Les Bourgeois de Calais is one of the most famous sculptures by
Auguste Rodin, completed in 1889. It serves as a monument to an
occurrence in 1347 during the Hundred Years' War, when Calais, an
important French port on the English Channel, was under siege by the
English for over a year.
The story goes that England's Edward III, after a
victory in the Battle of Crécy, laid siege to Calais, while Philip VI of
France ordered the city to hold out at all costs. Philip failed to lift
the siege, and starvation eventually forced the city to parley for
Edward offered to spare the people of the city if any six of its top
leaders would surrender themselves to him, presumably to be executed.
Edward demanded that they walk out almost naked, wearing nooses around
their necks, and carrying the keys to the city and castle. One of the
wealthiest of the town leaders, Eustache de Saint Pierre, volunteered
first, and five other burghers soon followed suit, stripping down to
their breeches. Saint Pierre led this envoy of emaciated volunteers to
the city gates. It was this moment, and this poignant mix of defeat,
heroic self-sacrifice, and willingness to face imminent death that Rodin
captured in his sculpture, scaled somewhat larger than life.
In history, though the burghers expected to be executed, their lives
were spared by the intervention of England's Queen, Philippa of
Hainault, who persuaded her husband to exercise mercy by claiming that
their deaths would be a bad omen for her unborn child.