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Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Fall of Calais: A Blessing in Disguise

An attack on Calais in the 16th century

Today (7th January) in 1558, the town of Calais and the small surrounding are, the last English possession in France, fell to a surprise attack launched a few days earlier by the French. At the time, this was considered a great blow, with England's Queen Mary, in particular, biting hard on the black pill. She is reported to have said:
"When I am dead and cut open, they will find Philip and Calais inscribed on my heart."
The reference to Philip is to her husband, Philip II of Spain.

The context of the attack was the ongoing power struggle between Hapsburg Spain, which also controlled the Netherlands, and the rising kingdom of France. At the time, these two powers were involved in a war, most of which was happening in what is now Northern France.

England, under its previous king, Henry VIII, had played a more ambivalent role, sometimes siding with Spain, sometimes with the French. But his daughter, Mary, who became queen in 1553, had united England to Spain by marrying the Spanish king Philip II. Because of this, the French feared the arrival of an English army and a resumption of the Hundred Years War, which they had won after a long and hard struggle. In order to preempt an English invasion, they decided to launch a surprise attack in midwinter on the obvious base for any English invasion, namely Calais.

Amassing a force of around 30,000 men—around ten times the English garrison—the French commander Francis, the Duke of Guise, struck hard and surprised the English forces who soon surrendered.

The depth of English grief at the loss was demonstrated by the fact that the defeated English commander Thomas Wentworth was imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of treason following his return to England. But the fact is the fall of Calais paved the way for England to pursue its true destiny as a great naval and colonial power.

Ever since the crown of England had passed to William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, in 1066, the Kings of England had suffered from a severe identity crisis—were they French or were they English?

In cultural terms they were certainly French well into the 15th century, and even when they lost almost all their possessions in France in the 1450s, and even after the Welsh-sourced Tudor dynasty took over, kings of England still continued to LARP as displaced kings of France. This is why the fleur-de-lys, the symbol of French royalty, is still included in the royal coat of arms.

Bookends of British greatness: Mary Tudor and Edward Heath.
As long as England had a toehold on the continent, there was always a temptation to pour men and treasure into forlorn and fruitless schemes at continental expansion. The Fall of Calais did not end such attempts, and in the next few centuries English and later British armies were often involved in European wars, but this was mainly in a spoiler role, to prevent any one power dominating the continent, while England's focus shifted elsewhere: first to the unity of the British Isles, and then to the conquest of the Seas and the great expansion in trade and distant colonies that came to define British history.

England's European exit also helped the country to see itself as culturally distinct from the continent, something that fed into its quest for its own religious identity.

After the Protestantism of her father and her brother, the reign of Queen Mary had seen a resumption of Catholic control and subservience to the Pope. Such subordination would not be seen again until Prime Minister Edward Heath took Britain into the European Common Market in 1973.

With her death a mere 10 months after the fall of Calais, such religious cringing was swept away, along with England's undue interest in Continental affairs, thus freeing up the nation's energies for much greater challenges and achievements.

In this respect, Calais was a blessing in disguise, and represented the end of hundreds of years of wasted English history.

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