Cambrai is an important town in Hainaut, once part of the Spanish Netherlands. The town's significance was rooted in the textile trade and the Catholic Church. It was the seat of a large bishopric (it included most of the Nord region of modern-day France), which became an archdiocese in 1559. The cathedral was a distinguished musical centre from the 15th century and many famous composers studied there.
Cambrai has possessed some form of defences for most of its history. It was first fortified in roman times and new defensive walls were put up in medieval times. As with many fortified places in the north, its medieval fortifications were adapted to resist artillery.
These modifications included the construction of a number of demi-lunes'in front of the medieval wall and two crownworks'on the north-west and south-west corners of the defences, one of which encapsulated the medieval castle. A strong square citadel'with 4 bastions'was erected on the east side of the town in 1549.
Despite having only a partial adaptation of medieval defences, the Spanish were able to repel the attacks of the French king Louis XIV'at Cambrai twice, in 1649 and 1657 but the final blow came in 1677 when Cambrai was cut off by the capture of Valenciennes, Condé-sur-l'Escaut and Bouchain. Vauban'had devised this scheme in order that Cambrai could be cut off from relief. The siege of 1677 brought an end to the Spanish rule of Cambrai.
French ownership of Cambrai was confirmed by the Treaty of Nijmegen, signed in 1678. Although the fortifications of the town had twice held off the French, they were still essentially medieval walls protected by a few demi-lunes. For this reason Vauban was sent to strengthen Cambrai, now that it was a French border fortress.
However, Vauban did not opt to replace the medieval walls with a modern regular bastioned trace, which would undoubtedly have been preferable. The reason for this is that a complete remodelling of the defences would have been costly and unnecessary.
Vauban decided that the town could be strengthened by adding more outworks rather than demolishing the good work of previous engineers. This shows his skill as an engineer, that he was able to work with irregular fortifications and find a good solution even in circumstances where traditional fortification theory could not be applied.
Vauban constructed several lunettes'to guard the north-eastern approaches (he had used this ground in his attack on the citadel in 1677), a hornwork'in the south, and various demi-lunes in the town's defences. He also strengthened the covered way'in the south.
At the end of the 19th century, Cambrai's fortifications were considered to be hindering the town's growth, so they were demolished and turned into wide boulevards. Cambrai was heavily shelled during the First World War and considerable reconstruction had to take place after the war.
There is very little left of the once extensive fortifications at Cambrai, but that does not mean it is not worth a visit. As can be seen from the pictures here, the gates are still intact and make an impressive sight. The real gem however, is found in Cambrai's museum where there is a relief map of the town and fortifications with a sound and light display that tells the history of the town (in French). The medieval castle (Chateau de Selles) is intact, as are the countermines'under the citadel.
Cambrai is close to Lille, and is easily accessible by rail or road. The station is just north of the centre of town, where the tourist office can supply a map showing the remnants of Cambrai's fortifications.
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