The early history of habitation in the area is limited. The Romans called the settlement Caletum. Julius Caesar mustered 800 to 1,000 sailing boats, five legions and some 2,000 horses at Calais, due to its strategic position, to attack Britannia. The English could hold on to it for so many centuries because it remained an island surrounded by marshes, and therefore almost impossible to attack from the land. At some time before the 10th century, it would have been a Flemish-speaking fishing village on a sandy beach backed by pebbles and a creek, with a natural harbour at the west edge of the early medieval estuary of the River Aa. As the pebble and sand ridge extended eastward from Calais, the haven behind it developed into fen, as the estuary progressively filled with silt and peat. Afterwards, canals were cut between Saint-Omer, the trading centre formerly at the head of the estuary, and three places to the west, centre and east on the newly formed coast: respectively Calais, Gravelines and Dunkirk. Calais was improved by the Count of Flanders in 997 and fortified by the Count of Boulogne in 1224.
The first document mentioning the existence of this community is the town charter granted by Mathieu d'Alsace, Count of Boulogne, in 1181 to Gerard de Guelders; Calais thus became part of the county of Boulogne. In 1189, Richard the Lionheart is documented to have landed at Calais on his journey to the Third Crusade.
14th–15th century – the Pale of Calais
"Le Devouement des Bourgeois de Calais 1347", "The Devotion of the Burghers of Calais". Philippa of Hainault
begs King Edward III to spare the lives of the six volunteers for martyrdom. 19th-century mural in Council Chamber, Hôtel de Ville
English wool trade interests and King Edward III's claims to be heir to the Kingdom of France led to the Battle of Crécy between England and France in 1346, followed by Edward's siege and capture of Calais in 1347. Angered, the English king demanded reprisals against the town's citizens for holding out for so long ("obstinate defense") and ordered that the town's population be killed en masse. He agreed, however, to spare them, on 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 death. On their arrival he ordered their execution, but pardoned them when his queen, Philippa of Hainault, begged him to spare their lives. This event is commemorated in The Burghers of Calais (Les Bourgeois de Calais), one of the most famous sculptures by Auguste Rodin, erected in the city in 1895. Though sparing the lives of the delegation members, King Edward drove out most of the French inhabitants, and settled the town with English. The municipal charter of Calais, previously granted by the Countess of Artois, was reconfirmed by Edward that year (1347).
Map showing the situation of 1477, with Calais, the English Pale and neighbouring counties
In 1360 the Treaty of Brétigny assigned Guînes, Marck and Calais—collectively the "Pale of Calais"—to English rule in perpetuity, but this assignment was informally and only partially implemented. On 9 February 1363 the town was made a staple port. It had by 1372 become a parliamentary borough sending burgesses to the House of Commons of the Parliament of England. It remained part of the Diocese of Thérouanne from 1379, keeping an ecclesiastical tie with France.
The town came to be called the "brightest jewel in the English crown" owing 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. 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 the City of London and Mayor of the Staple in 1407.
The Marches of Calais temp.
Henry VIII. (Top: south, bottom:north): "Cales Market" within citadel, shown at bottom, top "Gyenes Castel
", bottom left "Graveling
", bottom right "Sand Gat
Calais was regarded for many years as being an integral part of the Kingdom of England, with its representatives sitting in the English Parliament. The continued English hold on Calais however 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 the Duchy of Burgundy, with the Franco-Burgundian border running nearby. The British historian Geoffrey Elton once remarked "Calais—expensive and useless—was better lost than kept". The duration of the English hold over Calais 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 domestic rivals. The stalemate was broken by the victory of the French crown over Burgundy following Joan of Arc's final battle in the Siege of Compiègne in 1430, and the later incorporation of the duchy into France.
In 1532, English king Henry VIII visited Calais and his men calculated that the town had about 2400 beds and stabling to keep some 2000 horses. In September 1552, the English adventurer Thomas Stukley, who had been for some time in the French service, betrayed to the authorities in London some French plans for the capture of Calais, to be followed by a descent upon England. Stukley himself might have been the author of these plans.
