In 1544 King Henry VIII'of England, allied with Emperor Charles V, invaded France and captured Boulogne. Soon afterwards Charles V made peace with France, leaving the French army free to attack Boulogne.
After nearly losing Boulogne to a French surprise attack in October 1544, Henry took steps to protect his newly-aquired territory. As well as fortifying Boulogne itself, fortified posts were established to secure the land route to the English base at Calais.
The first of these intermediate posts was the fortress of Newhaven (Ambleteuse) started in early 1546. For the second outpost, the clifftop site of Cap Gris-Nez, on the coast to the north of Ambleteuse, was chosen. This post became known as Blackness (or Black Nose) to the English.
The engineer John Rogers'designed the fort, which was built on the north side of the cape at the top of the cliff. This position offered the possibility of being supplied from the sea, a constant concern for the English, and it also allowed the fort's guns to dominate the lower ground to the east.
The fort seems to have been pentagonal in form, with five arrow-headed bastions, although the north bastion would have faced the cliff, so it would not have been attacked. The fort bears resemblance to Rogers' designs for fortifications in Boulogne and Ambleteuse, especially in the use of relatively small arrow-headed bastions.
The fort's rampart was made of earth, but there is some exposed stonework that suggests the lower part of the rampart was revetted. This technique was sometimes used in early bastioned fortification (for instance at the fortress of Orsoy, which dates from the 1560s).
Inside the fort there were stone storehouses and perhaps some kind of buildings providing accommodation for the garrison. Work on the fort started in late 1546 and was probably mostly complete by early 1549.
Rogers also proposed schemes for a harbour at Gris-Nez, since the harbours at Boulogne and Ambleteuse were not ideal. The first proposal was the construction of a mole to form a harbour, but this plan was not carried out, probably due to lack of funds.
Rogers later drew up an ambitious plan to create a cut through the land to the south of the fort, creating an island. He also seems to have considered enlarging the fortifications, perhaps to protect the south side of the channel that would be dug out to form the harbour.
However, this proposal was also rejected on financial grounds and priority was given to the construction of the fort. The emphasis on defence was justified, since a force under the French king Henri II arrived to oust the English in 1549.
Capturing Ambleteuse after a short siege, the French sent a small force to cut the road between Gris-Nez and Calais, to prevent the garrison at Blackness from escaping or being reinforced. With no chance of escape or relief, the garrison surrendered the fort without a fight.
At the time of the capitulation there was a garrison of 80 men at the fort (commanded by Sir Richard Cavendish), although more men were stationed there during the fort's construction. There were 18 guns in the fort and 40 barrels of powder.
French accounts suggest that the fort was not quite complete, but it seems that the work was at least sufficiently advanced for guns to be placed on the ramparts. That the French undertook such an operation to capture Blackness also suggests that they considered it a formidable work. In the 1540s, bastioned fortifications were not yet widely used in Europe, the Blackness fort being among the first bastioned works ever built by the English.
The French garrisoned the fort into the 1550s. It was abandoned and demolished as the English threat died down. This demolition probably only entailed pulling down the storehouses and removing the gun platforms, since the earthwork ramparts survive to this day.
Cap Gris-Nez was the site of a coastal lookout in the late 17th century and early 18th century wars with England. The south coast of England can easily be seen from the cape on a clear day, so fleet movements in the channel could be readily observed from this post.
A stone watchtower was built on the north side of the old fort, probably in the late 18th century (see See Brittany coastal defences). Under Napoleon a large battery was set up at Gris-Nez, which proved its worth in 1805, when it saw off a British flotilla.
These later works did not re-use the 16th century fort, since their purpose was to look out to sea rather than to defend against a landward attack. During the Second World War the nazis built bunkers in the ditches'of the fort, which were used as an observation point for the nearby batteries. The position was heavily shelled before an attack by Canadian forces in 1944, almost 400 years after the fort was built.
Visiting Cap Gris-Nez
Despite neglect, shelling and coastal erosion, a surprising amount of the Henrican fort at Gris-Nez remains to be seen today. In fact, it is the best preserved of the works constructed by Rogers in the Boulonnais.
Although little is known about it from documentary sources, its form can clearly be determined, apart from the north part, which has fallen into the sea due to erosion. The ramparts are pock-marked from the shelling of 1944, but three bastions are more or less intact. Although it has been rather neglected, the fort is unique in many ways; it is an English fortification built on French soil and one of the earliest bastioned forts built by the English.
Cap Gris-Nez has recently been rennovated to prevent damage from the large number of visitors. Fenced paths have been created, with one route leading from the car park to the fort. A wooden platform has been built on the top of a nazi bunker in the south ditch.
This platform gives a good view of the south bastions and will contain information boards about the history of the fort, but these were not yet in place when I visited (February 2009).
The path then leads underneath the platform and across the interior of the fort, which is occupied by pens for animals. The nazi bunkers seem to have been undamaged by the shelling and it is possible to look inside some of them, but there isn't much to see.
Cap Gris-Nez is easiest to get to by car, although there may be a bus from Calais or Boulogne. There is a large free car park, from which a path leads to the fort. Cap Gris-Nez makes an excellent short stop for travellers from the UK before continuing on into France.