Jan 072016


On this date in 1558 the English relinquished their claim to the Pale of Calais, ending nearly 500 years of English claims to territory in France. The Siege of Calais was fought in early 1558 during the Italian War of 1551–1559. Calais fell after the Battle of Crécy in 1346 to Edward III of England following a desperate siege. Its seizure gave him a defensible outpost where his army could regroup, and the city’s position on the English Channel meant that, once it was taken, it could be resupplied easily by sea. Its retention was confirmed under the Treaty of Brétigny, signed on 8 May 1360, when Edward renounced the throne of France, in return for substantial lands in France, namely Aquitaine and the area around Calais. By 1453, at the end of the Hundred Years’ War, it was the only part of mainland France to remain in English hands.


While it was possible to resupply and defend Calais easily by sea, in the absence of any natural defenses it depended on fortifications maintained and built up at some expense. However, its main defense had been that both the French and the Burgundians coveted the city, but each preferred to see it under the English rather than their rival. Changing political circumstances with the division of Burgundian interests in the Low Countries between France and Spain meant that, in 1550 when England surrendered the area around Boulogne, which Henry VIII had taken in 1544, the approaches to Calais were opened.

The victory of Louis XI of France over Charles the Bold in 1477 and the annexation of Picardy to the French Crown domain marked the end of a status quo over the possession of Calais. For nearly a century the House of Valois had preferred to turn their armies towards Italy, rich and technologically ahead of the rest of Europe, rather than take Calais. France had to fight the English on three occasions during the sixteenth century (1526, 1544, and 1547) when they attempted to extend the English possessions in Picardy. At the behest of Pope Paul IV, in 1557 France put an end to the Truce of Vaucelles which concluded the tenth Italian war, and resumed hostilities in the Kingdom of Naples. In response, the crown of Spain returned to its customary strategy since the Battle of Ceresole: it again attacked in Picardy, and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Constable of Montmorency at the Battle of St. Quentin (1557). Henry II of France had lost his best captains and the road to Paris was open to invasion. In these circumstances, Francis, Duke of Guise, who had raised an army and prepared to lead it in Italy, was recalled to Picardy and promoted to lieutenant-general of France. To avoid the intervention of an English expeditionary force, King Henry II of France arranged, in great secrecy, to attack Calais in the winter with 30,000 men assembled at Compiegne, Montreuil-sur-Mer, and Boulogne-sur-Mer.


On 1 January 1558, the French vanguard attacked Sangatte and Fréthun Nielles, and the Army Corps reduced Fort Risban the next day. On 3 January, the artillery moved into Fort Nieulay at Risban. Thomas, Lord Wentworth, completely overwhelmed by a lightning attack, handed the keys of the city to the French on 7 January. The English defenses of Guînes and Hames soon also fell. Henry II of France arrived at Calais on 23 January 1558. France had reconquered the last territory it had lost in the Hundred Years’ War and put an end to two centuries of fighting between England and France. The new French administration made a particularly efficient demarcation of the border, created a new division of farmland, reorganized the 24 parishes, and reconstructed villages and churches.

In England there was shock and disbelief at the loss of this final Continental territory. The story goes that a few months later Queen Mary, on her death bed, told her family: “When I am dead and opened, you will find Calais lying in my heart.”


Lord Wentworth, the governor of the city, and the English inhabitants of Calais and Guines returned to England. Calais was declared a “reclaimed land” to commemorate the restoration of French rule. François de Guise was able to strike back against the Spaniards: during the summer he attacked Thionville and Arlon, and was about to invade Luxembourg when the treaties of Le Cateau were signed. In April 1559 the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis between France and Spain (allied to England) included recognition of Calais as an English possession in temporary French custody pending a purchase price of half a million gold crowns to be paid by France in eight years’ time.

However, in 1562 upon the outbreak of the French Wars of Religion England’s new queen, Elizabeth I, revived her kingdom’s claims to Calais and occupied the French port of Le Havre in order to keep it until France should restore Calais. French forces ejected the English in 1563, and the Treaty of Troyes (1564) effectively recognized French ownership of Calais in exchange for payment to England of only 120,000 crowns. Although the treaty made no mention of Calais, the French paid the 120,000 crowns in return for all rights to Le Havre and freedom of commerce was agreed between the two countries. The French believed that the occupation of Le Havre meant the English had forfeited all rights to Calais, and Elizabeth was in no position to press the case any further.

The deeply entwined histories of France and England from the 11th to 16th centuries is never quite spelled out when you take history in school in England. I suspect this is a holdover from the intense British nationalism and imperialism of the 19th century that viewed 1066 as a watershed year when William unified England and “proper English history” could commence. We were taught what is now called “Whig history” – the myopic vision that all of England’s history was leading inevitably to a nation governed as a constitutional monarchy (i.e. the present), masterfully parodied in 1066 and All That. That the medieval nobility of England were quite often born in France, spoke French, and lived in France for long periods, does not really sink in. The loss of Calais was truly the end of an era, and England could no longer lay claim to any part of France. Henceforth, under Elizabeth, England began a new era of expansion into the New World and beyond.


Calais and surrounds is something of a hybrid region because of the proximity of Flanders, and its cuisine reflects this fact. In Flemish fashion you are likely to get your dishes served with fried potatoes (pommes frites, French fries), for example. Coq à la bière is a well known Calais variant of the classic French coq au vin, with Flemish beer replacing French wine. You can find a precise recipe if you need it, but the dish is not complicated.


Cut a chicken into 8 parts (4 breast pieces, 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks), dredge them in seasoned flour, and sauté them in a skillet or heavy pot in lard or butter until browned on all sides. Add some chopped shallots (or onion) and sliced carrots and continue to sauté until soft. Then cover with a mix of dark Flemish beer and chicken stock, add a bouquet garni of thyme, sage and bay, bring to a simmer, and cook partly covered until the chicken is tender (45 minutes to an hour). Towards the end of the cooking time, uncover the pot, raise the heat, and let the sauce reduce. Serve with (ugh !!) pommes frites.