Siege of Calais (1346 – 1347)
In 1346, Edward III of England claimed kingship of France in addition to that of England. He backed up this assertion by defeating the French navy at Sluys in 1340, then leading raids through Normandy that culminated in the 1346 Battle of Crecy. By this time, the English army couldn’t continue any further without fresh supplies and men from Flanders, so they retreated northwards. The English navy had already left Normandy for England, and so Edward needed to capture a defensible outpost for regrouping and resupplying his men.
Calais was perfectly suited to this need, with its location on the English Channel and its defensibility. The double moat and city walls, both good reasons for Edward to have it as an outpost, meant that it would be a difficult nut for his armies to crack. Additionally, the citadel in the northwest corner of the city had its own fortifications and moat. This meant that the English armies were in for a long siege.
In September of 1346, the English forces approached the city and began to prepare for a drawn-out siege. They knew that the city walls and moats would be difficult to cross or breach at best, and welcomed the aid from both England and Flanders that their efforts attracted. King Philip of France didn’t interfere with the English army and supply lines, but Edward also failed to interfere with the supplying of the Calais population by sailors loyal to France. This resulted in a two-month stalemate.
By November, the walls hadn’t yet fallen despite the English being resupplied with catapults, cannon, and long ladders. Edward decided in February that, since attacking the city wasn’t working, it would be more efficient to starve the citizenry and defenders out. Only one more French supply convoy was able to make it through the English navy’s blockade to resupply the city; the English navy were able to repel all further supply attempts. King Philip continued his attacks on the besiegers in spite of lack of supplies. By spring, both armies had reinforcements, but Philip still had no hope of dislodging the English armies due to the marshy land surrounding the city.
By June, the city was nearly out of food and fresh water. Another supply convoy was blocked by the English fleet in July, and so 500 elderly people and children were expelled from the city in an effort to enable the remaining healthy adults to survive. The English refused to allow the exiles to approach their camp, and so the poor unfortunates starved to death just outside the city walls. On August 1, the people inside the city lit fires to signal their readiness to surrender. Philip chose to destroy the encampment from which he’d been planning to attack the English rather than take the chance of it falling into enemy hands. Edward’s advisors persuaded him to let the remaining citizens live, and so he provided them with some provisions before allowing them to leave the city. Calais then remained under English control until 1558, providing a crucial staging point for English raids into French territory.