Edward III captures Calais

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Calais, with a population of about 8,000, was not then a town of any great commercial significance. Its harbour was small and liable to silt up, and most travel between England and Europe was through Wissant or Boulogne, both of which had much better and more easily navigable approaches. For all that, it was the nearest French port to England and might be developed, and it had for years been a scourge of English trade as a nest of piracy. From the French point of view, although it was only a minor trading post, the town was close to the border with Flanders and important as a military base to guard against Flemish incursions, and it had been well garrisoned and stocked with enough provisions to withstand a long siege. Moving through Neufchâtel and Wissant, the English army reached the heights of Sangatte on 3 September, 1346 from where they could see their objective.

It is unlikely that Edward ever thought that he could take Calais by a coup de main, for it was well sited for defence. To the north was the harbour and the open sea, to the west was a river with only one bridge, the Neuillet bridge, and to the east and south was marshland criss-crossed by streams and rivulets that constantly changed their course. Within those natural defences was a series of well-constructed walls, themselves protected by moats, and at the western end was the castle, with its own separate system of walls, towers and ditches. The English did not even attempt to assault the walls, but instead prepared for a long siege. This was standard practice since, before the development of effective cannon, it was very unusual for a medieval castle or fortified town to be taken by assault. Far more often it was starvation, disease or treachery that forced capitulation, and it was common for a besieged commander to agree with the besieger that, if not relieved by a certain date, he would surrender the fortress. If, however, a castle or fortress had to be assaulted, there were three ways in: over the walls, through the walls or under the walls.

Assault over the walls could be achieved by the use of belfries or scaling ladders, or both. The belfry was a three- or four-storey wooden tower on wheels or runners. Packed with archers and men-at-arms, it would be pushed up close to the wall until the attackers could leap from the top storey onto the wall. It was a very old stratagem – the Romans had made frequent use of belfries – and it took much time and labour to place them in position. Once packed with men, a belfry was very heavy and the ground had to be levelled and a road built to allow it to be pushed along. All this preparation would be obvious to the defenders, who would try to set the belfry on fire with fire arrows or by throwing burning balls of straw soaked in pitch at it, and mass their own men on the walls as it approached. While the belfry was still theoretically on the equipment tables of a medieval siege train, it was hardly ever actually built or used. Scaling ladders were easier to make and to conceal until the last minute, but, unless there were sufficient archers or crossbowmen to keep the defenders away from the walls, this too was a dubious way of earning a living, particularly for the first man up the ladder.

Attacking through the walls meant creating a breach, and this could only be done with a battering ram or a bore, both of which were very slow and vulnerable to boulders and, once again, fireballs hurled onto them from above. Going under the walls involved the use of miners. Rather than attempt to tunnel beneath the walls and then emerge inside the castle, like the demon king popping up through a trapdoor in a pantomime, miners would try to collapse the walls. The mining team would tunnel under the wall, supporting the roof of the tunnel by wooden pit props. The tunnel would then be packed with combustible materials (dead pigs, having lots of body fat, were a favourite) and ignited. Once the pit props had burned through, the tunnel would collapse and the walls above with it.

There was a variety of machinery which could be used to hurl projectiles at the walls or into the besieged town. The mangonel relied on the energy of twisted ropes – human hair was regarded as the best material for mangonel ropes – to hurl a stone or fireball from the end of a beam. The springal, little different from the Roman ballista, was a giant crossbow, but, like its hand-held baby brother, it was slow to load and only effective if used in massed batteries. The trebuchet relied on a counterweight on a beam with a huge sling on its end and could deliver seriously large stones against or over a wall, while the petrary was an enormous catapult. It was claimed that the mangonel could be used to propel dead horses into towns in an early version of biological warfare, and the chronicler Froissart avers that, when the French were besieging Auberoche in Aquitaine in 1345, they captured an English messenger sent out to contact relieving forces, killed him and returned his body over the walls with a petrary – a somewhat unlikely tale. Edward may have had some early cannon in his siege train, and there is some evidence that three may have been on the field at Crécy. Descriptions are vague: they may have fired stone balls or large darts, but, as the secret of casting gun barrels was as yet unknown and the manufacture of gunpowder imprecise, they will have done little but frighten the horses and were probably more dangerous to the gunners who served them than to the enemy. If they did exist, they seem to have played little part in the siege of Calais.

