Situated on the Channel between France and Flanders, and with England tantalisingly close to the northwest, Dunkirk was ideally placed to create havoc during the 80 Years War. Beginning in 1568, the hostilities pitted the rebel Dutch United Provinces, England and France against the Spanish Empire.
The Spanish, who ruled Dunkirk as part of the Spanish Netherlands, used it as a base from which to launch raids against Dutch and English shipping, causing trade to all but grind to a halt. Then, at last, came victory against the Spanish and their piratical ‘Dunkirkers’. In 1658, the town fell to a combined Anglo-French force following the Battle of the Dunes.
As part of the peace settlement, Dunkirk was awarded to the English. But while it was a glittering prize, it was also a liability England could scarcely afford. In short, the country was broke. The war had come at a heavy price and the English republic had been swept away. Charles II was crowned king in May 1660. But the coronation did nothing to end the internal strife facing the newly restored kingdom.
Whatever funds Charles could get his hands on he needed to keep his enemies at home in check. That meant the cost of garrisoning Dunkirk was just an added expense the king could do without. And there was always the risk that the port town on the continent could drag England into another foreign war. So, Dunkirk had to go. Besides, England had acquired a far more exotic outpost in Tangier on the North African coast the previous year. What was Dunkirk to that?
On 27 October 1662, the French king, Louis XIV, happily agreed to take Dunkirk off Charles’s hands for the princely sum of five million livres. But the sale was far from popular at home. Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that he was “sorry to hear that the news of the selling of Dunkirk is taken so generally ill, as I find it is among the merchants”.
The ‘selling off of the family silver’ was widely viewed as a national embarrassment, although as far as Charles was concerned, it was a necessary one. As the Venetian ambassador wily observed, it had been “a course [of action] to which in other circumstances… [the English] would not descend”. But even port towns have their price.
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