My Illlustrated Travel Journal with Essays about Roman and Mediaeval History and some Geology

  A Siege and a Misplaced Queen

In Gaetano Donizetti's opera L'assedio di Calais.

It all started with Pierre-Laurent Buirette de Belloy (1727-1775), esteemed member of the Académie Française, and his play Le Siège de Calais. It was written after the Seven Years' War and benefitted from a strong patriotic current, though some critics, like Voltaire, pointed out using a defeat was not the best way to glorify France. Though it was realistic in the historical context since the Seven Year's War bereft France of much of its former glory - and its colonies in America.

Half a century later a certain Hubert wrote Eustache de Saint-Pierre, which was based upon Belloy's play, but with stronger revolutionary undertones. Eustache is the major of the unfortunate Calais. The play then came to Italy via an adaptation of a Hubert's play, on which Salvatore Cammarano based his libretto. There was also a ballet about the subject that was pretty popular at the time.

The opera had its first performance in Naples in 1836.

Historical context is the siege of Calais in 1346 which started the Hundred Years' War. What has me curious here is the fact that in the opera the name of Edward III's wife is Isabella, not Philippa. I admit I didn't bother to get my hands on the various plays so I don't have an idea at which stage our dear She Wolf crept in and replaced her daughter-in-law, but I thought it was a fun little detail.

Before I launch into a retelling of the intriguing and probably very unhistorical plot of the opera, I'd like to ask the Edwardians on my blog if they have any information about the real siege of Calais. Yes, I'm lazy.

Auguste Rodin, The Burghers of Calais / Victoria Tower Gardens, London, 1911
(photo common license)

1347 - the siege of Calais has lasted for some months already and the inhabitants of the town starve. The first act starts with a chorus of the English chasing Aurelio (Aurèle? if he's historical), son of the major, who had sneaked into the camp of the besiegers in order to find some food for his starving wife and child. Eustachio (Eustache, he is historical) the major of Calais, and Aurelio's wife think he has perished in the attempt. Giovanni d'Aire (Jehan d'Aire) enters and tells them Aurelio escaped.

Aurelio asks his father what hope is left to them. None but surrender, Eustachio replies. There's a rumour outside, citizens blaming Eustachio for the mess. He goes out to meet them; some men try to kill him. Aurelio and others stop them but Eustachio bares his chest and demands the assassins stab him. Moved by so much courage, they step back. It turns out a stranger had pushed the citzens, the man is now unveiled as English spy.

Second act, night: Aurelio's wife Eleanora (a standard opera name) prays to God to save Calais. Aurelio awakes from a nightmare and sings about the death and blood he has seen.

Next day, meeting in the town hall. A messenger from King Edward has arrived: the king will accept the surrender of Calais, but six borghers of noble birth shall be executed as example for the other rebellious cities in France. Aurelio tells the messenger the citizens of Calais would rather die in battle than suffer such an ignominity, but Eustachio silences him. 'The king's conditions will be accepted,' he tells the messenger.

Eustachio then explains to the crowd that the prize of six lives will not be too much to save the city and the women and children, and enters his name on top of the list. Aurelio wants to join him, Eustachio tries to keep him back, others enter their names under the admiring murmur of the crowd, among them Giovanni d'Aire. Aurelio tears himself out of his father's embrace and signs the list, 'morremo insieme' (we'll die together). Eustachio asks the hostages to kneel and pray. The crowd joins in the prayer.

O sacra polve, o suol natìo.
È giunta l'ora... per sempre addio.
Onde salvarti ne andiamo a morte,
Benedicendo la nostra sorte.
E quando accolti nel ciel saremo,
Del sangue in premio domanderemo
Che volga il ciglio sul franco regno
In sua pietade il re dei re.

"Oh holy ground, oh homeland. The hour has arrived ... farewell forever. To save you we'll go to our death, blessing our fate. And when we have been permitted into Heaven, we will ask the price for our blood: that His eye to the French realm in pity shall turn the King of Kings." (my translation)

The third act: King Edward III is happy. Finally, the three crowns of England, Scotland and France will be his.

L'avvenir per me fia tutto
Un trionfo, una vittoria.
Francia, Scozia ed Albione
Un sol freno reggerà.
Il balen di tre corone
Sul mio capo splenderà.

