England Permanently Loses Control Over Calais

1838 François-Édouard Picot - The Siege of Calais

Today on January 7, 1558, English soldiers swiftly surrender after the Siege of Calais, ending their control over this critical city.

The Siege of Calais (1558) was a remarkably short, but effective siege. It resulted in the important coastal city of Calais returning to French control. England had occupied it for more than 150 years since the onset of the Hundred Years’ War. On August 3, 1347, France finally surrendered Calais to Edward III of England after a 13-month siege. Located in northern France, Calais is the closest port city to Britain from the English Channel. In fact, on a calm day, you can see the White Cliffs of Dover from Calais. The town held significant strategic value, as the English often used it for staging an attack on France and other countries in continental Europe. Calais was both tactically, and symbolically, essential to the Kingdom of England.

The challenge was that Calais did not have any natural defensive qualities. As a result, the English garrison heavily relied on fortification building to defend it. The city also carried symbolic meaning for France as well. It represented that last major territorial holding still under control of its archrival. So in 1557, King Henry II of France began planning and preparing to recapture the city with great secrecy. The French commander, Francis (Duke of Guise), assembled an impressive army of 30,000 infantry and cavalry. He boldly marched north in the middle of the winter to launch a surprise attack the English. On January 2, the French vanguard captured Fort Risban, also known as Lancaster Tower. The outpost tower was a much smaller defensive structure located across the harbor surrounding Calais.

The French installed their artillery in the fort and planned to bombard the city into submission. The English Governor, Lord Wentworth, was overwhelmed by the sudden attack and surrendered five days later. The French gained control over 300 guns and three months’ worth of food and supplies. The Siege of Calais was a national embarrassment. Throughout England, there was widespread shock and disbelief at the sudden loss of the city. It effectively marked the end of England’s physical presence in continental Europe, as they would never again recapture it.

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