The seal of the city of Calais 
Calais is located on La Manche (the English Channel), just across the Pas de Calais (the Straits of Dover) from Dover. It is one of the chief ports for trade with England. We are part of France now, although Calais was an independent English possession for over 200 years. We are near the border with the counties of Flanders and Artois, which are part of the Spanish Netherlands.

Calais is rather Flemish in character. It is a "low-country" much like Holland, built on land reclaimed from the sea using a system of dikes and canals and windmill-driven pumps. It is separated from the sea by a barrier of dunes. The heart of the old city is on an island surrounded by basins and canals. At its center is the Place des Armes and the church of Notre Dame. It has a noteworthy lighthouse, and a new citadel that was built in 1560. The prevailing winds are from the West and it rains a lot. The soil is grayish clay, but rich and supports a variety of agriculture (wheat, barley, hops, linen) and pasturage for cattle, pigs, horses, and sheep.

Calais was captured in 1347 by Edward III during the Hundred Years War and remained an English possession until 1558, when it was liberated by François 2nd duc de Guise. Its surrender to the English was the occasion of the well-known incident of the Six Burghers of Calais. The city had been reduced to starvation by the siege. The Mayor and five other leading citizens came out of the city, barefoot and in their shirts, and offered Edward III the keys to the city and their lives if he would only spare the city itself. Edward accepted these terms; the lives of the burghers themselves were eventually spared due to the intercession of Queen Philippine (herself from Hainault).

The next big thing to happen here was the spectacular meeting between François I and Henry VIII of England at The Field of the Cloths of Gold in 1520 (so named for the lavish equipages of the two kings). The two were ganging up on the other major potentate of the times, Charles V (the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor), which they celebrated with grand tournaments and such.

People of this region drink a lot of beer. Supposedly the method of using hops in brewing was developed by Jean Sans Peur, duc de Burgundy and comte de Flandre (14th-15th c). The area is rich in water, barley, and hops. We eat a lot of seafood, especially herring, which can be smoked, salted, and pickled. The cheeses of this region are very strong, usually soft, and always made of cow’s milk. We raise a lot of beef, some pork, not much mutton. Our sausages are usually all pork. We’re fond of rabbit. Favored vegetables are leeks, artichokes (a fad in the 16th century), cabbages. We usually put bread in our soup.

The archers of Flandres were the pride of the comtes de Flandres. They were organized in confraternities or guilds, and appeared at every public ceremony (as well as going on every campaign) and archery contests are popular. Other favorite pastimes are cock-fighting and contests between ratting dogs to see which killed the most rats the quickest.

Calais is the closest continental port to England, and on a clear day one can see the shores of Dover. The English trade has been very important to Calais. A lot of wool and textiles moved through here, as well as other things. What the English call The Channel we call La Manche ("the sleeve"), and what they call the Straits of Dover we call the Pas-de-Calais.

The king of France has been actively at war with Spain since 1595, and most of the action has been taking place in Picardy and Flanders. On April 17, 1596, Calais fell to an assault by the Spanish under the command of the Archduke Cardinal Albert of Austria. For a contemporary account of these events, see the Siege of Calais. Calais was finally returned to French sovereignty by the Treaty of Vervins, signed in May, 1598.


Arms of Calais (Pas-de-Calais): Gules an inescutcheon azure bearing a crescent beneath a fleur-de-lys or, crowned with a royal crown argent, between two crosses Lorraine and above a plate bearing a cross between four crosslets or. Arms granted in 1558. The plate with the arms of Jerusalem recalls Godefroy de Bouillon, count of Boulogne, to which Calais belonged. The crosses Lorraine recall the capture of the town from the English by the duc de Guise in 1558, the crescent and the fleur-de-lys recall Henri II under whose reign it occurred. Calais' medieval seals show other figures. For the source of this blazon and more info on French heraldry in general, see The French Heraldry Page.

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-c. t. iannuzzo