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History of Pas de Calais

As the closest location to England, and with the North Sea and Belgium within easy reach, the history of Pas de Calais has been one defined by outsider interest. Ancient tribes, lasting empires, and invading armies have all arrived in the region and left an indelible mark upon its history and culture.

Celtic Belgae

Any coastal region can expect to be populated for millennia, and the coast of Pas de Calais is no different, with prehistoric tribes establishing settlements that would endure for centuries. Among the very earliest settlers to make Pas de Calais home was the Celtic tribe known as the Belgae during the third century BC.

The presence of the Belgae tribe has been detailed extensively in the writings of Julius Caesar, whose invasion and conquering of Gaul would usurp this ancient people and see Pas de Calais fall under the control of Rome. It was from here that Caesar even set sail to invade England, launching from Cap Blanc-Nez – one of the chalk white cliffs so much like those of Dover. 

Fall of Rome

As the Roman Empire began to wane in the fifth century, ever-greater influence in Pas de Calais from the Germanic Franks and Alemanni people was exerted. Thus, the eventual collapse of the Empire saw a shift to Germanic rule in the region, with the Saxon colonisation eventually giving way to its incorporation into the plain of Flanders.

Prosperity and growth throughout the Middle Ages saw Pas de Calais become an integral part of the north of France, but the region was helpless to defend itself against English insurgents during the Hundred Years’ War. It would be a century before Pas de Calais was freed from the grip of the English and restored to the French crown, being rules – along with much of northern France at the time – by the House of Burgundy.

From Flanders to France

With Pas de Calais under the control of the French, and the region of Flanders controlled by first the Austrian Hapsburgs and then the Kingdom of Spain, it would take the marriage of Louis XIV and Maria-Theresa to unite the entire area under the French banner, with the king annexing most of northern France through the Treaty of Nijmegen. A century later, the French Revolution formed 83 départements in republican France, with modern day Pas de Calais one such clearly defined region.

During the 20th century, the northern coast of France suffered significantly from the events of two World Wars. The trench warfare of the First World War scarred the land and the psyche of the region, while the coast of Dunkirk suffered significantly during the Second World War.

More recent times have seen Pas de Calais operate as a gateway to France thanks to its thriving ports. With millions passing through each year en route to other destinations, much of the region lies unspoilt and unexplored by tourists, making it a tantalising destination for walkers and cyclists.