At Calais, going over or through the walls was not an option as the moats and ditches protected the approaches; mining was ruled out because the soil was waterlogged and siege engines were too heavy to be moved over the marshy ground. Starvation was the only answer and the English were quite prepared to wait. At long last the requested reinforcements arrived from England and the fleet under Sir John de Montgomery, Admiral of the South, hove to off Calais at around the same time as the army got there on land. The soldiers began to block off all roads and tracks running to and from the town, and a vast camp was set up on the dry ground around the church of St Peter where the roads from Boulogne and Ardres crossed. The camp was intended to be in position for the long term, and soon shops, armourers’ tents, quarters for the nobility, butts for the archers, paddocks for the horses, and all the facilities of a large town were in place or being constructed. While the army was on the move, it could feed itself from the French countryside, but, now that it was static, the available food in the immediate area would soon be exhausted and provisions would have to be brought in.

It is sad but perhaps inevitable that interest in military history is centred on the battles and those who fought them, and that most soldiers would rather be out killing people than in barracks counting blankets. But the fact is that you can have the best soldiers in the world, superbly trained, highly motivated, brilliantly led and equipped with the best weapons that money can buy, but, if you cannot feed them, house them, resupply them,move them and tend them when they are sick or wounded, then you can do nothing. Administering an army is far more difficult than commanding it in battle. The real heroes of most of England’s and Britain’s successful wars are the logisticians, and they get precious little recognition for it. For the siege of Calais, government agents went out all over southern England to purchase foodstuffs and other supplies for the army. They had to be found, collected, paid for, moved to the ports, loaded on ships – which themselves had to be impressed – and delivered to the army. The French scored a minor success when a fleet of galleys from the Seine intercepted one of the first supply convoys and sank or burned most of the ships, killing the crews and dumping the cargoes. Future convoys would have men-at-arms or archers on board and the supply line was never broken again, but the need to put soldiers on the ships did increase the expense of the logistic effort.

At Calais, a brief attempt to bring down the walls by hurling rocks at them failed when the ground was too soft to allow a firm foundation for the trebuchets and petraries; an ingenious plan to assail the walls from boats fitted with scaling ladders was finally abandoned despite considerable expenditure in preparing the boats. And so the blockade went on. Although the town was well provisioned, its stores would not last forever, so the commander of the garrison, Jean de Vienne, an experienced and competent officer, decided to evict his useless mouths, expelling around 2,000 civilians – women, children, the old, the sick and the weak – into no-man’s-land between the walls and the investing army. At first Edward would not allow them to pass through his lines and, as there was nothing for them to eat save what little they had managed to carry away with them, they soon began to die. Edward relented and the dispossessed were allowed passage through the siege lines. While no food could reach the garrison overland and attempts to run supplies in by sea were usually prevented by the English navy, the occasional blockade-runner did manage to reach the harbour, but the quantities that could be delivered by this means were small.

During the latter part of summer and autumn, life within the English camp was reasonably comfortable, but with the onset of winter conditions began to deteriorate. An army on the move could keep reasonably healthy, but, once it became static, disease inevitably followed. Edward’s army of 1346 was no exception. Little attention was paid to the cleanliness of water sources, latrine arrangements were primitive, flies and rats abounded, and soon dysentery – ‘the bloody flux’ – began to take its toll. Dysentery is an infection of the gut and is passed on by contact with an infected person or by touching or eating something that has been handled by an infected person. Symptoms include watery diarrhoea, often with blood in the faeces, nausea and vomiting, stomach pains and fever. While medieval man was probably more resistant to it than we are today, it could still be fatal, and, even if it was not, a man’s ability to do his duty was severely affected. Many of the spearmen and archers would have been infested with worms, and colds and influenza would have been common. Malaria was then endemic throughout Europe but was more of a summer affliction, there being a lot fewer mosquitoes around in the winter.

