Calais – England’s First Colony

When reading History at Hertford I am sorry to say that I paid little attention to Calais other than being aware of its capture by Edward III and him being beastly to its Burgers, then being lost by ‘Bloody’ Mary. Like most British people I regarded Calais as a town to pass through swiftly when crossing the Channel by sea or rail. Only recently I decided to take a look at Calais’ past which, after all, was for over two hundred years an integral part of England, with its own MPs sitting in the Westminster Parliament. I soon became fascinated in Calais’ part in the Hundred Years War, its major role in the Wars of the Roses and that it was the scene of two royal weddings, one royal murder as well as the many major diplomatic events such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold.     

The Field of the Cloth of Gold with Calais in the background.

English History rather neglects Calais after its loss in 1558 but I found that it has remained entwined in English events to the present day. Once Elizabeth I had failed to recover Calais, there came a role reversal. Instead of England using Calais to invade France it changed to European powers attempting to invade England from Calais.  First there was Philip II whose invasion ended when his Armada was scattered by English fire ships off Calais and then came Louis XIV and Louis XV’s various plans to restore the Jacobites, followed by Napoleon’s attempt in 1805 and Hitler’s in1940.

Elizabeth I portrait with English fireships scattering the Armada off Calais.

Calais was an important port for British forces during the First World War but less well known is the 1918 ‘Calais Mutiny’ when British soldiers refused to take orders in protest at the slow rate of demobilisation. In 1939 the British brigade’s defence of Calais delayed the German advance on Dunkirk buying vital time for the evacuation. It was in the Pas-de-Calais that the V1 flying bombs sites were destroyed by Bomber Command. ‘Operation Fortitude’ was conceived to make the German High Command believe that the Allied invasion would be in the Calais area rather than Normandy. This deception operation was so successful that Hitler did not commit his main forces until after the D Day landings.         

Napoleon’s plan for a channel tunnel in 1802 with gas lighting and horse drawn carriages.

Today Calais is an important communications link to the Continent and remains an area for illegal immigrants to cross to England despite the desire to take back control of our borders being one of the factors influencing the Brexit vote. In short, the history of Britain and Calais have been entwined for 675 years.  it is not only the major events in Calais which I have found fascinating but also the stories of the interesting personalities who spent time there ranging from Sir Richard (Dick) Whittington and Anne Boleyn to Beau Brummel and Lady Hamilton. All this made me want to share what I had discovered by writing a book, in the hope that others would find it equally interesting.

Julian Whitehead (BA Modern History, 1963) recently published his book Calais, England’s First Colony (Pen & Sword Publishing).