"The future will all be a triumph, a victory for me. France, Scotland and Albion will be reined by one bridle. The splendour of three crowns will will gleam on my head." (my translation).

I can't help wondering where he'll put three crowns? One on the head and two dangling from the ears?

Fanfares and choirs announce the arrival of the queen who obviously single-handedly has conquered Scotland (e sia la vinta Scozia), something the misplaced Isabella surely didn't achieve, and I doubt Philippa did. There's a glint of the true Isabella when she says, 'I thought we'd meet inside Calais.' - 'Soon,' Edward replies.

The hostages arrive, accompanied by relatives. Eustachio delivers the keys of Calais and cofirms the victims are ready to pay for the love of their country on the scaffold. In vain, the relatives plead with the king. Eustachio tells them not to beg. Aurelio sings a farewell to his wife and infant son. At that point, most of the people are in tears already.

Finally, the hostages tear themselves off. 'Al supplizio ne traete' (take us to the torture). The English are moved by so much courage, and the queen herself pleads with her husband to spare the unfortunate victims. Edward accedes and is hailed for his clemency.

Note: The role of Aurelio is sung by a so called musico, a female singer in a male role. It was a habit after the castrates came out of fashion, albeit the use of musici began to decline in Donizetti's time. Since composers wrote for certain opera houses and had to deal with what singers were avaliable for the time, they often had to make concessions to the voice ranges. Donizetti intended to rewrite the role of Aurelio for tenor, but never got to it. In a way, it's a pity because the sextett would have much more impact with male voices only.
Maybe he could wear two of the crowns on his wrists if he had them made small enough?

That's very strange about Isabella being substituted for Philippa, because Philippa is famous for having begged Edward III (successfully) to spare the lives of the seven burghers of Calais following the town's surrender. Maybe "Isabella" is easier to sing than "Philippa"?

I've researched the siege some for my WIP. Looking forward to hearing the plot of the opera!
Maybe they were going to be combined into a triple crown (after all, they have one of those in rugby), like the double 'crown' thing of the Egyptian Pharoahs?

Is Isabella easier to sing than Philippa?
So the story about the hostages that were spared execution by the Queen's intervention is historical? I thought it sounded a lot like opera dramatic.

I dunno about the crowns - if Edward's ears were anything like Prince Charles', my suggestion would work fine. :)

Filippa would not be more difficult to sing than Isabella, and she's regina most of the time anyway. It's a mistake that crept into the play at some stage, I suppose.

if you could dig up some info about the siege, I'd be grateful.
Gabriele, you are wicked.
Me, wicked?

*assumes innocent look* :)
The story's historical as far as I know, though I don't know the primary source(s) for it. It comes after the Battle of Crecy in the Hundred Years War. Edward III trounced the French at Crecy then moved on north and besieged Calais. He couldn't storm the city, but the French army (what was left of it after Crecy, anyway) couldn't raise the siege, so months and months went by and the city starved and eventually asked for terms for surrender. Edward III said that if six of its leading citizens would bring him the keys of the city and its fortress and offer themselves to be executed as an example, he'd spare the rest of the population. So the mayor (or whatever the equivalent term was) and other city leaders volunteered (I think they volunteered; they didn't cast lots). Queen Philippa was with Edward III in his camp and pleaded for their lives so eloquently that Edward III spared them. (I suspect he may also have been impressed by their courage; he seems to have had something of a chivalric cast of mind when he didn't stand to lose anything by it. And he may well have spotted the PR value of mercy in the circumstances; certainly it's ensured his immortality in song and story ever since. Attributing it to the queen's pleas may have been a convenient fiction to avoid it looking like weakness). Calais stayed an English possession until Mary Tudor's day. 500+ years after the Siege, Rodin commemorated the sacrificial burghers of Calais in a famous statue.

That's the story as I know it - maybe Susan can say what's documented and what's apocryphal?

It sounds as if the composer may have just muddled up Edwards and got the queen's name wrong, or perhaps just thought it didn't much matter if she's almost always referred to by her title anyway. Or perhaps chose a French queen since the setting is in France. Unless Isabella is a convenient rhyme with something?
Stacked, one on top of each other, like pancakes! Of course, that just presents a challenge for people to knock them off...

