Friday, March 13, 2009
To scholars of late medieval England, Calais is considered as an integral part of England. However, by the nineteenth century, the average Englishman thought of Calais as thoroughly French and had forgotten that it had ever been England. I was reminded of this when I read William Thackeray’s From Cornhill to Grand Cairo, where, in the guise of Mr. Titmarsh, Thackeray recornts his own travels abroad. In his musings about Smyrna he says “Smyrna seem to me the Eastern [town] of all I have seen; as Calais will probably remain to the Englishman the most French town in the world.” A fifteenth-century Englishman would not have understood this view.
From the time of its first possession by the English crown in the reign of Edward III to the end of English control in 1558, the position of captain, lieutenant or lord deputy of Calais was a prized appointment for members of the English nobility, but custody of the office could be a poisoned chalice. Two of the men who held the position found it so. One ended up being accused of fraud and the other returned to England to face both overwhelming debt and imprisonment. Both will be discussed in further installments. This essay is just a brief introduction to the importance of Calais to English politics in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
When the English lost their last foothold on the continent, Calais, in 1558, Mary Tudor is said to have cried out “When I am dead and opened, you shall find ‘Calais’ lying in my heart.” This loss signaled the end of English dreams of regaining Henry V’s empire in France. Most of the English would have agreed with Mary’s cry of anguish. Calais may not have been among the original English possessions established by William the Conqueror, but it had belonged to England, in fact had been a little England, for 211 years. The loss was a bitter blow, reminding the English of past military glories and present military impotence.
Possession of Calais began during the successful French wars of Edward III, who captured Calais in 1347. After a long siege Edward took the opportunity to recreate Calais in the model of an English town, according to Froissart, entering it with solemn pageantry and expelling the French citizens who lived there. He then induced the English to settle there and included exemption from taxation and special trade privileges as sweetners.
Calais immediately became a vital part of English defense, not only because of its English population, but because of its location. It commanded an important maritime route—the straits of Dover—at the shortest distance between France and England. Calais soon took on an added importance to the crown with the establishment of the wool staple. The export of wool was England’s largest and most profitable foreign trade and it provided a readily accessible form of wealth for taxation and borrowing, two of the most common methods used by the kings of England to maintain their treasuries. By establishing a monopoly over the wool trade in Calais, the king could easily enact the collection of a large subsidy or export duty at English ports when the wool was shipped to Calais for sale on the continent. In addition, the profit on the wool concentrated wealth in the hands of the small group of merchants who made up the staple. They could then lend money to the king.
The king’s authority in Calais rested with his chosen representative, the captain or lieutenant of Calais. Most captains were military men such as Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset; Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick; and William, Lord Hastings stood high in the king’s favor (or in the favor of Richard, duke of York as protector in the case of Warwick). The captaincy was highly prized both for the power it conferred on the holder and because of the possibilities for the dispensation of patronage that enhanced the natural power of the office. According to Hugh Trevor Roper in his foreword to The Lisle Letters, edited by Muriel St. Claire Byrne, “To assist [the lord lieutenant], he had a council of officials and a retinue, whose officers were known as ‘Spears’. Commissions as Spears were highly valued—they provided the basis for profitable sidelines—and local officials coveted them for their sons. So did courtiers in England.” In the 1450s, the struggle for control over Calais (and over the government of Henry VI) was a test of strength between the Duke of York and the Duke of Somerset.
The soldiers of Calais could be restive and unruly. A large part of the subsidy paid by the merchants of the Staple was converted into the pay of the garrison. But in the early days of the English occupation, the money did not always get to the soldiers. If the king’s finances were low, the money might be diverted into the king’s coffers. When this happened, most notably in 1407 and 1454, the Calais garrison would rebel In 1407 J. L. Kirby pointed out in that the “wages of the garrison had been grossly in arrears for several years, and now the soldiers seized the wool which was waiting in the merchants’ warehouses to be sold to the Flemings. It was the only form of wealth on which they could lay their hands.” The eventual resolution to this problem came after the 1454 rebellion. Henceforth, the staplers would collect the subsidy, pay the garrison, and account for the surplus at the Exchequer. The staplers, whose need for protection was more immediately evident than that of the king, were more likely to act as honest paymasters. This is not to imply that the king did not recognize the value of the Calais garrison. The point was propinquity.
The standing army in Calais, the only standing army of English troops, protected the Staple. It also protected the king. Still, as Maurice Keen remarks, “[Retainers and tenants] were not always well trained or enthusiastic to serve; that is why the regular troops of the Calais garrison and the reserves that the great northern lords, as Wardens of the Marches, knew how to mobilize at speed, played a disproportionate part in much of the fighting. (It is also why the Yorkist lords, in the crucial years 1459–61), were so determined to keep the captaincy of Calais in their hands.)” While a threat to the realm could come from within or without, the funding for any threat against the English crown was likely to come from without. French kings found that subsidizing discontent within England or financing forays by the Scots were relatively inexpensive ways to keep the English from campaigning in France. However, by maintaining a foothold in France, the French could be kept from attacking the English coast.
Besides the protection afforded by the garrison, Calais could be the eyes and ears of the English king. Calais was a nest of spies from England, France, Spain, Burgundy, and the Empire. Plots of conquest and treason were hatched in Calais. Roger Lockyer, in his study of Henry VII notes that “The atmosphere of these years [1503 and after] is recaptured by an informer’s report to the council of a discussion held among ‘many great personages’ at Calais. They were considering what would happen after Henry’s death, and the informant recalled how ‘some of them spake of my lord of Buckingham, saying that he was a noble man and would be a royal ruler. Other there were that spake in like wise of your traitor, Edmund de la Pole; but none of them spake of my lord prince’ [the future Henry VIII].” The volatility of Calais meant that the king’s deputy in Calais had to be an exceptionally trustworthy member of the king’s court. The patronage that went with the position meant that the garrison might be more loyal to its commander than to its commander-in-chief. An untrustworthy captain like the earl of Warwick, could use his position of authority over the garrison of Calais to threaten the monarchy. This is exactly what Neville did in 1469, when he dropped his allegiance to Edward IV and agreed to support Margaret of Anjou to bring about the readeption of Henry VI. Edward learned his lesson. When he regained the throne in 1471, he made William, Lord Hastings, captain of Calais. Hastings, Edward’s companion in drinking and wenching, was also his most loyal lieutenant and a man who owed his power to the king rather than a man who thought he made kings.
With this background on the importance of the role of Calais in English politics, next time I will look at Giles, Lord Daubeney, as Lieutenant of Calais in the reign of Henry VII.
Manuscript illustrations from the Bibliotheque Nationale and the Royal Engineers Museum.
Copyright Sharon D. Michalove 2009. All rights reserved.