On top of the health hazards, manning siege lines was boring and gave few opportunities for acquiring glory or loot. Hence there was a steady trickle of desertion by archers and spearmen, while many of the knights found excuses to return to England to sort out a land dispute or see to a son’s marriage. There was also a problem with the horses, which started to die off from the cold. Or so the chroniclers tell us, but, as horses grow a substantial winter coat and are very capable of surviving all but the most severe weather, it may have been an epidemic of strangles, or perhaps starvation: hay would have been running out and barley and rye intended for the horses may have been eaten by the men.

The French had still not faced up to the implications of what they termed la déconfiture de Crécy (the collapse of Crécy), but Philip could not ignore the English army camped around Calais, where determined attempts to lift the siege by sea had proved futile. In early 1347, the French vassals were ordered to muster their troops at Amiens by Whitsuntide (28 May in 1347). The troops did arrive, eventually, but it was not until July that the army was ready to move, and, when they did, Edward was understandably concerned. Although the summer weather had improved the health of his army, there was still a large number on the sick list; long months in the siege lines had induced boredom and low morale; many soldiers had lost their physical fitness and fighting edge; and in June a reinforcement of the healthiest 100 men-at-arms and 400 archers had been sent off to Dagworth in Brittany. Although this detachment weakened the Calais army, it was a highly cost-effective investment. Charles of Blois had reinstituted the siege of La Roche-Derrien, hoping that by so doing he could lure the English army into trying to lift the siege, which might allow him to fight and win a battle on his own terms. Instead, it was the French who suffered a crushing defeat, for on 20 June 1347 Sir Thomas Dagworth led a night attack on the French army dispersed around its siege lines and defeated it piecemeal. Sir Thomas himself was wounded and captured, escaped, then captured and escaped again. When dawn broke on 21 June, nearly half the French men-at-arms had been killed, and those nobles not killed had been captured, including Charles of Blois himself, whom Sir Thomas sold to the king for £3,500. At a stroke the whole balance of power in Brittany had been reversed and the foundations laid for the eventual success of the Montfort faction in the Breton war of succession.

Meanwhile, within Calais the siege was biting ever more sharply. The garrison had eaten all the horses and was starting on the cats and dogs, so Jean de Vienne expelled another 400 citizens who were not contributing to the defence. This time Edward did not permit them to pass through his lines; he refused them food and water, and let them die. Not everyone in the English camp agreed with this, but most did. By allowing the previous expellees to pass without hindrance, the English had given de Vienne a pain-free way of extending the siege by reducing his ration strength, and there was also the question of spies and messengers being sent out in the guise of refugees. It was a harsh decision, but the right one in the circumstances.

With the approach of the French army from Amiens, summonses were sent to England to recall knights on furlough and those who had gone back to buy horses to replace those that had died during the winter. In any siege the investing army had not only to worry about sallies from the defenders, but also to guard against the risk of being attacked from behind by a relieving force. The French army got as far as Sangatte, saw that the English were apparently soundly entrenched and well able to withstand an attack (which they probably were, but not as well able as it appeared), issued a half-hearted challenge to come out and fight, and then withdrew. The news of La Roche-Derrien had reached the army, the men were not enthusiastic after Crécy the previous year, and many saw no point in continuing the war. As they scuttled back to Amiens, they were followed up by a mounted party led by the earls of Lancaster and Northampton, who gave them no chance to rest or recover their appetite for a fight. Philip now ordered his divisions to disband.

Inside Calais, Jean de Vienne had hung on in the hope of relief, and with the withdrawal of Philip’s army that last chance was gone. A messenger was sent out offering to negotiate and Edward sent Sir Walter Manny in to parley. De Vienne said that he would surrender the town if the lives of the garrison and the property of the inhabitants were spared. Manny relayed the king’s orders that, in accordance with the customs of war at the time, the lives of a garrison that held out during a siege were forfeit. Only unconditional surrender was acceptable and Edward would do with soldiers and civilians as he wished. This policy was not popular with Edward’s own knights, who pointed out that to kill men for doing their duty could rebound on them in the future. The whole point of adhering to modern laws of armed conflict that protect prisoners of war is to ensure that the other side does the same, and Manny and the others were arguing that very same point. Eventually, the king gave way. It was relayed to de Vienne that the majority of the garrison and the civilians would be spared, but not their property, and six of the leading men of the town were to come to King Edward dressed only in their shirts and with nooses around their necks bearing the keys of the city.

