiting for the people of the town to surrender. Queen Philippa was with the King. After a time the people were starving because they could get no food past the English army outside. Then a messenger came from Calais asking what the King would do if the town surrendered.
The King replied: “Let your six leading townsmen be brought to me, wearing nothing but their shirts and with ropes round their necks. This means that I can hang them if I wish.”
The people of Calais agreed to this and the six most important men had to go to the English King’s camp, dressed as he had ordered. They passed through the gates of the town, while all of the people wept. Then they appeared before the King.
They begged for Edward’s mercy, but the King said, “The people of Calais have caused great damage to my army, and you must die.”
At this, Queen Philippa’s heart was filled with sorrow, and she knelt before the King, as you see in the picture opposite, and said:
“Ah, gentle sir, I came across the sea with you, and since we left England I have never asked you to do anything for me. But now I do. I beg you, if you love me, to have mercy on these six men of Calais and to spare their lives.”
“Ah, fair wife,” replied the King. “I love you and I cannot refuse to do what you ask. So I will let these men go free.”
The ropes were taken from their necks and the brave Queen Philippa commanded an English officer to bring the six men to her room. There she gave them new clothes and a gift of money. They then returned to their families in Calais.
So King Edward entered Calais, which remained in English hands for many years.
Perhaps you recall being taught history and hating it as the hand-wringing exercise in flagellation it has become. This is something very different. This is history taught with pride. History taught from the position of the ones writing it with no regard for impartiality. It teaches a message about virtue and proper behaviour. So what do you really know of the history of your people?
Do you know of Roland and Oliver, or Hereward’s brave defense of his Anglo-Saxon homeland from William and the Normans? Perhaps you are dimly aware of the potent Elizabeth and Drake, or Livingstone’s travels to the dark heart of Africa?