L'autre information du Nord – Pas-de-Calais

When Calais was English

DailyNord en anglais Par | 18 décembre 2014


Following on from when Flanders became part of France and the episode of the witches of Templeuve, here is the next chapter in our historical chronicle. This time it takes us to the coast and the seaport of Calais. Reputed as the ferry port for Dover, were you aware that the town was actually under English control for a considerable period? The French were even invited to find greener pastures elsewhere.

Its entire population was sent packing… to be replaced by a different one on two separate occasions at an interval of two centuries. A rare occurrence in French history and one of which Calais can be proud!

To understand what happened, it’s necessary to go back to the fourteenth century when Edward III of England landed in Contentin. Later known as the ‘Riding Out of Edward III’, it was in fact a devastating raid on French soil, marked by notable events such as the Battle of Crécy on 26 August 1346. At a few furlongs from Arras, the English army defeated the troops of Philippe VI of Valois. After this victory, Edward III went on to besiege Calais, ideally situated as a landing point for his army. The siege lasted long months until the town finally capitulated. Six burgher masters were forced to hand over the keys of the city to the monarch from across the Channel in a symbolic act of surrender (hence the statue next to the town-hall). By the end of August 1347, the English had completely occupied the city.

The City’s French Inhabitants Evicted

So began the period when Calais was English…and not just partially. « The whole population was displaced apart from a few key people and all the houses and belongings were divided up between the English merchants. » explains Philippe Cassez, Vice-president of the local history association (the largest in the ‘departement’ by the way). Of course, it goes without saying that there weren’t 70,000 inhabitants to displace as there would be nowadays, just a few thousand. When referring to Calais under English rule, we mustn’t forget to include the surrounding area: Escalles, Guines, Oye-Plage, Les Attaques were all foreign enclaves within the French kingdom which provided food for the inhabitants of Calais.

This situation lasted two centuries in spite of several attempts by the French to regain the port: « In the final analysis, this situation proved useful to the French rulers because they always knew where to find the English troops as they always campaigned from their main landing-point » our local historian continues. The city was always on the ‘qui-vive’ with a garrison of between a thousand and twelve hundred, an exceptionally high number at that time. « It was practically the best defended city in the whole of France. This indicates its major importance for the English during this period. Once regained by the French, the town became almost as insignificant as before. »

This successful retaking of Calais was only accomplished 211 years later in 1558 and what do you think happened this time? Out with the English and back in with the French, this time from Thérouanne, a town which had been completely flattened by Charles V Holy Roman Emperor (we’ll come back to that another time) and from the former province of Picardy.

An Outstanding Church Building

In the 21st century few visible traces of this period have survived. The English street names in Calais date from the 19th century and the height of the lace-making period. You have to go to the Church of Our Lady « which is an exceptional mixture of styles having a French lower part and English roof and upper walls ». The building was erected over the period of change between the two rival powers and has the typical English perpendicular style with the steeple in central position. A final relic of the English occupation? « Careful… » warns Philippe Cassez, « …strictly speaking Calais was not under English occupation, but was an English possession such as Gibraltar is today. »

Translated by Loveday Pollard and proof-read by SafeTex.

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