My History Blog, Focussing mostly on Roman and Mediaeval Times


29/01/2007
  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.
 
Comments:
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.

Susan,
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.

Constance,
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.

Carla,
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.
 
Susan,
looks like Philippa wasn't there to plead for Seton but in danger from his daddy.

Constance,
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).
Thanks!
 
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The Lost Fort is a history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places. It includes essays on Roman and Mediaeval history and architecture, as well as some Geology, illustrated with my own photos of old castles and churches, Roman remains, pretty towns and beautiful landscapes.

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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 still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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Mediaeval History

Feudalism
Feudalism, Beginnings
Feudalism, 10th Century
The Privilege of the deditio
A Note on handgenginn maðr

The Hanseatic League
Introduction and Beginnings
Stockfish Trade


Germany

Geneaologies

List of Mediaeval German Emperors

Geneaology
Anglo-German Marriage Connections
Heinrich the Lion's Ancestors

Biographies

Kings and Emperors
King Heinrich IV
Emperor Otto IV, Introduction

Princes
Otto the Quarrelsome of Braunschweig-Göttingen
The Dukes of Braunschweig-Grubenhagen
Otto of Northeim
The Ludowing Landgraves of Thuringia
Albrecht II and Friedrich I of Thuringia

Counts and Local Lords
The Marshals of Ebersburg
The Counts of Everstein
The Counts of Hohnstein
The Lords of Plesse
The Counts of Reichenbach
The Counts of Winzenburg

Famous Feuds

Local Feuds
The Lüneburg Succession War
The Thuringian Succession War - Introduction
The Star Wars

Royal Troubles
Otto IV and Bishop Adalbert II of Magdeburg


England and Normandy

From the Conquest to King John

Normans, Britons, and Angevins
The Dukes of Brittany and the Honour of Richmond

From Henry III to the War of the Roses

Great Fiefs
The Earldom of Richmond and the Duchy of Brittany


Scotland

Kings of Scots

House Dunkeld
Malcolm III and Northumbria
Struggle for the Throne: Malcolm III to David I
King David and the Civil War (1)
King David and the Civil War (2)

Houses Bruce and Stewart
Robert the Bruce and Stirling Castle
The Early Stewart Kings

Scottish Nobles and their Quarrels

Clan Feuds
MacLeans and MacDonalds
A Scottish Wedding


Wales

Princes and Rebels

The Princes of Gwynedd
The Rise of House Aberffraw

The Rebellions
From Llywellyn ap Gruffudd to Owain Glyn Dŵr


Scandinavia

Kings and Vikings

Kings of Norway
King Eirik's Scottish Marriages

Famous Nobles and their Feuds
Alv Erlingsson of Tønsberg


Other Times / Miscellanea

Neolithicum to Iron Age

Scandinavia and Orkney
The Neolithic Landscape of Orkney
Life in Skara Brae
Ship Setting on Gotland

Post-Mediaeval History

Discoveries
Otto von Guericke and the Magdeburg Hemispheres
Raising a Wreck, Now and Then (Vasa Museum in Stockholm)

Explorers
Fram Expedition to the North Pole
Fram Expedition to the South Pole

History in Literature and Music

History in Literature

Biographies of German Poets and Writers
Theodor Fontane

Historical Ballads by Theodor Fontane (my translation)
Archibald Douglas
Gorm Grymme
Sir Walter Scott in Abbotsford
The Tragedy of Afghanistan

My own Novels in Progress
The Roman Trilogy
The Saga of House Sichelstein
Kings and Rebels

History in Opera

Belcanto and Historicism
Maria Padilla - Mistress Royal
The Siege of Calais in Donizetti's Opera

Fun Stuff

Not So Serious Romans
Aelius Rufus Visits the Future Series
Building Hadrian's Wall
Playmobil Romans

Royal (Hi)Stories
Kings Having a Bad Hair Day
The Case of the Vanished Wine Cask

Historical Memes
Charlemagne meme
Historical Christmas Wishes
New Year Resolutions
Aelius Rufus does a Meme
Rules for Writing Scottish Romances

Funny Sights
Tourist Kitsch in St.Petersburg


Geological Landscapes

The Baltic Sea
Geology of the Curonian Spit
Chalk Cliffs on Rugia
Flint Fields on Rugia

The Harz
Bode Valley and Rosstrappe Cliff
The 'Hübichenstein' Rock
Karst Formations in the Southern Harz
The Lonau Falls
The Rhume Springs