On the morning of 3 August 1347, Calais surrendered, and what happened next became the stuff of the French legend-makers, desperate to produce some tale of heroism from the disastrous years of 1346 and 1347. The story goes that the six burgesses, led by Eustache de Saint-Pierre, who had supposedly volunteered for the task, came out of the city gates to find the whole English army drawn up on parade, with the king and his queen and senior officers seated on a platform. The emaciated party approached the platform and fell on their knees, and Saint-Pierre asked for mercy. Edward refused and ordered them to be beheaded. At once there began a murmuring among the senior officers – to execute the men at once was bad enough, to execute them unshriven would be disgraceful. Edward was unmoved, and only when the pregnant queen, Philippa of Hainault, pleaded piteously with him was he moved to spare their lives. The truth, though, is surely that this was a carefully prepared and rehearsed charade to show the world that Edward was capable of great mercy: a queen might well argue with her husband in private, but not in public; similarly, whatever advice the king’s senior commanders might proffer in the council chamber, they would not cross him in the presence of a beaten enemy. As it was, Saint-Pierre and his companions were indeed spared.

Jean de Vienne and the more prominent of the French knights were sent off to join the growing band of notables in the Tower, and all the buildings of Calais and their contents were now to be the property of King Edward. Despite the insignificance of Calais as a trading port, it turned out to be stuffed with riches of all descriptions, largely as a result of many years of piracy, and, once the majority of the inhabitants had been expelled with little more than what they stood up in, the spoils of victory were collected and doled out. It was said that there was not a woman in England who did not wear something taken from Calais. It was Edward’s intention to keep Calais, but rather than rule it as part of English France, it would become a colony, with English merchants and tradesmen encouraged to settle there permanently with the promise of free housing and land. Calais remained English for another 211 years, until it was lost through Tudor neglect and French guile in the reign of Mary Tudor.

Edward’s initial intention was to follow up the victories of Crécy and Calais by another great chevauchée, which might end the war once and for all. However, the army was tired after over a year of constant campaigning and money was once again in short supply, so, when the inevitable approach for negotiations was made through the offices of the French cardinals, Edward was prepared to listen. For the French, a truce was imperative: they had suffered serious reverses in Normandy, Aquitaine, Flanders and Brittany, and, wealthy though their nation was, they were short of cash to pay the army. Messengers sped between Calais and Amiens to try to get agreement – almost any agreement – that would end the fighting. The English were, of course, in much the stronger position, and, when a nine-month truce was signed at the end of September 1347, it left them in possession of all that they had gained and held.

The return home of Edward and most of his army was greeted with acclaim. Parliament agreed that the money had been well spent and the king’s personal position was enormously strengthened by his obvious prowess in battle. At the same time, the taking of Calais and its plantation by settlers were seen as providing England with an opportunity for trade and an entrance to Europe that did not depend upon Flemish support, which might not always be provided. On St George’s Day, 23 April 1348, the king founded the Order of the Garter, a chivalric order which would comprise but twenty-six members and be a close companionship of those who had proved themselves in battle; it was also intended to promote King Edward’s court as one just as glorious as any in Europe. The order was to be headed by the king and his successors, who would choose the membership, and there were only two stipulations: knights were not to fight each other and they could not leave the kingdom without the king’s permission. Of the twenty-six original members, eighteen were definitely present at the Battle of Crécy and the others had distinguished themselves in various ways. The order would have its chapel in Windsor Castle and would support a chantry of twelve priests and twenty-six ‘poor knights’ – originally men who had been captured by the French and who had had to sell their estates to purchase their freedom.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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