The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10

Author: Charles Knight  | Date: A.D. 1558

England Loses Her Last French Territory;
Battle of St. Quentin

A.D. 1558


From 1347, when it was taken by Edward III, Calais remained a stronghold of England until it was retaken for France by the Duke of Guise (Franois de Lorraine), in 1558. With the surrender of Calais the English lost their last foothold in French territory.

Weary with the long tumults and wars of his reign, Charles V in 1555 resigned all his crowns to his son, Philip II of Spain, and his brother Ferdinand, King of Bohemia and Hungary. Pope Paul IV, wishing to subvert the Spanish power, entered into a league with Henry II of France against Philip. Guise, who had warred successfully with Charles V, against whom he defended Metz when it was won for France (1553), now espoused the papal cause. His main object was to recover Naples to his own family. Thus he became a leading actor in the events culminating in the capture of Calais.

Throughout the reign of Philip II his chief aim was to restore the Roman Catholic religion in Protestant countries and to establish a uniform despotism over his dominions. In 1554 he had married Queen Mary of England, and after a short sojourn in that country, whose crown he vainly tried to obtain, and to whose people he was obnoxious, he returned to the Continent. Soon after "he was called to a destiny more suited to his proud and ambitious nature than to be the unequal partaker of sovereign power over a jealous insular people."

In March, 1557, Philip returned to England. He came, not out of affection for his wife or of regard for his turbulent insular subjects, but to stir up the old English hatred of France and to drag the nation into a war for his personal advantage. The fiery Pope, Paul IV, panted for the freedom of Italy as it existed in the fifteenth century; he wanted to accomplish his wishes by an alliance with France; he would place French princes on the thrones of Milan and Naples. The Spaniards he pronounced as the spawn of Jews and Moors, the dregs of the earth.

When there was a question of temporal dominion to be fought out, the Pope did not hesitate to wage war against that faithful son of the Church, King Philip; nor did King Philip hesitate to send the Duke of Alva, the exterminator of Protestants, to enter the Roman states and lay waste the territories of the Pope. France and Spain were upon the brink of open war when Philip arrived in England. He urged a declaration of war against France. There were grievances in the alleged encouragement which had been given in Wyat’s rebellion, and in the lukewarmness with which Henry II met Queen Mary’s desire that he should afford her the means of vengeance upon the exiles for religion who took shelter in France.

The most recent complaint was that France had connived at the equipment of a force by Thomas Stafford, a refugee, who had invaded England with thirty-two followers and had surprised Scarborough castle. This adventurer claimed to be of the house and blood of the Duke of Buckingham, who was beheaded in the time of Henry VIII. The proclamation which he issued from his castle of Scarborough, which he held only two days, was addressed to the English hatred of the Spaniards, rather than directed against the ecclesiastical persecution under which the country was suffering: "As the dukes of Buckingham, our forefathers and predecessors, have always been defenders of the poor commonalty against the tyranny of princes, so should you have us at this juncture, most dearly beloved friends, your protector, governor, and defender against all your adversaries and enemies; minding earnestly to die rather, presently, and personally before you in the field, than to suffer you to be overrun so miserably with strangers, and made most sorrowful slaves and careful captives to such a naughty nation as Spaniards." Stafford and his band were soon made prisoners; and he was beheaded on Tower Hill, and three of his followers hanged, on May 25th. Seizing upon this absurd attempt as a ground of quarrel, war was declared against France on June 7th; and Philip quitted the country on July 6th, never to return.

An English force of four thousand infantry, a thousand cavalry, and two thousand pioneers joined the Spanish army on the Flemish frontier. That army was partly composed ofGerman mercenaries; the lanzknechts and reiters, the pikemen and cavalry, who, at the command of the best paymaster, were the most formidable soldiers of the time. But the Spanish cavaliers were there, leading their native infantry; and there were the Burgundian lances. The army was commanded by Emanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy, who had aspired to the hand of Elizabeth. Philip earnestly seconded his suit, but Mary, wisely and kindly, would not put a constraint upon her sister’s inclinations. The wary Princess saw that the crown would probably be hers at no distant day; and she would not risk the loss of the people’s affection by marrying a foreign Catholic. She had sensible advisers about her, who seconded her own prudence; and thus she kept safe amid the manifold dangers by which she was surrounded.

