Calais — History


Calais (/ˈkæleɪ/ cal-ay, traditionally /ˈkælɨs/; French pronunciation: ​[ka’lɛ]; Dutch: Kales) is a town and major ferry port in northern France in the department of Pas-de-Calais, of which it is a sub-prefecture. Although Calais is by far the largest city in Pas-de-Calais, the department’s capital is its third-largest city of Arras. The population of the metropolitan area at the 1999 census was 125,584. Calais overlooks the Strait of Dover, the narrowest point in the English Channel, which is only 34 km (21 mi) wide here, and is the closest French town to England. The White Cliffs of Dover can easily be seen on a clear day from Calais. Calais is a major port for ferries between France and England, and since 1994, the Channel Tunnel has linked nearby Coquelles to Folkestone by rail.

Due to its position, Calais since the Middle Ages has been a major port and a very important centre for transport and trading with England. It was annexed by Edward III of England in 1347 and grew into a thriving centre for wool production. Calais was a territorial possession of England until its capture by France in 1558. The town came to be called the «brightest jewel in the English crown» owing to its great importance as the gateway for the tin, lead, lace and wool trades (or «staples»). In 1805 it was a staging area for Napoleon’s troops for several months during his planned invasion of the United Kingdom. The town was virtually razed to the ground during World War II, when in May 1940, it was a strategic bombing target of the invading German forces who took the town during the Siege of Calais. During World War II, the Germans built massive bunkers along the coast in preparation for launching missiles on England.

The old part of the town, Calais proper (known as Calais-Nord), is situated on an artificial island surrounded by canals and harbours. The modern part of the town, St-Pierre, lies to the south and south-east. In the centre of the old town is the Place d’Armes, in which stands the Hôtel-de-ville, the town hall and police offices. The belfry belongs to the 16th and early 17th centuries. Close by is the Tour du Guet, or watch-tower, a structure dated to the 13th century which was used as a lighthouse until 1848 when a new lighthouse was built by the port. The church of Notre-Dame, built during the English occupancy of Calais, is arguably the only church built in the English perpendicular style in all of France. Today, Calais is visited by more than 10 million annually. Aside from being a key transport hub, Calais is also a notable fishing port and a centre for fish marketing and some 3,000 people are still employed in the lace industry for which the town is also famed.

Although the early history of habitation in the area is obscure, the Romans called the settlement Caletum. Julius Caesar mustered 800 to 1,000 sailing boats and five legions and some 2,000 horses at Calais due to its strategic position to attack Britannia.[1][not in citation given] Later, in medieval times, the settlement was inhabited by people who spoke Dutch, and who called it Kales. It is mentioned in Welsh documents as Caled, in Irish documents as Calad, and in Breton documents as Kaled. It is at the western edge of the early medieval estuary of the River Aa. As the pebble and sand ridge extended eastwards from Calais, the haven behind it developed into fen, as the estuary progressively filled with silt and peat. Subsequently, canals were cut between Saint-Omer, the trading centre formerly at the head of the estuary and three places to the west, centre and east on the newly formed coast, respectively Calais, Gravelines and Dunkirk.[2] At some time prior to the 10th century it would have been a fishing village on a sandy beach backed by pebbles and a creek,[3] It was improved by the Count of Flanders in 997 and fortified by the Count of Boulogne in 1224.[4]

The first document mentioning the existence of this community is the town charter granted by Mathieu d’Alsace in 1181 to Gerard de Guelders, Count of Boulogne; Calais became part of the county of Boulogne.[1][5] In 1189, Richard the Lionheart is documented to have landed at Calais on his journey to the Third Crusade.[1]

