France Regains Calais from England Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

François, duke of Guise, defeated the English to take possession of the northern French city of Calais, returning it to French hands for the first time in more than two hundred years. With the loss of Calais, England lost its last French territory.

Summary of Event

In August, 1346, Edward III of England began a yearlong siege against the French seaport of Calais that ended with its capture in August, 1347. The acquisition of this seaport was part of Edward’s broader campaign to defend his claim to the French province of Guienne (later called Aquitaine), a campaign that marked the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337-1453). During this long war, various French territories shifted ownership back and forth several times, but by 1453, England had lost nearly all of its possessions in France, even Bordeaux, the capital of Aquitaine. On August 29, 1475, England signed the Peace of Picquigny Picquigny, Peace of (1475) and forfeited any future claims to Aquitaine or to the throne of France, but it was able to retain Calais. Despite the treaty, however, the English continued their attempts to acquire territory in France during the ensuing decades. Calais;French retaking of Mary I Guise, François de Lorraine, second duke of Elizabeth I Henry II (1519-1559) Catherine de Médicis Henry VIII (king of England) Francis I (king of France) Mary Tudor (queen of England) Philip II (king of Spain) Henry II (king of France) Guise, François de Lorraine, duke of Elizabeth I (queen of England) Condé, Louis I of Bourbon, prince of Catherine de Médicis

In the sixteenth century, during the early Tudor reign, Henry VIII once again attempted to gain French lands. Henry’s 1512 campaign to recapture Aquitaine was a failure, but in 1544, he successfully took Boulogne. After the Treaty of Boulogne Boulogne, Treaty of (1550) was signed on March 24, 1550, however, Henry was paid a ransom by the French king, Francis I, for the return of Boulogne; once again, Calais was the sole English remnant on French soil.

Calais spent more than two hundred years in English hands, but the French finally recaptured the port during the reign of Mary I, the Catholic daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. Having married her cousin, the future Philip II of Spain, in July, 1554, Mary was drawn into supporting her husband’s Spanish Habsburg war against France. On June 7, 1557, she declared war against Henry II of France. In August, Philip was victorious at Saint-Quentin, and the acquisition of more French territory seemed imminent. However, Henry II and his military general, François de Lorraine, duke of Guise, were strategizing the final routing of the English from France.

The duke of Guise, one of the chief leaders of the Catholic party and the best soldier in France, arrived in secret with his army at Calais on New Year’s Eve, 1557. Although Henry VIII had fortified Calais in 1539, it was now undermanned, underequipped, and undermaintained. Requests from Calais to Mary and her council for funds to repair the area and for more staffing had not seemed urgent. The English took their ownership of Calais for granted, since it was considered impregnable and, with their aversion to winter campaigns, did not foresee any imminent danger.

After a surprise eight-day attack from land and sea, the duke of Guise and his twenty-seven thousand troops captured the Calais Castle area from its eight-hundred-man garrison. By the end of the month, the entire 120-mile (193-kilometer) outlying area was securely in French hands. Ironically, Mary and her council were in the final process of sending help to Calais when the news reached them that it had fallen to the French: They were late by only a matter of days. In a humiliating defeat for the English, Mary signed away Calais in the Tapestry Room of Saint James’s Place. According to a secondhand report from John Foxe, the chronicler of Mary’s persecution of Protestant reformers, Mary had said that if they opened up her body they would find “Calais” lying in her heart.

Negotiations were still under way when Mary died in November of 1558. They ended on April 2, 1559, with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis. Cateau-Cambrésis, Treaty of (1559)[Cateau Cambrésis, Treaty of (1559)] Elizabeth I, the Protestant daughter of Henry VIII who had succeeded her half sister Mary, sought to regain Calais through the continuing negotiations. The terms of the treaty—primarily between the French and the Spanish—dictated that Henry II would restore Calais to England in eight years or pay 500,000 crowns. However, this term of the treaty was provisional: It would take effect only if Elizabeth were to forgo territorial aggression both against France and against Scotland, whose queen, Mary, Queen of Scots, was the niece of the duke of Guise.

