Arras (French pronunciation: [aʁɑːs]; Dutch: Atrecht) is the capital of the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France on the Scarpe river. The historic centre of the Artois region, its local speech is characterized as a Picard dialect. Unlike many French words, the final s in the name should be pronounced.
Arras was founded on the hill of Baudimont by the Belgae tribe of the Atrebates, who named it Nemetacum or Nemetocenna in reference to a nemeton (sacred grove) that probably existed there. It was later renamed Atrebatum by the Romans, under whom it became an important garrison town.
The town’s people were converted to Christianity in the late 4th century by Saint Inoccent, who was killed in 410 during a barbarian attack on the town. Around 130 years later, St. Vedast (also known as St. Vaast) established an episcopal see in the town and a monastic community, which developed during the Carolingian period into the immensely wealthy Benedictine Abbey of St. Vaast. The modern town of Arras initially grew up around the abbey as a grain market. Both town and abbey suffered during the 9th century from the attacks of the Vikings, who later settled to the west in Normandy. The abbey revived its strength in the 11th century and played an important role in the development of medieval painting, successfully synthesising the artistic styles of Carolingian, Ottonian and English art.
In 1025 a Catholic council was held at Arras against certain Manichaean (dualistic) heretics who rejected the sacraments of the Church. In 1097, two councils, presided over by Lambert of Arras, dealt with questions concerning monasteries and persons consecrated to God. In this time, Arras became an important cultural center, especially for the group of poets who came to be known as trouvères. One particular society of such poets was later called the Puy d’Arras.
The town was granted a commercial charter by the French crown in 1180 and became an internationally important location for banking and trade. The wool industry of Arras, established in the 4th century, became of great importance during the Middle Ages. By the 14th century it had gained renown and considerable wealth from the cloth and wool industry, and was particularly well known for its production of fine tapestries—so much so that in English and Italian the word «arras» (in Italian, «arazzi») was adopted to refer to tapestries in general. The patronage of wealthy cloth merchants ensured that the town became an important cultural centre, with major figures such as the poet Jean Bodel and the troubadour Adam de la Halle making their homes in Arras.
The ownership of the town was, however, repeatedly disputed along with the rest of Artois. During the Middle Ages, possession of Arras passed to a variety of feudal rulers and fiefs, including the County of Flanders, the Duchy of Burgundy, the Spanish branch of the House of Habsburg and the French crown. The town was the site of the Congress of Arras in 1435, an unsuccessful attempt to end the Hundred Years’ War that resulted in the Burgundians breaking their alliance with the English. After the death of Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy in 1477, King Louis XI of France took control of Arras but the town’s inhabitants, still loyal to the Burgundians, expelled the French. This prompted Louis XI to besiege Arras in person and, after taking it by assault, he had the town’s walls razed and its inhabitants expelled, to be replaced by more loyal subjects from other parts of France. In a bid to erase the town’s identity completely, Louis renamed it temporarily to Franchise. In 1482, the Peace of Arras was signed in the town to end a war between Louis XI and Maximilian I of Austria; ten years later, the town was ceded to Maximilian and was bequeathed to the Spanish Habsburgs as part of the Spanish Netherlands.
The Union of Atrecht (the Dutch name for Arras) was signed here in January 1579 by the Catholic principalities of the Low Countries that remained loyal to king Philip II of Habsburg; it provoked the declaration of the Union of Utrecht later the same month.
During the First World War, Arras was near the front and a series of battles were fought around the city, and nearby Vimy Ridge. A series of medieval tunnels beneath the city, linked and greatly expanded by the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, became a decisive factor in the British forces holding the city. The city, however, was heavily damaged and had to be rebuilt after the war. In the Second World War, during the invasion of France in May 1940, the town was the focus of a major British counter attack. The town was occupied by the Germans and 240 suspected French Resistance members were executed in the Arras citadel.
In September 1993 Ipswich and Arras became twin towns, and a square in the new Ipswich Buttermarket development was named Arras Square to mark the relationship.