Calais, the first passenger port in France

Calais is located along the Opal Coast, a coastline renowned for its iridescent light.

Calais city hall
Calais city hall

The original small fishing village and its port were known as Calesium, or Kales in old Flemish.

Two large towers were built in the late 10th century in order to protect the expanding port;

The city was fortified in the 1220’s.

Modern day Calais is a gigantic sea port and the first passenger port in France!

Thousands of British tourists have transited throughout the year by boat and by the Eurostar since the inauguration of the Channel Tunnel in 1994.

It’s equally convenient as the train exits in the peripheral district of Coquelle, near the huge commercial centre Cité Europe.

The Burghers of Calais – Hundred Years War

However, for most French, the city is linked to the Hundred Years War.

This major conflict opposed them to their ‘dear English neighbours’ during the 14th and 15th centuries.

The most memorable episode of the city’s history is that of the Burghers of Calais handing over the keys of their city to Edward III of England.

Citadel of Calais - entrance to Stade du Souvenir
Entrance to Stade du Souvenir

French and English kings indeed spent over 2 centuries fighting over Calais!

The origin of the conflict goes back to the 11th century.

The dynasty of the Plantagenêts, Counts of Anjou, indeed extended their influence on the Duchy of Normandy and several counties through various marriages and alliances.

The situation worsened when Henry II became king after marrying Eleanor, who brought him the Duchy of Aquitaine in her dowry.

The Plantagenêts, kings of England, therefore controlled Anjou, Maine, Tours and Aquitaine.

They also the Counties of Poitiers, Périgord, Marche and Auvergne, the Duchy of Gascony and the Viscounty of Limoges!

They also exercised their influence on the Duchy of Brittany and the County of Toulouse.

This French king, whose kingdom was limited to a few provinces, obviously saw them as a threat.

The situation worsened once more, when Edward III of England, the heir of the House of Anjou, claimed the Crown of France at the beginning of the Hundred Years War.

Calais city hall detail architecture
Calais city hall detail architecture

He defeated the French at the Battle of Crécy-in-Ponthieu in 1346.

He then advanced towards the port of Calais to secure a landing point for his troops and invade the Kingdom of France.

He arrived in front of the citadel on September 4, 1346.

The inhabitants of Calais surrendered on 1 June 1347, after an 11-month siege, in order to save their city from destruction.

Eustache de Saint-Pierre ceremonially led the Six Burghers of Calais – the city’s notables – to hand out the keys of their city to Edward III.

They humbly went barefoot, dressed with a shirt and a noose tied around their neck, ready to sacrifice their own life in order to save the inhabitants.

However, Philippa of Hainault pleaded in their favour and convinced her husband Edward III to show mercy and spare their life.

Rodin immortalised this spectacular historical event with an equally spectacular sculptural group.

The original now stands in front of the city hall in Calais.

A cast of the Bourgeois de Calais is also visible in the entrance courtyard of the Musée Rodin in Paris.

The Citadel of Calais

Two-hundred-and-ten years later, on January 7, 1557, the Duke François de Guise, the lieutenant general of the kingdom under Henri II of France, re-took Calais from the English!

Barbican of the fort of Calais

King Francois II had the old English district pulled down in 1560.

He then commissioned the star architects of the time, Castriotto and Jean Errard, with the construction of the citadel.

The fortifications were not fully completed, though, on April 24, 1596, when the Spanish attacked the citadel from the neighbouring Flanders.

They captured the citadel the following day!

They also occupied it, until the signature of the Treaty of Vervins in May 1598, which returned the city to the king of France.

Calais became definitively attached to the Kingdom of France.

The fortifications were enlarged during the 17th century, and the city transformed into a gigantic fortress with a military port.

Vauban, the military engineer of Louis XIV, carried out the most extensive reconstruction works a century later.

Calais’ prime strategic location was well recognised in the 19th century; the citadel indeed housed a garrison of 1,000 men!

Calais city hall entrance
Calais city hall entrance

The city and its port were severely damaged during WWI, and mostly destroyed during WWII.

Extensive restoration work was put in place in order to rescue some historic buildings.

These include the 16th century Porte de Boulogne and the 17th century Porte de la Ville, also known as Porte de l’Hermitage.

Both gates were classified Historical Monuments in 1939.

The ditches, the walls’ curtains and the ‘demi-lune’ barbican defending the Porte de Neptune were classified in 1990.

The citadel was turned into sports grounds in 1960; this stadium is known as Stade du Souvenir.

Belfry of Calais

The city is also known for its magnificent city hall belfry, classified as World Heritage by UNESCO on April 28, 2008.

Burghers of Calais by Rodin
Burghers of Calais by Rodin

Construction work began in 1910, was stopped during WWI and resumed in 1920.

The building and its belfry were inaugurated in 1925.

The 75m high Flemish and Renaissance style belfry was built with red bricks supported by a reinforced concrete frame.

The architect Louis Debrouwer was one of the pioneers of reinforced concrete architecture.

This technique limited masonry weight and therefore allowed the addition of countless stone sculptures.

One-hundred-and-sixteen steps connect the city hall’s 3rd floor to the clock, from where a hundred more steps lead to the pinnacle!

A statue of a knight mounting the guard stands in front of each face of the clock; it represents Duke François de Guise, who seized the citadel from the English.

The spire is topped by a weather vane in the shape of a dragon.

The belfry symbolises also the merging of Calais and the town of Saint-Pierre-lès-Calais in 1881.

While the economy of Calais is essentially linked to its fishing and passenger ports, that of Saint Pierre has traditionally been linked to the making of lace known as dentelle de Calais.

Department of Pas-de-Calais
Coordinates: Lat 50.951290 – Long 1.858686

Photos Wikimedia Creative Commons: Demi-lune barbican – Entrance Stade du Souvenir

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