David Wallace


The church of Notre Dame at Calais, in which President De Gaulle married a local girl, is unmistakably of English design. Between 1347 and 1558, Calais stood upon English ground; the notion of England, surrounded by its Channel, as a ‘sceptred isle,’ as ‘a fortress built by nature for itself’ (as in Shakespeare’s Richard II) is alien to our period. Calais thus forms an appropriate point of departure for a literary itinerary devoted to English locales. Froissart, the great French chronicler who crossed the Channel in 1361 to serve Philippa of Hainault, gives the most celebrated account of the siege of Calais, including the saga of the six burgers. Chaucer, who treats Flanders, Artois, and Picardy (immediately beyond the Calais marches) as borderland terrain, passed through here in 1360 and later as letter carrier and diplomat; the Wool Staple was transferred here in 1363. Calais was systematically ‘repeopled’ (Froissart’s term) by English settlers, or colonists, following proclamations by Edward III; a new Augustinian house, established in 1351, was inhabited exclusively by English friars. Robert Knollys led out an English army from Calais in 1370 containing 55 named and pardoned criminals (murderers, rapists, and thieves). Langland takes a skeptical view of all that transpires at and from Calais, but Eustace Deschamps is incandescent with rage: a remarkable poem of 1384, which turns macaronic with faux-English, tells of his visiting the town with Oton de Granson (see Savoy), a revered poet and soldier who fought on the English side. English merchants are perennially active in Calais in supplying the large English garrison, and in trading into the Low Countries and beyond; the Paston, Cely, and Plumpton letters of later times are thoroughly familiar with Calais.