Wikimedia Commons An artistic rendering of the 1346 Siege of Calais, which resulted in an English victory.

The Crisis in Calais

Britain, France, and the Port That Links Them

Queen Mary, also known as Bloody Mary, the oldest daughter of Henry VIII and the half-sister of Queen Elizabeth, was heartbroken when she received the news, in 1558, that the French had recaptured Calais. “When I am dead and opened,” she proclaimed, “you will find Calais written on my heart.”

The history of the port—now a flashpoint for Europe’s migrant crisis—tells the story of the relationship between Britain and France. Calais is the French port closest to England and, since 1994, the site of the French entrance to the Chunnel, the tunnel linking the two countries under the English Channel. In prehistoric times, Calais was a place of little consequence. But with the construction of a land bridge linking England to the continent in approximately 6500 BC, Calais became a critical site for trade and invasion. Indeed, its recorded history reaches back to the Roman Empire, when Caesar traveled through Calais to invade Celtic Britain in 55 and 54 BC. By the time the French recaptured Calais in 1558, Calais had been under British control for two centuries (since 1347, when Edward III of England successfully captured it after a protracted siege).

 The Siege of Calais by François-Édouard Picot (1838). 

Britain and France have long been close, and it is hard to imagine the history of one of those countries without the other: Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill quarreled bitterly, but each held the other in high esteem. Nevertheless, France has historically considered Britain its true “hereditary enemy,” just as Gallophobia has been a durable and critical part of the British identity. Every English reader of Lord Acton, the English historian and writer, will remember that culture corrupts ordinarily, but French culture corrupts absolutely.

British nationalists have recently suggested, largely tongue-in-cheek, that the Chunnel should travel in only one direction: from Ashford to Calais.

Within this history, Calais is a symbolic lieu de mémoire, or site of memory. It is the place where the two countries meet to exchange goods

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