On 7 January 1558, king Henry II of France sent forces led by Francis, Duke of Guise, who laid siege to Calais. When the French attacked, they were able to surprise the English at the critical strongpoint of Fort Nieulay and the sluice gates, which could have flooded the attackers, remained unopened. 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 'Philip' [her husband] and 'Calais' lying in my heart." The region around Calais, then-known as the Calaisis, was renamed the Pays Reconquis ("Reconquered Country") in commemoration of its recovery by the French. Use of the term is reminiscent of the Spanish Reconquista, with which the French were certainly familiar—and, since it occurred in the context of a war with Spain (Philip II of Spain was at the time Queen Mary's consort), might have been intended as a deliberate snub.
The town was captured by the Spanish on 24 April 1596 in an invasion mounted from the nearby Spanish Netherlands by Archduke Albert of Austria, but it was returned to France under the Treaty of Vervins in May 1598.
17th century to World War I
Calais remained an important maritime city and smuggling centre throughout the 17th century. However, during the next century the port of Calais began to stagnate gradually, as the nearby ports of Boulogne and Dunkirk began to rise and compete.
The French revolution at the end of the 18th century did not disturb Calais and no executions took place.
In 1805, Calais hosted part of Napoleon's army and invasion fleet for several months before his aborted invasion of Britain.
From October to December 1818, the British army used Calais as their departing port to return home after occupying post-Waterloo France. General Murray appointed Sir Manley Power to oversee the evacuation of British troops from France. Cordial relations had been restored by that time and on 3 December the mayor of Calais wrote a letter to Power to express thanks for his "considerate treatment of the French and of the town of Calais during the embarkation."
The British Expeditionary Force or BEF arrived in Calais on its way to the nearby frontline cutting through Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Flanders. Calais was a key port for the supply of arms and reinforcements to the Western Front. In the 1930s, the town was known for being a politically socialist stronghold.
World War II
World War II bunkers at Calais
Debris from the Siege of Calais
Calais was virtually razed to the ground during World War II. In May 1940, it was a key objective of the invading German forces and became the scene of a last-ditch defence—the Siege of Calais—which diverted a sizable amount of German forces for several days immediately prior to the Battle of Dunkirk. Three thousand British and 800 French troops, assisted by Royal Navy warships, held out from 22 to 27 May 1940 against the 10th Panzer Division. The town was flattened by artillery and precision dive bombing and only 30 of the 3800-strong defending force were evacuated before the town fell. This may have helped Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Allied forces at Dunkirk, as 10th Panzer would have been involved on the Dunkirk perimeter had it not been busy at Calais. Between 26 May and 4 June 1940, some 330,000 Allied troops escaped from the Germans at Dunkirk.
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. It was also used as a launch site for V1 flying bombs and for much of the war, the Germans used the region as the site for railway guns used to bombard the south-eastern corner of England. In 1943 they built massive bunkers along the coast in preparation for launching missiles on the southeast of England. Despite heavy preparations for defence against an amphibious assault, the Allied invasion took place well to the west in Normandy on D-Day. Calais was very heavily bombed and shelled in a successful effort to disrupt German communications and persuade them that the Allies would target the Pas-de-Calais for invasion (rather than Normandy). The town, by then largely in ruins, was laid siege to liberated by General Daniel Spry's 3rd Canadian Infantry Division between 25 September and 1 October 1944. On 27 February 1945 Calais suffered a last bombing raid—this time by British bombers who mistook the town for Dunkirk, which was at that time still occupied by German forces. After the war there was little rebuilding of the historic city and most buildings were modern ones.
21st century – migration issues
Since 1999 or earlier, an increasingly large number of illegal migrants and aslyum seekers started to arrive in the vicinity of Calais, living in the Calais jungle, the nickname given to a series of makeshift camps. The people lived there while they attempted to enter the United Kingdom by stowing away on lorries, ferries, cars, or trains travelling through the Port of Calais or the Eurotunnel Calais Terminal. The people were a mix of asylum seekers and economic migrants from Darfur, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea and other underdeveloped countries.
The Calais migrant crisis led to escalating tension between the UK and France in the summer of 2015. The UK blamed France for not doing enough to stop migrants from entering the tunnel or making attempts to scale fences built along the border. The British Prime Minister David Cameron released a statement saying that illegal immigrants would be removed from the UK even if they reached the island. To discourage migrants and refugees from jumping on train shuttles at Calais, the UK government supplied fencing to be installed in the Eurotunnel where the vehicles are loaded onto train shuttles in Calais.
On 26 October 2016, French authorities announced that the camp had been cleared.