The Quality of Mercy

The medieval city of Calais

Six hundred and fifty years ago Edward was king of England. He had sons and daughters, and a wife called Philippa, who he loved very dearly, but ambition drove him to try to conquer the neighbouring kingdom of France.
He defeated many of the French noblemen in a battle at Crécy, in the North of France, and then marched to the city of Calais. Here he ordered his troops to set up camp around the walls, and remain there until the people inside surrendered.

The months passed and the people of Calais grew hungrier and hungrier, for Edward’s army allowed no food to enter the city. At one time they thought that the King of France might come to free them, but they were so tightly surrounded by Edward’s soldiers that the French king could not risk an attack.
   Finally, the lack of food grew unbearable, and the besieged inhabitants hoisted an English flag, as a token of surrender. Edward saw the sign, and sent some of his soldiers to talk to the Governor of the city.
   “We can hold out no longer,” said the old man, who was himself weak with hunger. “We give everything up to King Edward, providing he deals mercifully with us, and lets us live.”
   But Edward had spent a long year besieging Calais, and had grown angry with its people. He replied that he would spare their lives, if they sent him six of their chief men, dressed in shirts, barefooted, with ropes round their necks and carrying the keys to the city gates. These men would be severely punished, but all the other inhabitants he would allow to go free.
   When the people of Calais heard this message they were filled with despair. However, one of their richest merchants, a man called Eustace de St Pierre, stepped forward, and offered to give himself up to the English king. Inspired by his example, five other men joined him. Amidst the tears of the townsfolk they filed out of the city behind the Governor, dressed in their shameful attire.
   All who saw them were moved with pity, but Edward hardened his heart, and ordered their heads to be struck off.
   Everyone pleaded with him to spare them, but to no avail.
   At length Queen Philippa knelt down at her husband’s feet and entreated him to be merciful. Edward remained silent, and tried to raise her, but she continued to beg for the men’s lives.
   “I wish you had been anywhere else,” he said at last, “but I cannot refuse you. Do with them what you will.”
   Then Queen Philippa gave the six men proper clothes, and held a great feast in their honour.


~Bethan Lewis~        

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