So did the writers of opera ever get in trouble for what they wrote? Like, execution type trouble?
Thanks, Carla, those Rodin sculptures are poignant pieces of art. In the opera, they volunteer - it's one of the most beautiful and sad scenes. If I knew how to upolaod music and could be sure it's not against copyright to publish some 5 minutes out of a 2 hours work, I'd 'post' the prayer of the six hostages.

composers like Donizetti and Verid got in trouble with the Italian censors all the time. Not on execution level, but there's scarcely a libretto they didn't have to change. Best known example is Verdi's Ballo in Maschera where the historical King Gustav III of Sweden who was assassinated during a masquerde ball, had to be replaced by an obscure governor of Boston. Assassinating kings set a bad example, while those weird Americans with their democracy did things funny anyway. ;)
Carla relayed the story so nicely, all that I can add is that there doesn't seem to be any question about the genuineness of the story--only about whether Edward III planned along to relent or whether he genuinely had a change of heart when Philippa made her plea. Edward III had a history of giving into Philippa's pleas for mercy, starting back in 1331 when a tournament stand collapsed and Philippa, who narrowly escaped injury, asked him to spare the workmen's lives.

By the end of the siege, the citizens of Calais had been run out of cats, dogs, and horses to eat. Outside the city walls, the English had set up their own temporary city, called Villeneuve-le-hardi, complete with a marketplace, shops and stone homes for the leading commanders, and Edward III had invited Philippa and a number of English ladies to join him and his army there--hence Philippa's presence at the time of the surrender.
Constance - Gabriele may correct me on this, but I think opera's a relatively modern art form and post-dates executions (except by critics).

Susan - are there any examples of Edward III granting any of Philippa's pleas when they would have meant real political disadvantage? He always struck me as extremely shrewd and good at costless gestures of generosity, but I'm not up on all the details of his reign.
One of Sharon Penman's novels has King John's queen Isabelle say something like, "If John grants my wishes, it's because I only ask of him what I know he's willing to give".

I didn't know about the new town! Sounds like the siege might have been quite comfortable for the besiegers. ('Sit outside, play cards and get to know the local girls. My kind of siege.')
Lol, it looks like a useful thing to run some opera plots by you; I had no idea I'd get so much input. I have more of them, eg. about Anne Boleyn and Rosamond Clifford.

executions would have been very unusual, but you could end up in a nasty Austrian prison if you asked too loudly what the Austrian soldiers were doing in your dear Italy. Verdi thread the line between just writing an opera and starting a rebellion several times. His choir from Nabucco (Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate) became the unofficial national anthem of Italy for a reason. :)
I'm fuzzy on Edward III's reign after 1349 or so, but for the most part he seems to have been merciful to his enemies--with a striking exception in 1333, when he hung a young Scottish hostage, Thomas Seton, in front of his father's eyes after the Scots threatened to attack England, and in particular Bamburgh Castle where Philippa was staying. But he would have probably lost a great deal of face had he not hanged the unfortunate Seton, and his actions set the tone for the much-needed English victory at Halidon Hill.
Sorry, I tend to lose interest in history once we get past 1100. *g* So this is all new to me. I do like opera, though I know little about it. I have an Opera for Dummies book in my house, think I'll dig it out and open it.
looks like Philippa wasn't there to plead for Seton but in danger from his daddy.

the Middle Ages are fun, too. I tend to lose interest around the Thirty Years War. And I admit, I'm biased towards Europe, don't know much about eg. the Aztecs or Japan.
I have never seen the opera but was researching the burghers of calais, the 6 men who gave themselves up. So just thought I would add that Phillipa begged Edward to spare their lives because she was pregnant at the time, and thought killing them would be a bad omen for their unborn child.

Hope this helps a little :)
for Beckie who wrote in 2007: "I was researching the Burghers of Calais, the 6 men who gave themselves up." I am doing the same, for a music composition, and I need to find out all I can about the 6 Burghers. Can you, or anyone else, help? I'm looking for personal info: names, wives names; number and names of children; profession (mayor, baker and so on).
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The Lost Fort is a travel journal and history blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places. It includes essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, as well as some geology, illustrated with photos of old castles and churches, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.
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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)


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