The Duke of Savoy, though young, was an experienced soldier, and he determined to commence the campaign by investing St. Quentin, a frontier town of Picardy. The defence of this fortress was undertaken by Coligny, the Admiral of France, afterward so famous for his mournful death. Montmorency, the Constable, had the command of the French army. The garrison was almost reduced to extremity—when Montmorency, on August 10th, arrived with his whole force, and halted on the bank of the Somme. On the opposite bank lay the Spanish, the English, the Flemish, and the German host. The arrival of the French was a surprise, and the Duke of Savoy had to take up a new position. He determined on battle. The issue was the most unfortunate for France since the fatal day of Agincourt. The French slain amounted, according to some accounts, to six thousand; and the prisoners were equally numerous. Among them was the veteran Montmorency.

On August 10th Philip came to the camp. Bold advisers counselled a march to Paris. The cautious King was satisfied to press on the siege of St. Quentin. The defence which Coligny made was such as might have been expected from his firmness and bravery. The place was taken by storm, amid horrors which belong to such scenes at all times, but which were doubled by the rapacity of troops who fought even with each other for the greatest share of the pillage. After a few trifling successes, the army of Philip was broken up. TheEnglish and Germans were indignant at the insolence of the Spaniards; and the Germans were more indignant that their pay was not forthcoming. Philip was glad to permit his English subjects to take their discontents home. They had found out that they were not fighting the battle of England.

The war between England and France produced hostilities between England and Scotland. Mary of Guise, the Queen Dowager and Regent of Scotland, was incited by the French king to invade England. The disposition to hostilities was accompanied by a furious outbreak of the Scottish borderers. They were driven back. But the desire of the Queen Dowager that England should be invaded was resisted by the chief nobles, who declared themselves ready to act on the defensive, but who would not plunge into war during their sovereign’s minority. The alliance of France and Scotland was, however, completed, in the autumn of 1558, by the marriage between the Dauphin and the young Queen Mary, which was solemnized at Paris, in the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

The Duke of Guise, the uncle of the Queen of Scots, at the beginning of 1558, was at the head of a powerful army to avenge the misfortune of St. Quentin. The project committed to his execution was a bold and patriotic one to drive the English from their last stronghold in France. Calais, over whose walls a foreign flag had been waving for two centuries, was to France an opprobrium and to England a trophy. But it was considered by the English government as an indispensable key to the Continent—a possession that it would not only be a disgrace to lose, but a national calamity. The importance of Calais was thus described by Micheli, the Venetian ambassador, only one year before it finally passed from the English power:

"Another frontier, besides that of Scotland, and of no less importance for the security of the kingdom, though it be separated, is that which the English occupy on the other side of the sea, by means of two fortresses, Calais and Guines, guarded by them (and justly) with jealousy, especially Calais, for this is the key and principal entrance to their dominions, without which the English would have no outlet from their own, nor access to other countries, at least none so easy, so short, and so secure; so much so that if they were deprived of it they wouldnot only be shut out from the Continent, but also from the commerce and intercourse of the world. They would consequently lose what is essentially necessary for the existence of a country, and become dependent upon the will and pleasure of other sovereigns, in availing themselves of their ports, besides having to encounter a more distant, more hazardous, and more expensive passage; whereas, by way of Calais, which is directly opposite to the harbor of Dover, distant only about thirty miles, they can, at any time, without hinderance, even in spite of contrary winds, at their pleasure, enter or leave the harbor such is the experience and boldness of their sailors—and carry over either troops or anything else for warfare, offensive and defensive, without giving rise to jealousy and suspicion; and thus they are enabled, as Calais is not more than ten miles from Ardres, the frontier of the French, nor farther from Gravelines, the frontier of the imperialists, to join either the one or the other, as they please, and to add their strength to him with whom they are at amity, in prejudice of an enemy.