Meissner / Kaufunger Wald
Blue Dome near Eschwege
Diabase and Basalt Formations
Karst Formations

Solling-Vogler
Raised Bog Mecklenbruch
Hannover Cliffs

The Shores of Scotland
Staffa

Palaeontology

Fossils
Ammonites


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History Blogs - Ancient

Roman History Today
Ancient Times (Mary Harrsch)
Bread and Circuses (Adrian Murdoch)
Following Hadrian (Carole Raddato)
Mike Anderson's Ancient History Blog
Mos Maiorum - Der römische Weg
Per Lineam Valli (M.C. Bishop)
Zenobia (Judith Weingarten)

Digging Up Fun Stuff
The Anglo-Saxon Archaeology Blog
Arkeologi i Nord
The Journal of Antiquities (Britain)
The Northern Antiquarian
The Roman Archaeology Blog

History Blogs - Mediaeval

Þaér wæs Hearpan Swég
Anglo Saxon, Norse & Celtic Blog
Casting Light upon the Shadow (A. Whitehead)
Norse and Viking Ramblings
Outtakes of a Historical Novelist (Kim Rendfeld)

Beholden Ye Aulde Blogges
A Clerk of Oxford
Daily Medieval
Historical Britain Blog (Mercedes Rochelle)
Magistra et Mater (Rachel Stone)
Michelle of Heavenfield (Michelle Ziegler)
Senchus (Tim Clarkson)
Viking Strathclyde (Tim Clarkson)

Royal and Other Troubles
Edward II (Kathryn Warner)
Henry the Young King (Kasia Ogrodnik)
Piers Gaveston (Anerje)
Lady Despenser's Scribery
Simon de Montfort (Darren Baker)
Weaving the Tapestry (Scottish Houses Dunkeld and Stewart)

A Mixed Bag of History
English Historical Fiction Authors
The Freelance History Writer (Susan Abernethy)
The History Blog
History, the Interesting Bits (S.B. Connolly)
Mediaeval Manuscripts Blog
Mediaeval News (Niall O'Brian)
Time Present and Time Past (Mark Patton)

Thoughts and Images

Reading and Reviews
Black Gate Blog
The Blog That Time Forgot (Al Harron)
Parmenion Books
Reading the Past
The Wertzone

Imaginations
David Blixt
Ex Urbe (Ada Palmer)
Constance A. Brewer
Jenny Dolfen Illustrations
Wild and Wonderful (Caroline Gill)

German Travel Blogs
Alte Steine
Meerblog
Reiseaufnahmen
Sonne und Wolken
Teilzeitreisender
Travelita
Unterwegs und Daheim

Highland Mountains
The Hazel Tree (Jo Woolf)
Helen in Wales
Mountains and Sea Scotland

The Colours of the World
Shutterbugs


Research

Archaeology
Past Horizons
Archaeology in Europe
Orkneyar

Roman History
Deutsche Limeskommission
Internet Ancient Sourcebook
Livius.org
Roman Army
Roman Britain
The Romans in Britain
Vindolanda Tablets

Not so Dark Ages
Burgundians in the Mist
Viking Society for Northern Research

Mediaeval History
De Re Militari
Internet Mediaeval Sourcebook
Kulturzeit
The Labyrinth
Mediaeval Crusades
Medievalists.Net

Castles
Burgenarchiv
Burgerbe
Burgenwelt
Exploring Castles
The World of Castles

Miscellaneous History
Heritage Daily
The History Files

Mythology
Ancient History
Encyclopedia Mythica

Online Journals
Ancient Warfare
The Heroic Age
The History Files

Travel and Guide Sites

Germany - History
Antike Stätten in Deutschland
Burgenarchiv
Strasse der Romanik

Germany - Nature
HarzLife
Naturpark Meissner
Naturpark Solling-Vogler

England
English Heritage
Visit Northumberland

Scotland
The Chain Mail (Scottish History)
Historic Scotland
National Trust Scotland

Books and Writing

Interesting Author Websites
Bernard Cornwell
Dorothy Dunnett
Steven Erikson
Diana Gabaldon
Guy Gavriel Kay
George R.R. Martin
Sharon Kay Penman
Brandon Sanderson
J.R.R. Tolkien
Tad Williams

Historical Fiction
Historical Novel Society
Historia Magazine

Writing Sites
Absolute Write
TheLitForum.com
National Novel Writing Month


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