Day in History: 350 years since Charles II sold Dunkirk to France

  October 22, 2012 at 7:33 pm by

Charles II of England and Scotland

350 years ago Charles II sold Dunkirk to France for approximately £400,000.  It was a hugely unpopular move that was influenced by financial and political needs. The port, although a valuable strategic outpost, was a huge drain on the King’s financial resources. However, there can be no doubt that even a greater motive was the vital need to forge closer relationships with France.

Dunkirk was essentially a liability to the Crown, its aforementioned strategic position notwithstanding. It didn’t serve any purpose; for instance, a trade with neighbourhood population was impossible owning to the intense dislike of the latter for everything English. The costs of maintaining a garrison there were huge and, it was also a save heaven for pirates and no vessels. Admiral Montague, Earl of Sandwich, was thus hugely in favour of a sale: in fact, at the time he indicated himself to be the foremost author of the sale of Dunkirk. While he wanted it to be restored to the Spaniards, the Chancellor reminded him that Spain was in no position to pay the huge sum English were planning to request. France, on the other hand, was not only capable of that, but it would also greatly benefit the alliance with the country that Charles II so strongly sought.

Critics of the move pointed out that dandling Dunkirk to the French would be a suicide; the possession of Calais and Dunkirk would enable them to essentially hold a knife to the throat of England. They argued that if the costs of maintaining were so high, it might be better to fill up the harbours than to hand them over to the French. They also proposed to request the Parliament a special grant for it.

Louis XIV of France

These considerations, however, made no impression either on the King or on the Chancellor. They didn’t think that the loss of Dunkirk would involve any danger to England, nor did they see a purpose in keeping it. During the time of the Commonwealth of England, Cromwell thought the possession of the fortress to be vitally important because he aimed to exercise considerable power on the mainland. Charles II’s foreign policy was markedly different; he had given up any ideas of unified Protestant countries and was actually quite anxious to isolate the English Church from continental influences.

And so, French ambassador, Estrades, was called upon with a task of contacting the French King with the following proposal: that if a treaty for the sale of Dunkirk could contribute to a close alliance between the two Kings – and it was clear that the English Monarch could give no stronger proof of his earnest desire to fain the friendship of the French Monarch – then England was prepared to make the move. Louis XIV’s response was swift: the King replied that he felt the strongest wish to enter into the closest friendship and alliance with his brother, the King of England. As soon as that reply was received, Estrades left for England to conclude the sale.

It was at this time when English ministers and Parliament were asked to review the proposal. Extraordinarily, it was Portugal’s position that silenced all objections: Portugal, along with England, was at war with Spain at the time and had recently lost some strong places of importance to the latter. They needed military assistance of the English which could not have been granted because the Treasury quite literally had nothing to pay his  soldiers with. Moreover, a support from England would have been impossible unless a strong alliance was forged between France and England. In the end, the Ministers consented to the King’s decision.

Godefroi, Comte d'Estrades

The key issue was of course the sum to be paid: initially, Estrades was given the permission to agree to only 2 million livres. However, the English would not agree to less than 5 million. Estrades (and the Portuguese) implored the French Monarch with greatest energy the granting of the English demands. Louis XIV relented but no sooner had the 5 million been agreed to, than fresh difficulties arose on the question whether payment should be made immediately or by instalments. Curiously, Estrades sided with the English who demanded immediate payment: he pointed out there was no money to pay the English troops in Portugal, and yet their presence was absolutely crucial to continue successful fight against the Spaniards. In the end, it was decided that over half would be paid immediately, with the rest – in instalments. In Early November, Dunkirk was formally transferred to the French.

It can be said that both Louis XIV and Charles II got what they wanted: the English King got the money he needed to continue his campaigns against Spain, while the French Monarch acquired a hugely important strategic position. The withdrawal of the Protestant English from the Orthodox Catholic provinces paved the way for the further acquisitions France hoped to make there. Obviously, this situation displeased the Protestants on the continent. The Elector of Brandenburg expressed his regret at the loss of a place which, as he put it, could have served as a citadel against France and Spain (the Catholic strongholds). The English replied to that the Dunkirk was nothing more than a nest for pirates and that it was useless as a naval station. Moreover, the King would spend the money for the reinforcement of his fleet and would be in far better position to maintain their common interests. The Elector’s ambassador wrote to his master that he thought the main reason for that was the English belief (or mistake, as he calls it) that Great Britain is a separate world and that it was useless to spend money on a position abroad. At the same time, he did recognise the pressing need of money.

Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon

Despite all these considerations, Dunkirk’s sale was, as already mentioned, hugely unpopular with people. One man whose reputation suffered most from the sale was not Charles II himself but the Chancellor of the time, Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (father of Anne Hyde and thus grandfather to Mary II and Queen Anne). It had been maintained that the Chancellor was bribed to consent to the sale; however, there is not one shred of evidence to suggest that. Even in his private papers, in which Clarendon meticulously wrote down all his deals, there is absolutely no mention, no trace of bribes. He himself declared that he hadn’t received a single half-crown in the whole affair.

Nowadays, Dunkirk is mostly associated with the Dunkirk evacuation (also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk) which took place in 1940. The Miracle of Dunkirk was the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk between 27 May and 4 June 1940. Because the British, French and Belgian troops were cut off by the German army, for some time it seemed a catastrophe was imminent: in a speech to the House of Commons on 26 May, Winston Churchill called the events in France a “colossal military disaster” and added that “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army” had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to be captured or killed. Nevertheless, after a heroic rescue mission, in which not just the Navy but also small boats (the little ships of Dunkirk), as well as 39 Dutch coasters (which had escaped the occupation of the Netherlands just days earlier) combined forces to save nearly 350,000 soldiers. In his famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech on 4 June, Winston Churchill hailed their rescue as a “miracle of deliverance”.

Dunkirk Evacuation

In France, the unilateral British decision to evacuate rather than counter-attack to the south, and the perceived preference of the Royal Navy for evacuating British forces at the expense of the French led to some bitter resentment. In fact, the opposite was true: the French Admiral Francois Darlan originally ordered that the British forces should receive preference, but Churchill personally intervened to order that the evacuation should proceed on equal terms and the British would form the rearguard. Two French divisions did remain behind to protect the evacuation – but voluntarily so. Though they halted the German advance, they were soon captured; nevertheless, their desperate resistance allowed to extend the evacuation for another day, brining an additional 26,000 Frenchmen to safety of British soil.

The losses would have been far greater had it not been for the RAF; the German Luftwaffe would have done a lot more damage had it not been for the Spitfires, the Hurricanes and the Defiants. The German bombers would have had a field day with the massed ranks of Allied soldiers on the beaches if they hadn’t had Fighter Command to deal with. The RAF lost some 60 pilots in these actions. It is said that on 4 June, Major-General Harold Alexander (the commander of the British rearguard) inspected the shores of Dunkirk from a motorboat to make sure not a single soldier, British or French, was left behind before boarding the last ship back to Britain. In total, 338,226 soldiers (198,229 British and 139,997 French) were saved.

Filed under France, Historical Royals, The United Kingdom
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3 Responses to Day in History: 350 years since Charles II sold Dunkirk to France

  1. Father Andrew L. J. James, Ph.D. says:

    My favorite story about King Charles, II, is what some wag wrote, after being appalled by the adulation lavished upon the king, once he was able to come home, following the Restoration of the monarchy. Here ’tis:
    “It should always be remembered that His Majesty also uses the chamber pot.”

  2. Paul Martin says:

    I wish whoever wrote the article on Dunkirk, today, had been a history teacher during my schooling in Croydon. I would certainly have remembered and cherished the subject even more than I do, now, without the utter pain and slog I went through, Lo! Those many years ago. Wonderful use of the blogs. Please congratilate all, particularly the author.

  3. Artemisia says:

    @ Father Andrew L. J. James, Ph.D
    Thanks for sharing the story.

    @ Paul Martin
    Thank you very much for the kind words! I have always been fascinated by history of the United Kingdom and am always glad to write articles (unfortunately, often boring and excessively long) on it.

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