Cambrai (formerly Cambray, Kamerijk in Dutch, Camaracum or Camaraco in Latin ; pop. 34,000) is an attractive town with a rich history going back to Roman times. It has been the seat of the archdiocese of Cambrai & Arras for about 1300 years, and was one of the most important cities of the former Southern Netherlands.
Founded by the Romans as a vicus (provincial civilian settlement), Camaracum acquires a city wall in 365, then replaces Bavay as the civitas (regional capital) of the Nervii in the early 5th century. Soon after, in 430, it fell under the control of the Salian Franks based in Tournai. It is under this Merovingian period that the bishoprics of Arras and Cambrai are merged, with Cambrai as their seat. In 1559, the bishopric was elevated to an archdiocese, which it has remained up to this day.
Cambrai grew as an important Frankish town. It started off as a county-bishopric, then became a prince-bishopric, like Liege in Wallonia. In 843, when Charlemagne's three grandson divided the Carolingian Empire between them, Cambrai went to Lotharingia, then to the Holy Roman Empire, like most of the Low Countries.
In 870, the city was destroyed by the Normans. In 958, Cambrai was one of the first cities in medieval Europe to rebel against a bishop. Uprisings occured again in 1077 and in 1102. A city charter was finally granted to the burghers in 1226, 160 years after Huy in Belgium, which was the first in Europe to obtain a charter.
Between the 15th and the 17th centuries, in spite of some economic decline, Cambrai acts as an important cultural centre. Musicians such as Nicolas Grenon (1375-1456), Guillaume Dufay (1400-1474), Johannes Ockeghem (1420-1494), Johannes Tinctoris (1435-1511), Jacob Obrecht (1458-1505), Alexander Agricola (1445-1506), Johannes Lupi (1506-1539), Philippe de Monte (1521-1603), Jacobus de Kerle (1531-1591), and others work in Cambrai.
In 1508, the Treaty of Cambrai created a league between by Pope Julius II, Maximillian of Habsburg and Louis XII of France, that secretly forsaw a war against the Republic of Venice. The league collapsed 2 years later when the Pope betrayed France to side with the Ventitians.
It is also in Cambrai that was negociated the end the War of the League of Cognac (1526-30), opposing Emperor Charles V of Habsburg to the allied states of France, England, Venice, Milan, Florence and the Pope.The negociations were conducted primarily between Francis's mother Louise of Savoy for the French and her sister-in-law, Margaret of Austria for her nephew the Emperor (leading to its being known as the Paix des Dames).
In 1543, Cambrai is annexed to the Southern Netherlands of the Habsburgs. It would only become part of France after Louis XIV's conquest in 1677.
In 1559, France, England and Spain sign the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis, at 20km south-east of Cambrai, bringing to an end the Italian War of 1551.
In 1797, at the height of the French Revolution's anticlericalism, the old cathedral of Cambrai, nicknamed the "Wonder of the (Southern) Netherlands", was sold to merchants and dismantled, leaving only the tower standing. Lacking support, the tower eventually collapsed in 1809. Note that the cathedral of Liege, the only other prince-bishopric of the Low Countries, encountered a similar fate during the Revolution.
Cambrai suffered a lot during the First World War. The Battle of Cambrai (1917) saw the first massive use of tanks in a war. In 1918, the Germans burn Cambrai, destoying the townhall, the municipal archives, and nearly half of the historical centre. During WWII, Cambrai is hit air strikes against the railway, annihilating 803 buildings and damaging 3,329 others, out of 7,464.
Despite the hardships suffered during both World Wars, Cambrai still has a lot to offer to visitors relative to its modest size.
Being an archdiocese, it is only natural that two of the main sights in town are churches. After the destruction of the Gothic cathedral during the French Revolution, a new Baroque cathedral, Notre-Dame de Grâce, came to replace it. It was built between 1696 and 1703. The municipal authorities saved it from destruction in 1800. The new cathedral was badly damaged by a fire in 1859, and renovated by the celebrated architect Viollet-le-Duc. It reopened in 1894.
One of the city's oldest building is the Saint Gery Church, formerly the Saint Aubert Abbey, founded by the Merovingians on the site of the Roman-era St. Peter Church. St. Gery is home to the The Entombment by Peter-Paul Rubens, and the tomb of François Fénelon (1651-1715) by David d’Angers.
Like most cities in the Low Countries, Cambrai has its belfry, symbol of the municipal liberties. This one was errected between 1447 and 1474, damaged by thunder in 1528, by war in 1595. The upper part was destroyed in 1698 and rebuilt in 1736. You will need to climb 215 steps to reach the top of its 62.5 metre. Like other belfries in the region, it has been added to the World Heritage list of the UNESCO.
Cambrai's grand classical townhall was built in 1918, and is an identical copy of the late 19th-century edifice destroyed during WWI. It stands on the site of two older townhalls, a Gothic one built in 1364, and a neoclassical one built in 1786.
The 13th-century castle of Selles was used as the city's prison between the 14th and the 17th century, as the graffiti left by the prisoners testify.
From the lavish public gardens, one can access to the citadel of Emperor Charles V. Only a few buildings have survived, including the "Royal Gate", with its drawbridge and two guardrooms, the Arsenal.
Other attractions include the 400-year old Spanish House (Maison espagnole, housing the tourist information center), the 18th-century hôtel de Francqueville (housing the city museum), the Jesuit chapelle du Grand Séminaire, and the busy open market.
How to get there
Cambrai is about 48 km from Arras and 65 km from Lille, on the E19 motorway between Paris (180km) and Brussels (120km). The E19 also passes through Valenciennes and Mons. The nearby E17 connects Cambrai to Saint Quentin, Arras and Lille.
It is about 25min by train from Douai, 40min from Saint Quentin, and 50min from Lille. Paris is about 2 hours away via Lille or Saint Quentin. Trains to Belgium (e.g. Mons or Tournai) all require a change at Lille.
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