Medieval history

The Burghers of Calais, by Rodin, with the Hôtel de Ville behind.
The English needed a foothold on the continent to serve as a trading centre, mainly for exports of English wool to farther European destinations and to compete with the marts of the low-countries, through which much of this trade had formerly been conducted.[6] It was largely due to French interference in this vital trade, that the campaign was fought, which culminated in the Battle of Crécy which commenced on 4 September 1346.[7] The town was most conveniently situated as the closest landing point from England, and adjacent to the low-country marts. Immediately after the English victory at Crécy, the English army, under King Edward III, marched north and, during 1347, besieged the town for eleven months, after which it was recaptured.[8] Edward’s campaign had also a dynastic rationale, as, following the death of his uncle, Charles IV of France in 1328, Edward saw himself as the Capetian heir to the Kingdom of France, but the French chose to follow an all-male line of descent from his great grandfather and the House of Valois. Angered, Edward demanded reprisals against the town’s citizens for holding out for so long and ordered that the town’s population be killed en masse. He agreed, however, to spare them, on condition that six of the principal citizens would come to him, bareheaded and barefooted and with ropes around their necks, and give themselves up to death.[9] On their arrival he ordered their execution, but pardoned them when his queen, Philippa of Hainault, begged him to spare their lives.[10][11] This event is commemorated in The Burghers of Calais (Les Bourgeois de Calais), one of the most famous sculptures by Auguste Rodin, erected in the city in 1895.[12] Though sparing the lives of the delegation members, King Edward drove out most of the French inhabitants, and settled the town with English, so that it might serve as a gateway to France. The municipal charter of Calais, previously granted by the Countess of Artois, was reconfirmed by Edward that year (1347).[13]

In 1360 the Treaty of Brétigny assigned Guînes, Marck and Calais – collectively the «Pale of Calais» – to English rule in perpetuity, but this assignment was informally and only partially implemented.[6] On 9 February 1363 the town was made a staple port.[14] It had by 1372 become a parliamentary borough sending burgesses to the House of Commons of the Parliament of England.[15] It remained part of the Diocese of Thérouanne from 1379, keeping an ecclesiastical tie with France.[16]

The town came to be called the «brightest jewel in the English crown» owing to its great importance as the gateway for the tin, lead, cloth and wool trades (or «staples»).[17] Its customs revenues amounted at times to a third of the English government’s revenue, with wool being the most important element by far. Of its population of about 12,000 people, as many as 5,400 were recorded as having been connected with the wool trade. The governorship or Captaincy of Calais was a lucrative and highly prized public office; the famous Dick Whittington was simultaneously Lord Mayor of the City of London and Mayor of the Staple in 1407.[18]

Calais was regarded for many years as being an integral part of Kingdom of England, with its representatives sitting in the English Parliament. This was, however, at odds with reality. The continued English hold on Calais depended on expensively maintained fortifications, as the town lacked any natural defences. Maintaining Calais was a costly business that was frequently tested by the forces of France and the Duchy of Burgundy, with the Franco-Burgundian border running nearby.[19] The British historian Geoffrey Elton once remarked «Calais – expensive and useless – was better lost than kept».[20] The duration of the English hold over Calais was, to a large extent, the result of the feud between Burgundy and France, under which both sides coveted the town, but preferred to see it in the hands of the English rather than their domestic rivals. The stalemate was broken by the victory of the French crown over Burgundy following Joan of Arc’s final battle in the Siege of Compiègne in 1430, and the later incorporation of the duchy into France.[21]

16th century

In 1532, Henry VIII visited Calais and his men calculated that the town had about 2400 beds and stabling to keep some 2000 horses.[22] In September 1552, the English adventurer Thomas Stukley, who had been for some time in the French service, betrayed to the authorities in London some French plans for the capture of Calais, to be followed by a descent upon England.[23] Stukley himself might have been the author of these plans. However, the reprieve for English rule in Calais was momentary.

