The Burgesses of Calais, A.D. 1347. 1858-59.Oil on canvas, 39 x 291/8 inches (99 x 74 cm). Collection of the Guildhall Art Gallery, London, accession no. 970. Click on image to enlarge it.

This painting, Holiday’s first important figurative work, was shown at the Royal Academy in 1859, no. 480. It is very Pre-Raphaelite in style and well executed for a young inexperienced student of nineteen. The story comes from when Edward III successfully besieged the town of Calais in 1347 during the Hundred Years’ War. He demanded that the six chief Burghers of Calais offer up their lives as ransom for the rest of the citizens in order for the eleven-month siege of the town to be lifted. The painting was accompanied by a quotation from Froissart in the exhibition catalogue: “Then the Kinge sayde….let syxe of the chiefe burgesses of the towne come out bare headed, bare footed, bare legged, and in their shirts, with halters about their necks, with the Kayes of the town and Castell in their handes, and let them syxe yelde themselfe purely to my wyll, and the residue I will take to mercye.”

Holiday has described the painting in his Reminiscences:

My design showed one of these burghers in his own house taking a last farewell of his wife. He is standing in his shirt with the rope around his neck, and his wife is kneeling with her arms around him as if refusing to part with him. I studied the costume and other details, but could think of no masonry of the period in London from which to paint the walls and windows of the room except Westminster Abbey, so I went to Dean Trench, who seemed interested, and kindly gave me permission to look round and paint anything I found suitable. Naturally there was nothing to correspond exactly with the background of my picture, but I found in St. Paul’s Chapel what would fairly answer my purpose. [48]

Like many Pre-Raphaelite paintings of the period the figures of the burgher and his wife are contained within a flat foreground space and with a distant landscape visible through a window in the background. This device allowed Holiday to create a distant background without having to make the traditional middle-ground transition between it and the foreground.

The Painting’s Reception

The painting received mixed reviews from the critics when it was shown at the Royal Academy. As Holiday recalled ‘the opinions differed widely and included every possible variety, I suppose some of them must have been right. If only I could have been sure which!” (55). The Art Journal felt the subject was not treated with the grace it deserved: “Of the six burgesses whom Edward required should ‘yelde them sefe’ purely to his will, we see one here, and he is prepared for the surrender, being barefooted, in his shirt, and having a halter around his neck; and by him prays his wife for his safety. The subject is not a pleasant one, nor is it carried out with the graces wherewith it might be invested” (169). The critic for The Builder praised the work and felt it deserved a place on the line: “’The Burgesses of Calais’ by H. Holiday does not tell its story (it is one of the burgesses being prepared to go out with the rest, bare-headed, bare-footed, bare-legged, and in their shirtes, with halters about their neckes), but it is a work of considerable merit, and ought like many others to have taken the place of some of the very poor portraits on the line” (338). In Holiday’s Reminiscences, however, he recalls that the painting was indeed hung on the line (55).

The critic for The Spectator surprisingly totally misunderstood the subject of the picture confusing the burgher for Edward III:

There is merit in Mr. Holiday’s ’Burgesses of Calais,’ (480) the burgesses being left out, and the design only representing King Edward at a window, with Queen Philippa kneeling, by his side, also looking out. Her countenance is constructed with anxious sympathy for the doomed men. As she kneels, her arms are clasped tightly around the hips of the stalwart King, who, while he looks with conscious power upon his enemies, is fondly pressing the head of his wife against him; the cunning spectator being well, able to forsee that the rougher power is here fast yielding to the gentler. The painting is somewhat coarse for the scale of the picture. [568]

Critics calling themselves “The Council of Four” were particularly hostile in The Royal Academy Review calling the picture repulsive: “In contemplating this repulsive performance, we wish that King Edward III may tighten the halter round the neck of the burgess; for the fellow looks villainous enough to deserve a prompt dismissal. The feet of the burgess are badly drawn and repulsive, and the whole picture is full of affectation” (34).


“The Royal Academy Exhibition.” The Art Journal XXI (1859): 161-72.

“Royal Academy.” The Builder XVII (May 21, 1859): 338-39.

Holiday, Henry. Reminiscences of My Life. London: Heinemann, 1914.

“Fine Arts. Exhibition of the Royal Academy.” The Spectator XXXII (May 28, 1859): 568-69.

Henry Holiday 1839–1927. London: William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, 1989, cat. 7, 6.

The Council of Four. “A Guide to the Exhibition of the Royal Academy of 1859.” The Royal Academy Review II (1859): 1-40.

Last modified 16 January 2023