Despite the treaty and suspicious that the French would never return the city, Elizabeth continued to seek the return of Calais in a variety of ways. Its loss was seen as the result of Mary’s ill-advised embrace of Catholic Spain, and Elizabeth wanted to restore the honor and glory of England as well as her father’s legacy of ownership of Calais. In September, 1562, she signed the Treaty of Hampton Court Hampton Court, Treaty of (1562) with the French Huguenot Huguenots;relations with England[England] leader, Louis I of Bourbon, prince of Condé. Elizabeth offered Bourbon troops and money for his planned uprising against the Catholic ruling party. She was given the port of Le Havre as a pledge for the return of Calais. However, the duke of Guise defeated the Huguenots at the Battle of Dreux Dreux, Battle of (1562) in December of 1562, ending this attempt to regain Calais.

In April, 1564, according to the Peace of Troyes Troyes, Peace of (1564) between Elizabeth and French regent Catherine de Médicis, the English not only had to restore Le Havre to France but also had to forfeit any claim either to Calais or to the promised payment for it. Always undaunted, Elizabeth—in her 1579-1581 discussions with Catherine about marriage to one of her sons, the duke of Alençon—made the return of Calais one of the points of the (unsuccessful) negotiations. Later, in 1596, when Philip II briefly captured Calais, Elizabeth offered France’s Henry IV assistance in exchange for Calais, but her assistance was refused.

The loss of Calais in 1558, despite Elizabeth’s myriad efforts over a period of almost forty years, proved to be a permanent loss for the English. It meant that—for the first time since 1066, when William the Conqueror ruled territory on both sides of the English Channel—the English had no foothold on the European continent.

Significance

The recapture of Calais was a stunning blow to English pride and a patriotic triumph for the French. No matter how much territory had been won or lost in France during centuries of fighting, Calais had remained an English possession, much to the continued rancor of the French. For more than two centuries, England had possessed this area, only 26 miles (42 kilometers) southwest of Dover, which had been its gateway to the continent, its chief economic center for exporting raw wool, and a symbol of English rights to other French territories. On the French side, however, since its capture in 1347, Calais had become a cause. Forty years after its loss, the French poet Eustache Deschamps had penned a refrain taken up by the people that captured the feelings of the nation: “No peace until they give back Calais.”

The loss of Calais by England and its return to France ended an era in English-French relations. Elizabeth implicitly recognized this shift in her later negotiations. She consistently requested Calais in exchange for something else, rather than asserting an inherent English right to possess the city. England ceased to be a continental power and instead continued the maritime expansion that it had begun under Henry VIII. France, after centuries of incursions and of foreign rule over various parts of the country, concentrated on becoming geographically whole and on dealing with its growing civil wars of religion. Centuries of English-French entanglement over territorial disputes and claims to each other’s thrones had finally come to an end.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunne, Jane. Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Relations between England, France, and Scotland during the reigns of Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots, the niece of the duke of Guise.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guy, John. Tudor England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Tudor relations with France; some details of the battle at Calais; extensive footnotes and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knecht, Robert J. Catherine de’ Medici. New York: Longman, 1998. French side of relations with England before and after the loss of Calais; bibliography, maps, genealogical tables, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prescott, H. F. M. Mary Tudor. New York: Macmillan, 1953. Chronological life of Mary I, with a very detailed, day-by-day account of the fall of Calais in chapter 21 and its aftermath in chapter 22.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998. Account of the Elizabethan era, including ongoing attempts to regain Calais; genealogical tables, portraits of key figures, and extensive bibliography.

Aug. 29, 1475: Peace of Picquigny

June 5-24, 1520: Field of Cloth of Gold

Dec. 18, 1534: Act of Supremacy

1544-1628: Anglo-French Wars

July, 1553: Coronation of Mary Tudor

1555-1556: Charles V Abdicates

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

Apr. 3, 1559: Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis

Mar., 1562-May 2, 1598: French Wars of Religion

Jan. 20, 1564: Peace of Troyes

Apr., 1587-c. 1600: Anglo-Spanish War

Aug. 2, 1589: Henry IV Ascends the Throne of France

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