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Calais is back in the news – or should I say: in the British news? The migrant-crisis in and around Calais has of course hit the headlines in Europe and the world as the situation has seemed to escalate, with hundreds of migrants risking their lives every night to enter the UK . But nowhere are the passions fuelled by this episode and the regular strikes of the SeaFrance personnel running as high as in Britain – least of all in France, the other affected country and, above all, of course, the country in charge of Calais. While the English tabloids have been keen to utter their traditional anti-French prejudices by accusing France or its government of duplicity and cowardice in failing to address the migrant-crisis (what else can you expect from ‘the French’?), historians may recognise a more ancient pattern at work here, as a comparison between the place of Calais in British and French imaginations suggests. Indeed, Calais has a particular place in both British – or should I say: English? – and French imaginations – and a very paradoxical one at that.

The city and the port of Calais were English for most of the two centuries between 1347 and 1558, a time at which their fortune was closely tied to the fate of the staple monopoly over the sale of English wool. According to this widespread mechanism in medieval Europe (think of the ‘Kontors’ of the Hanseatic League in London or Bruges), the export of a commodity was concentrated in the hands of a guild of merchants. Both the membership of the company and the taxes associated with it made it lucrative for the political overlord; but only to a point, as the decline of Calais following the shift of the English wool trade from commodity-driven to manufacturing-driven export (cloths) shows. Calais was essential to the English Crown in the first century or so of the establishment of the Staple. Even so, English staple trade preceded Calais. In other words, Calais was not strategic in 1347 and nor was in 1558. As a matter of fact, both its conquest by the English and its loss were fortuitous – or at least as fortuitous as sieges can be. Indeed, the city was poorly defended in both 1346/7 and 1558 and the losing side did not demonstrate any particular interest in regaining it in either case, having left only a small garrison in charge of its defence to start with.

So, Calais has hardly ever been of central interest to the French or the English/British state; and yet its medieval and early modern past resonates on both sides of the Channel, albeit in very different, but symmetrical ways. For France, having retaken Calais, remembers its loss while England, having lost it, does not seem to be able to see beyond its conquest. True, every school child in Britain once knew the words attributed to the dying Mary Tudor by John Foxe: “When I am dead and opened, you shall find Calais written on my heart”. Yet Mary’s loss was seen as the wrath of Heaven against a Catholic queen. It was not England’s loss, but rather a sign that the Almighty favoured Protestantism as the religion of the English people. As for the Duke of Guise who retook Calais from the English, he is remembered in French history for his fateful assassination in 1563, since the revenge for it enacted what was probably the most violent and certainly the most publicised episode of the French Wars of Religion, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572.

French imagination has associated Calais with the burghers of Calais, an episode famously cast in bronze by Auguste Rodin in a monument unveiled in 1895. The surrender of the notables of the city to Edward III of England in 1347, which according to the chronicler Froissart spared the people of Calais the fate of being killed, had been commemorated locally since the early days of the Renaissance (as shown by Jean-Marie Moeglin). When the Third Republic looked for a symbol of civic courage after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1, the burghers of Calais came to be seen as an embodiment of the patriotic virtues that would enable France to retake Alsace-Lorraine from the Germans. Indeed, the Hundred Years War provided the Republic that had been born of defeat with some of the best examples of national resilience and endurance that promised victory – the appropriation of Joan of Arc for the Republic and in the fight against Germany being another case to the point. It is not surprising under these circumstances that a copy of Rodin’s burghers was erected in front of the Houses of Parliament in London in 1915 as a sign of the Entente cordiale that was facing the trial of the First World War.

Forgotten by then was the toxic mixture of inferiority complex and arrogance that had characterised British attitudes towards Calais and France since the 18th century (most famously in William Hogarth’s painting ‘The Gate of Calais’ or ‘O, the Roast Beef of Old England’, the engraving of which was widely circulated in print, and Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey) and was continued in nineteenth-century travel-literature. While the Franco-British rivalry of the 18th century goes a long way in explaining this imagination, David Wallace has elaborated on its colonial dimension. Miscegenation or, rather, the fear of it looms large in this Orientalist mythology. For Froissart relates that, on according mercy to the burghers of Calais at the behest of the queen, Philippa of Hainaut, Edward III ordered that the Calaisiens be exiled and replaced by ‘pure Englishmen’.

Nationalist and modernist readings of Froissart’s chronicle are bound to fail to grasp the events that followed the surrender of Calais after the siege of 1346/7. Edward III was after all a contender to the throne of France to which he had a credible claim through his mother Isabella of France. He acted as King of France (and not of England) at a time at which double monarchies were the rule rather than the exception (the Union of Kalmar of 1397 between Sweden, Denmark and Norway lasted until 1814 as far as the latter two countries are concerned, to take but one example). As for the burghers of Calais, their surrender was as ritualised as it gets. The deditio – as the surrendering ritual had been called since ancient times – was a way of restoring peace, as in the famous case of the ritual humiliation of the Emperor Henry IV at Canossa in 1077 before Pope Gregory VII. The latter was no more a conflict between State and Church, contrary to the interpretation of nationalist German historians in the 19th century and Bismarck’s attempt to instrumentalise its symbolism, than the surrendering of Calais in 1347 was the victory of a nation over another. Indeed, the ‘pure Englishmen’ whom Edward III settled in Calais to replace the exiled Calaisiens did not even speak the same language as their king.

Calais is back in the news – and so are the prejudices that have made it a special place in British imagination, it would seem. This is perhaps not surprising, given that politicians in the UK and across Europe are increasingly afraid of confronting the mythologies of anti-migration and anti-EU populist parties and movements on the right and, increasingly, on the left.


For further reading on the history of Calais, see:

Jean-Marie Moeglin, Les bourgeois de Calais: essai sur un mythe historique (Paris, 2002)

David Wallace, Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn (Malden, MA, 2004)


Martial Staub is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Sheffield


Image Sources: Rodin, The Burghers of Calais, via Wikicommons and Hogarth, The Gate of Calais or O the Roast Beef of England, via Wikicommons

Tags : BritainCalaisEuropean historyfrancemigrant crisisnationalism
Martial Staub

The author Martial Staub


  1. Excellent commentary though you should change John of Arc to Joan (or Jeanne or Jehanne). True, she dressed as a man, but nonetheless….

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