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

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). 
Wikimedia Commons

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 and ideas and to clash. And now it is the site of a new drama: some 5,000 migrants have made their way to a makeshift camp in the port city, hoping to cross the tunnel into Britain. The migrants in Calais are actors in a political theater for which both sides have carefully rehearsed for centuries. British nationalists have recently suggested, largely tongue-in-cheek, that the Chunnel should travel in only one direction: from Ashford to Calais.  

For centuries, Calais served as a base for English exports of wool to manufacturing centers in Flanders and Italy, but its larger importance has always been symbolic. It was not far from the port city that Louis Blériot took off, on July 25, 1909, for the first powered air crossing of the English Channel. (It took him 36 minutes and 30 seconds to cover a distance of 30 miles.) City annals also cherish the memory of Charles de Gaulle’s marriage in Calais to a local heiress in 1921: “I am marrying the Vendroux biscuit company,” he quipped to a friend. In May 1940, during World War II, Calais was the site of a spirited resistance by British, French, and Belgian troops. But the significance of Calais lies less in what happened there than in what the French and the English have thought about Calais and about one another.

The history of the port—now a flashpoint for Europe’s migrant crisis—tells the story of the relationship between Britain and France.

French and British nationalisms have followed a parallel course. Where France had Joan of Arc, Britain had its black Prince. The British patriotic song “Rule, Britannia!” was composed in 1740; the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” followed later in 1792.  The English cartoonist and satirist William Hogarth, who had been arrested as a spy while visiting France, took his revenge with his painting The Gate of Calais, finished in 1748. In the painting, undernourished French soldiers look on hungrily as a large side of British beef is transported from the harbor to an English tavern in the port. In 1765, the French playwright Pierre de Belloy wrote an intensely patriotic play, Le siège de Calais, which told the story of the British siege of 1347 to huge popular and critical acclaim in France. It would be hard to overestimate the intensity of French Anglophobia before and during the French Revolution. In the spring of 1794, the Jacobins voted on a decree, never actually applied, that ordered French soldiers to routinely and immediately execute whatever British soldiers they might capture. 

The Gate of Calais by William Hogarth.
Google Art Project

Calais has been at the center of politics, trade, and war—but in poetry, for once, it is cited as a place of hope and promise. British poets, looking southward across the English Channel, often fantasized about Calais and France, as Wordsworth did in his 1802 sonnet “Evening on Calais Beach”: “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free…. Listen!/The mighty Being is awake,/And doth with his eternal motion make/A sound like thunder—everlastingly.”

Such hope has disappeared in Europe’s response to the migrant crisis, which has underscored the persistence of national rivalries within the European Union and underlined the question so many Europeans are asking today: What is Europe? The continent’s callous indifference to the desperate migrants in Calais will doubtless inform the answer.

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