Menella Bute Smedley

The Six Burghers of Calais

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The burghers six of Calais,
True were they and brave;
To save their fellow-townsmen
Their lives they freely gave.
Will ye hear their story?
Come listen to my lay,
I will tell ye of King Edward,
The gallant and the gay.
Edward the Third of England,
A mighty prince was he;
To win the town of Calais
He hath cross'd the sea,
With all his gallant nobles,
And all his soldiers brave,—
They were a stately party
To ride upon the wave!
Around the walls of Calais
They waited many a day,
Till the king's right royal spirit
Grew weary of delay:
His eagerness avail'd not,
The city still held out;
The king grew very angry,
But still the walls were stout.
The fury of a monarch
A stone wall cannot rend,
As little is it able
A lofty heart to bend;
But a mightier than King Edward
Assail'd those stedfast men,—
The slow strong hand of Famine
Was closing on them then.
The feeble ones grew feebler,
The mighty ones grew weak;
Dim was each eye, though dauntless,
And pale was every cheek:
But round about the city
That ruthless army stayed,
So to their fainting hunger
No food might be conveyed.
The governor of Calais,
A stalwart knight was he,
For his king and for his country
He had fought right valiantly;
But he found his valour useless,
And he saw his soldiers die,
So he came before the English,
And spake with dignity:
“What terms, what terms, King Edward,
What terms wilt thou accord,
If I yield this goodly city
To own thee for its lord?”
King Edward gave him answer,—
His wrath was very hot,—
“Ye rebel hounds of Calais,
Your crimes I pardon not.
Six of your richest burghers
As captives I demand,
On every neck a halter,
A chain on every hand;
And when their lives have answered
For this their city's crime,
Then will I think of mercy,—
Till then, it is not time.”
The governor was silent,
His heart was full of pain;
Then spake Sir Walter Manny,
Chief of the monarch's train:
“The fittest time for mercy,
My liege, is ever—now;
Oh, turn away thine anger!
Oh, do not knit thy brow!
Call back thy words, King Edward,
Call back what thou hast said,
For thou canst not call the spirit
Back to the gallant dead.”
“Now hold thy peace, Sir Walter,”
The monarch sternly cried;
“I will not be entreated,
I will not be defied!
Be silent, all my nobles:
And thou, Sir John de Vienne,
Come with six wealthy burghers,
Or come thou not agen!”
The king he spake so fiercely
That no one dared reply;
Sir John went back to Calais
Slowly and mournfully.
The warriors and the burghers
He summoned to his hall,
And he told King Edward's pleasure,
Full sadly, to them all:
“My friends and fellow-townsmen,
Ye hear the tyrant's will;
We had better die together,
And keep our city still!”
There was silence for a moment,—
They were feeble, they were few,
But one spirit was among them,
Which nothing could subdue;
Out cried a generous burgher:
“Oh, never be it said
That the loyal hearts of Calais
To die could be afraid!
First of the destined captives
I name myself for death,
And in my Saviour's mercy
Undoubting is my faith.”
The name of this true hero
Ye should keep with reverent care;
Let it never be forgotten!—
It was Eustace de St. Pierre.
Like a watchfire lit at midnight—
Strike but a single spark,
And the eager flame spreads quickly
Where all before was dark;
So were their spirits kindled
By the word of bold St. Pierre,
His faith and his devotion
Gave strength to their despair.
Five other noble merchants
Their names that instant gave,
To join with generous Eustace
Their countrymen to save:
Their comrades wept around them
Tears for such parting meet;
And they led those willing captives
To stern King Edward's feet.
They came in brave obedience
To Edward's fierce command;
On every neck a halter,
A chain on every hand.
Now when the king beheld them,
Right fiery grew his eye,—
“Strike off their heads!” he thundered;
“Each man of them shall die!”
But forth stepped Queen Philippa,
The gentle, good, and fair;
She kneeled before King Edward,
And thus she spake her prayer:
(It was a sight full touching
That honoured queen to see,
Before the knights and nobles,
Low kneeling on her knee.)
“My loving lord and husband,”—
'Twas thus the fair queen spake,—
“Grant me these generous captives,
Oh, spare them for my sake!
I am thy true companion;
I crossed the stormy sea,
A weak and fearful woman,
And all for love of thee.
I have been faithful to thee
Through all our wedded life,
Nor didst thou ever find me
A disobedient wife;
Then do not thou repulse me
In this my first request;
Grant me their lives, I pray thee,—
In nought have they transgress'd.”
The king look'd long upon her:
“I would thou wert not here!
Yet I refuse thee nothing,
Because thou art so dear.”
Up sprang that joyous lady,
And eagerly she bade
That they should loose the fetters
Upon those captives laid.
From round their necks she loosened
The cruel halter's band;
To each a golden noble
She gave with her own hand;
She bade them be conducted
Back to their native place,—
To friends, and wives, and children,
To the joy of their embrace.
Oh, who shall paint their meeting!
Oh, who shall speak their bliss!
Too weak for aught so mighty
The power of language is.
How did the fond eyes brighten
Around each quiet hearth!
The peace of such deep rapture
Is seldom given to earth.
Oh, out then spake King Edward:
“How different are our parts!
I may win fair cities,
But my queen she winneth hearts.
God bless thee, sweet Philippa;
And mayst thou ever be
As dear to all the English
As now thou art to me!”

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Menella Bute Smedley