In January 1347, after a siege of the fortified city of Calais by Edward III of England, the townspeople resisted surrender for a further eight months.
In August 1347, when the governor of the city finally agreed to give in, six of the city's burghers presented themselves barefoot and bound together with a rope around their necks to give the keys of the city to Edward III. In sacrificing themselves, they hoped to save the rest of the people of the city.
However, impressed by their courage, the English queen, Philippa of Hainault, persuaded her husband to spare the lives of the men.
Following the second siege of the town by the Duke of Burgundy, the town remained under English control until the victory of the Duke of Guise in 1558 brought it back into French hands.
On 26th September 1884, Omer Dewavrin, mayor of Calais, submitted a proposal to the municipal council to "erect a monument, whose location will be decided at a later date, to honour Eustache de Saint Pierre and his companions [...] to be paid for using national funds".
Rodin was chosen to create the sculpture. The monument raised important issues in 20th Century sculpture regarding how the work should relate to its environment. The question essentially revolves around the monument's base and the significance it gives to the sculptured group of figures.
Should it be raised to emphasise "human patriotism, abnegation and virtue" (Rodin) or not exist at all, with the statues fixed directly to the paving stones on the square "as a living sequence of suffering and sacrifice" enabling the "present-day citizens of Calais to almost rub shoulders with them, and bring them close enough to feel the solidarity linking them to these heroes"?
However, regardless of whether the sculpture is raised or on ground level (different versions have been cast), the suffering and spirit of sacrifice that Rodin has breathed into these figures makes this monument a work that opened the doors for the avant-garde artists of the 20th Century.
Place du Soldat-Inconnu (Square of the Unknown Soldier).
62100 Calais, France.
The statue serves as a monument to an occurrence in 1347 during the Hundred Years' War, when Calais, an important French port on the English Channel.© Jerome Berquez - age fotostock
Rodin's design was controversial. It was not a pyramidal arrangement and contained no allegorical figures.© Martin Plb - age fotostock
True to Rodin's work, every detail of the figures down to their tormented expressions are cast.© Stuart Crump - SCFotos / age fotostock
The burghers were not presented in a positive image of glory; instead, the displayed "pain, anguish and fatalism".© Easyvoyage.com
Pierre de Wissant is one of the six 'bourgeois' depicted in the sculpture.© Easyvoyage.com