Calais, from Field of Gold to the Jungle
The whole world has now heard of Calais, an otherwise monotonous, pigeon-skied patch of northern France afflicted with the geographical misfortune of being the closest point along the coastline to the white cliffs of Dover across the English Channel.
Calais has become France’s shame. We have watched with mounting consternation television news reports showing crowded and fetid campments — the “Calais jungle” — where migrants are so desperate to reach the UK that many have committed reckless and violent acts, from storming the Eurotunnel and occupying ferry boats to violently clashing with French police. To some observers, the migrants are dangerous hordes whose motives are uncertain; to others, they are refugees fleeing distant wars and crying out for help. Critics of France’s treatment of the refugees lament that the great French republic, once the cradle of the Enlightenment, has turned its back on the sorry plight of these people living in misery on French territory. As the New York Times put it, after the Calais crisis France today is “Paradise Lost“.
The patience of the locals in Calais, forced to endure this international crisis every day, is quickly running out. The people of Calais have been mistreated by history. Their region in northern France — called “le nord” — is regarded by many French as poor and backwards, an industrial rustbelt eroded by unemployment and alcoholism. The region was devastated by two world wars in the last century — and in the 19th century, by the Franco-Prussian War. In less than a hundred years, the German army rolled over the region three times. Flanders fields are just to the east. The battle of Dunkirk in 1940 was fought on Calais’ beaches. After the war, the coal mines closed, pushing the Pas-de-Calais population into poverty and depression.
One fact about Calais that history has almost forgotten is that it was once English. Calais was the last parcel of English land ceded to France. That happened in 1558, a date that marked the end of English territorial control on the continent following the Hundred Years War. Five hundred years ago, if you were standing on the territory where the muddy migrant camps are festering today, you would have been on English soil. When the English lost Calais, it was a great shock.
Calais’ most glorious moment in history was in 1520. That year, Europe’s two great monarchs — England’s Henry VIII and France’s François I — met in Calais for an extravagant two-week Renaissance summit. Both monarchs were the rock stars of the age, which doubtless explained why they regarded each other with mutual fascination and jealousy. They had no reason to trust each other. France and England were rivals, though they shared a mutual distrust of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (who was also King of Spain). That’s precisely why Henry and François agreed to meet in Calais. The summit was organised to celebrate a sort of non-aggression pact between England and France. Henry VIII insisted that the summit be held in Calais so he could claim he had never left English soil. Calais belonged to his realm.
Henry VIII arrived in Calais in June 1520 with a retinue of 500 horsemen and more than 3,000 foot soldiers. He was a young man in 1520, still fit and vigorous at 29, not yet the grotesquely obese figure of later years. François I, a prodigious seducer of women, was younger than Henry and even more physically energetic. Each monarch had temporarily palaces constructed in Calais for their respective courts.
The 1520 Anglo-French summit was so sumptuous that its precise location has come down to us in the annals of history with a name that leaves no doubt about its extravagance: Field of the Cloth of Gold, so named for the dazzling royal tents with their marquees of gold cloth. The two-week event (see painting above) featured lavish feasts, music performances, and jousting tournaments. Nearly 3,000 tents were erected for the large retinue and guests. In total, Henry brought 4,000 servants and 2,000 horses. Henry’s queen, Spanish-born Catherine of Aragon, had in her company more than 1,000 servants and 800 horses. It is estimated that the entire English contingent counted 6,000 noblemen, women and servants; and that François I’s party was of similar size. More than 2,000 sheep were eaten during the feasts. Pungent claret flowed from golden fountains.
For two kings celebrating a peace treaty, the summit featured a great deal of ritualised aggression. Both Henry and François personally competed in the jousting spectacles — and both broke their lances several times. Henry was outfitted majestically, his armour skirt and horse trapper covered in gold and pearls. One of the jousts was so violent that François I broke his nose. He took his revenge on the English monarch later in a wrestling match, quickly putting Henry to the ground. Henry was reported to have been so furious that he stormed off sulking.
As a political event, the Field of Gold Cloth summit failed to produce lasting peace in Europe. The very next year, England and France were at war again after Henry VIII sided with Charles V against François I. The English and French monarchs were to meet once more in Calais, however. In 1532, Henry crossed the Channel again, this time with Anne Boleyn, to enlist François I’s support in persuading the Pope to grant an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. François I refused to meet Anne, however, as she was merely Henry’s mistress. And as for the papal annulment, that didn’t go as planned either. Both Henry and François died in the same year, 1547 — Henry on January 28, François on March 31.
The glorious Anglo-French summit of 1520 took place just south of modern-day Calais, not far from the Eurotunnel entrance protected today by police and high fences. Today the Calais jungle counts some 3,5oo refugees, including 445 children, still waiting for their chance to cross the Channel and start a new life. But the UK government doesn’t want them either. That attitude that may well be hardened after Britons vote in a referendum about leaving the European Union. Meanwhile, the refugees fear eviction by French authorities, while film stars such as Jude Law and Benedict Cumberbatch campaign to have the refugee children reunited with their families in the UK.
How cruelly ironic for the thousands of refugees trapped in Calais. Five centuries ago, Calais was English soil.
(Photo: Daily Mail/AP)