"For these reasons, therefore, it is not to be wondered at that, besides the inhabitants of the place, who are esteemed men of most unshaken fidelity, being the descendants of an English colony settled there shortly after the first conquest, it should also be guarded by one of the most trusty barons which the King has, bearing the title of deputy, with a force of five hundred of the best soldiers, besides a troop of fifty horsemen. It is considered by everyone as an impregnable fortress, on account of the inundation with which it may be surrounded, although there are persons skilled in the art of fortification who doubt that it would prove so if put to the test. For the same reason Guines is also reckoned impregnable, situated about three miles more inland, on the French frontier, and guarded with the same degree of care, though, being a smaller place, only by a hundred fifty men, under a chief governor. The same is done with regard to a third place, called Hammes, situated between the two former, and thought to be of equal importance, the waters which inundate the country being collected around."

Ninety years later Calais was regarded in a very different light: "Now it is gone, let it go. It was but a beggarly town,which cost England ten times yearly more than it was worth in keeping thereof, as by the accounts in the exchequer doth plainly appear."

The expedition against Calais was undertaken upon a report of the dilapidated condition of the works and the smallness of its garrison. It was not "an impregnable fortress," as Micheli says it was considered. The Duke of Guise commenced his attack on January 2d, when he stormed and took the castle of Ruysbank, which commanded the approach by water. On the 3d he carded the castle of Newenham bridge, which commanded the approach by land. He then commenced a cannonade of the citadel, which surrendered on the 6th. On the 7th the town capitulated. Lord Wentworth, the Governor, and fifty others remained as prisoners. The English inhabitants, about four thousand, were ejected from the home which they had so long colonized, but without any exercise of cruelty. "The Frenchmen," say the chroniclers, "entered and possessed the town; and forthwith all the men, women, and children were commanded to leave their houses and to go to certain places appointed for them to remain in, till order might be taken for their sending away.

"The places thus appointed for them to remain in were chiefly four, the two churches of Our Lady and St. Nicholas, the deputy’s house, and the stable, where they rested a great part of that day and one whole night and the next day till three o’clock at afternoon, without either meat or drink. And while they were thus in the churches and those other places the Duke of Guise, in the name of the French King, in their hearing made a proclamation charging all and every person that were inhabitants of the town of Calais, having about them any money, plate, or jewels to the value of one groat, to bring the same forthwith, and lay it down upon the high altars of the said churches, upon pain of death; bearing them in hand also that they should be searched. By reason of which proclamation there was made a great and sorrowful offertory.

"While they were at this offertory within the churches, the Frenchmen entered into their houses and rifled the same, where were found inestimable riches and treasures; but especially of ordnance, armor, and other munitions. Thus dealt the Frenchwith the English in lieu and recompense of the like usage to the French when the forces of King Philip prevailed at St. Quentin; where, not content with the honor of victory, the English in sacking the town sought nothing more than the satisfying of their greedy vein of covetousness, with an extreme neglect of all moderation."

Within the marches of Calais the English held the two small fortresses of Guines and Hammes. Guines was defended with obstinate courage by Lord Grey, and did not surrender till January 20th. His loss amounted to eight hundred men. From Hammes the English garrison made their escape by night.


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Chicago: Charles Knight, "England Loses Her Last French Territory; Battle of St. Quentin," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), 2–8. Original Sources, accessed February 4, 2023,

MLA: Knight, Charles. "England Loses Her Last French Territory; Battle of St. Quentin." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. 2–8. Original Sources. 4 Feb. 2023.

Harvard: Knight, C, 'England Loses Her Last French Territory; Battle of St. Quentin' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.2–8. Original Sources, retrieved 4 February 2023, from