Saturday 16 November 2019

The Fall of Calais

I realise that the regular reader of this blog is not used to large swathes of wargaming happening. There is a reason for this, in that a major project has been completed and so I have a bit of time on my hands. This, incidentally, is the explanation for the posting hiatus earlier in the year. Sometime I might get around the explaining what was going on, but be it has now sort of finished.

Anyway, the blog is more famous for not having pictures of beautifully painted soldiers (it still does not, of course) or lengthy accounts of battles. I did bung up the occasional account, but that was more, and still is, to keep track of the various narrative campaign games that I have started, rather than to edify or entertain humanity, or even the wargaming, blog following, parts thereof.

The blog, if it is known at all, is better known for being a record of what I have been reading, particularly in terms of postmodern, postcolonial historiography and, occasionally, attempting to relate that to wargaming. Whether this is successful I am not sure. In my thousand words or so limit of the posts, there is only so much you can say about complex issues. But that has never stopped me before, so I suppose it never will.

Anyway, the title event of this post is something usually relegated to the footnotes of history texts, the loss of Calais by the English in 1558. Calais was, of course, the last outpost of the land in France captured during the Hundred Years War and had been a significant trading post and entry point into Europe for English merchants and armies for a long time. The garrison, as one of the few permanent military features of the English government, had a disproportionate effect on some events in the Wars of the Roses. Further, Henry VIII had used it as a launch point for his campaigns in France.

The French decided to have a go at Calais in the winter of 1557, to avenge their defeat by the Anglo-Spanish army at St Quentin. The English knew of the offensive by 22nd December but the government took no decisive action in reinforcing or resupplying the port. The place surrendered on 7th January, followed by Guines on 20th, the latter having put up a more stalwart defence than the town itself.

There was, in fact, much enthusiasm in England for the relief of Calais, and the defence of Guines suggests that a reinforced garrison might have put up more of a fight. But English inactivity and bad weather in the Channel prevented any action and the Duke of Guise commanded the French with brilliance and determination, as well as being in a hurry (it was, after all, winter).

History treats the fall of Calais as a bit of a footnote, as I mentioned. It is overshadowed by events in England, France and the Low Countries. In England, Mary Tudor’s death led to the removal of the Spanish alliance, and her half-sister Elizabeth ascending the throne, with the consequent unsettling of the nation and need not to engage in wars overseas. The death of Henry II of France led to a fair bit of chaos in that country, while the Low Countries were affected by a wave of Protestant preaching, iconoclasm, repression and rebellion.

I have been reading an essay about reactions to the fall of Calais:

Grummitt, D., 'Three Narratives of the Fall of Calais in 1558: Explaining Defeat in Tudor England', in Bellis, J. and Slater, L. (eds.), Representing War and Violence 1250 - 1600 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2016), 178-190.

This is, of course, the same book which I referred to a few posts ago, and this essay is one of the reasons for reading it, of course.

English writers had a range of responses to the fall of Calais. The early ones suggested treason. The commander of Calais, Lord Wentworth was tried for treason, among other crimes and acquitted in 1559. Popular views suggested that the real reason for the fall of Calais was the government – that of Mary Tudor. Of course, this was tied up with the religious question in England. The Marian regime was Catholic and therefore suspect to many, including incoming officials and those keen to curry favour with it. The neglect of Calais became an analogy for the rule of Mary, to the latter’s disadvantage.

Once the dust had, as it were, settled, other views came to the fore. In, perhaps, a typically English manner, the courage of the defeated was celebrated. Initial apathy to recapturing the town was replaced by celebration of the prowess of the defenders. Elizabethan narratives celebrated the prowess of English arms. Lord Grey, defender of Guines, was given command of the expedition into Scotland which resulted in the fiasco at Leith. A defence of his military prowess at Calais, therefore, was fitting in the 1560s.

Finally, in the later Elizabethan period, rational explanation of the events came to the fore. This was the era of the ‘military revolution’. Guise was cast as the exemplar renaissance general. The actions of besieged and besiegers were analysed according to the best military advice available.

The ways the campaign and defeat were written about give us varying views and the differences between them yield aspects of the culture in which they were written. The explanations of defeat vary. The fall of Calais, Grummitt argues, should not be dismissed lightly, and the resulting texts are not simply anti-Marian diatribes. Religion, cowardice and neglect coexist in the accounts.

As wargamers, of course, we can take the accounts and turn them into games. But which parts of the accounts do we take? What aspects are wargame-able? Do we focus on the military neglect of Calais, the bravery of the defenders or the brilliance of the French command? With varying accounts of the process of the fall of Calais, how can we possibly construct something that is in any was ‘historical’?

And now, of course, I have just shored up the blog’s reputation as a forum for postmodern wargaming.

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