- This article is about the French city. Alternate meanings: Boreads (mythical), Calais, Maine, Calais, Vermont
Calais is a city in northern France, located at 50°57N 1°52E. It is in the département of Pas-de-Calais, of which it is a sous-préfecture. It has a population of about 80,000 people. It overlooks the Strait of Dover, the narrowest point in the English Channel, which is only 34 km (21 miles) wide here, and is the closest French town to England. The white cliffs of Dover can easily be seen on a clear day.
The old part of the town, Calais proper (or 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 southeast.
Calais was beseigned and captured by King Edward III of England in 1347, after a siege of eleven months. The angry king 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 to spare them on the 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 die. When they came, he ordered that they should be executed, but he pardoned them when his queen, Philippa of Hainault, begged him to spare their lives. He drove out most of the French, however, and settled the town with people from England, so that it might serve as a gateway to France. In 1360 the Treaty of Brétigny assigned Guines, Marck and Calais - collectively the "Pale of Calais" - to English rule in perpetuity, but this was only informally and partially implemented.
The town came to be called the "brightest jewel in the English crown" due to its great importance as the gateway for the tin, lead, cloth and wool trades (or "staples"). Its customs revenues amounted at times to a third of the English government's revenue, with wool being the most important element by far. Out 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 London and Mayor of the Staple in 1407.
Calais was regarded for many years as being an integral part of England, with its representatives sitting in the English Parliament. Over one of its gates was inscribed:
- Then shall the Frenchmen Calais win
- When iron and lead like cork shall swim
This was, however, an unfortunate example of hubris. The reality was that 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 Burgundy, with the Franco-Burgundian border running nearby. The length of its survival 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 deadly rivals. The stalemate was broken by the eventual victory of the French crown over Burgundy, and the incorporation of the latter into France.
The end of English rule over Calais came on January 7, 1558 when the French under Francis I, 2nd Duke de Guise, took advantage of a weakened garrison and decayed fortifications to retake it. 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 'Calais' lying in my heart" (Holinshed's Chronicles, IV, 1808).
During the 18th century, Calais achieved an unusual scientific claim to fame. When the meter was originally defined in terms of the size of the Earth, it was based on the distance from Calais to Perpignan. This is close to the longest continuous north-south line segment within France.
Somewhat ironically, Calais became a major British base once again during World War I, due to its proximity to the front lines in Flanders. The town was virtually razed to the ground during World War II. It was the scene of a last-ditch defence in 1940 that allowed the defeated British forces to be evacuated from nearby Dunkirk in the Battle of Dunkirk. 3,000 British and 800 French troops, assisted by Royal Navy warships, held out from 22-27 May 1940 against two German panzer divisions. The town was flattened by round-the-clock bombing and only 30 of the 3,800-strong defencing force were evacuated before the town fell.
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. In the event, the invasion took place well to the west in Normandy. Calais was nonetheless very heavily bombed and shelled in a successful effort to persuade the Germans that the D-Day landings were a feint in advance of the "real" invasion of the Pas-de-Calais. It was liberated by Canadian forces in October 1944.
The city's proximity to England has made it a major port for centuries. It is the principal ferry crossing point between England and France, with the vast majority of cross-Channel being made between Dover and Calais. The French end of the Channel Tunnel is also situated in the vicinity of Calais, in Sangatte some 4 miles (6 km) to the west of the town.
The mainstay of the town's economy is, naturally, its port, but it also has a number of indigenous industries. The principal ones are lace making, chemicals, and paper manufacture. It possesses direct rail links to Paris (148 miles / 238 km to the south).
Due to the large difference in taxation between Britain and France on such items as alcoholic beverages and tobacco, massive shopping complexes targeted at British day-trippers have sprung up on and around Calais. Such day trippers are colloquially known as "booze cruisers" and have been the target of considerable attention from the UK Customs and Excise authorities.
Virtually the entire town was flattened in the Second World War, so there is little in Calais that pre-dates the war. For most visitors, the town is simply a place to pass through en route to other destinations.
The town centre is dominated by its distinctive hotel de ville (town hall), built in the Flemish Renaissance style (and visible well out to sea). Directly in front of the town hall is a copy of the statue The Burghers of Calais (French Les Bourgeois de Calais), by Auguste Rodin.
The German wartime military headquarters, situated near the train station in a small park, is today open to the public as a war museum.
Immediately to the west is the Côte d'Opale, an extremely scenic cliff-lined section of coast that parallels the White Cliffs on the English coast (and is part of the same geological formation).
- Official Website
- Info about the port and city (in French)