In the wake of its humiliating defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870, the French Third Republic sought to reinvigorate notions of heroism and citizenship. To this end, in 1884 the city council of Calais commissioned Rodin to create a monument to Eustache de Saint-Pierre. In 1347, while Calais was under siege by the English, Eustache and five other important citizens of the town had offered themselves as hostages, pleading for mercy for their long-suffering city.
The English king, Edward III, agreed to the exchange, and wearing nooses around their necks, the burghers marched out to meet their fate. They were spared, however, by the intervention of the king's pregnant wife, Queen Philippa, who feared their deaths would be a bad omen for her child.