Six years later, on 7 January 1558, the French under Francis, Duke of Guise took advantage of a weakened garrison and decayed fortifications to retake Calais.[24] When the French attacked, they were able to surprise the English at the critical strongpoint of Fort Nieulay and the sluice gates, which could have flooded the attackers, remained unopened.[25] The loss was regarded by Queen Mary I of England as a dreadful misfortune. When she heard the news, she reportedly said, «When I am dead and opened, you shall find ‘Philip’ [her husband] and ‘Calais’ lying in my heart.»[26] The region around Calais, then-known as the Calaisis, was renamed the Pays Reconquis («Reconquered Country») in commemoration of its recovery by the French.[27] Use of the term is reminiscent of the Spanish Reconquista, with which the French were certainly familiar— and, since it occurred in the context of a war with Spain (Philip II of Spain was at the time Queen Mary’s consort), might have been intended as a deliberate snub.[28] After that time the Dutch speaking population was forced to speak French.

The town was captured by the Spanish on 24 April 1596 in an invasion mounted from the nearby Spanish Netherlands by Archduke Albert of Austria, but it was returned to France under the Treaty of Vervins in May 1598.[29][30]

Calais was also on the front lines of France’s conflict with the United Kingdom during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1805, it hosted part of Napoleon’s army and invasion fleet for several months before his aborted invasion of Britain.[31] From October to December 1818, the British army used Calais as their departing port to return home after occupying post-Waterloo France. General Murray appointed Sir Manley Power to oversee the evacuation of British troops from France. Cordial relations had been restored by that time and on 3 December the mayor of Calais wrote a letter to Power to express thanks for his «considerate treatment of the French and of the town of Calais during the embarkation.»[32]

In the 1930s, Calais was known as a socialist stronghold.[33] The British returned to Calais again during World War I; it was near the front lines in Flanders, and a key port for the supply of arms and reinforcements to the Western Front.[34] The town was virtually razed to the ground during World War II.[35] In May 1940, it was a key objective of the invading German forces and became the scene of a last-ditch defence — the Siege of Calais— which diverted a sizable amount of German forces for several days immediately prior to the Battle of Dunkirk. 3,000 British and 800 French troops, assisted by Royal Navy warships, held out from 22 to 27 May 1940 against the 10th Panzer Division. The town was flattened by artillery and precision dive bombing and only 30 of the 3800-strong defending force were evacuated before the town fell. Their sacrifice may have helped Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Allied forces at Dunkirk, as 10th Panzer would certainly have been involved on the Dunkirk perimeter had it not been busy at Calais.[36] Between 26 May and 4 June 1940, some 330,000 Allied troops escaped from the Germans at Dunkirk.[37]

During the ensuing German occupation, it became the command post for German forces in the Pas-de-Calais/Flanders region and was very heavily fortified, as it was generally believed by the Germans that the Allies would invade at that point.[38] It was also used as a launch site for V1 flying bombs and for much of the war, the Germans used the region as the site for railway guns used to bombard the south-eastern corner of England. In 1943 they built massive bunkers along the coast in preparation for launching missiles on the southeast of England.[39] Despite heavy preparations for defence against an amphibious assault, the Allied invasion took place well to the west in Normandy on D-Day. Calais was very heavily bombed and shelled in a successful effort to disrupt German communications and persuade them that the Allies would target the Pas-de-Calais for invasion (rather than Normandy). The town, by then largely in ruins, was liberated by General Daniel Spry’s 3rd Canadian Infantry Division between 25 September and 1 October 1944.[40] On 27 February 1945 Calais suffered a last bombing raid– this time by British bombers who mistook the town for Dunkirk, which was at that time still occupied by German forces.[41] After the war there was little rebuilding of the historic city and most buildings were modern ones.

Recent history

Calais is currently home to around 1,000 migrants, mostly looking to enter the UK avoiding the strict immigration controls at the port.[42] Some 700–800 migrants, mostly Afghan, were camped in an area among the dunes near the port, locally called ‘The Jungle’, but this was destroyed by French authorities in a dawn raid on 22 September 2009.[43] The inhabitants were partly imprisoned at the nearby Centre de Rétention of Coquelles, but many more were taken to detention centres all over France before being released and having to make the long journey back to Calais by foot. After the closing of the camp, the French authorities have threatened to repatriate «sans-papiers» («immigrés en situation irrégulière») to Afghanistan.

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