CasselThe little town of Cassel, once the capital of the Gallic tribe, the Menapii, and known as Castellum Menapiorum, has been settled for more than two thousand years. At an altitude of 175m above sea level, Cassel is the highest place in French Flanders and a number of guide books assure one that the hill serves as a landmark for sailors, although the sea is 30km away. Among the six towns of Nord-Pas de Calais in the network, Cassel is the only one to have lost its ramparts, but their original location can still be made out in the layout of the town's streets.
The highest part of the town, probably originally a Gallic oppidum (a fortress and refuge), was again fortified at the end of the 3rd C AD, in response to pirate raids and the political unrest of the Roman Empire. A surviving section of the defensive wall, which was excavated twenty years ago, is now being restored.
A castle and a fortified town were built on the remains of the Roman walls, possibly by Robert le Frison, Count of Flanders in the 11th C. The only information about the castle comes from a 16th C engraving which shows a large square tower, the 'Grey Tower', dominating the western flank. Dwellings were built up against it and along a wall up to a second, smaller tower. Between the tower and the collegiate church of St Pierre, which was destroyed in the Revolution, are a few houses, a well and, most importantly, a mill which can be identified on engravings. It is from the north, as you descend Rue de Bergues, that the defensive value of this escarpment is particularly noticeable. Nothing has survived of the castle, which was already in ruins at the beginning of the 18th C.
Since the 13th C, Cassel had been the capital of a 'chatellany', an administrative unit, comprising about 50 towns and villages. Some fine 16th and 17th C houses bear witness to its past wealth. In 1568, more than £4,000 were spent on constructing a brick and sandstone prison containing eight cells. This was a large sum for the period, when a labourer only earned a pound a week.
We do not know exactly when the lower town, which extended to the south- west of the castle, was protected by a wall. Engravings from around 1640 show that it was reinforced by ten bastions. At that time Cassel was part of the Spanish Netherlands and was hotly fought over for four decades. In March 1645, the Duke of Orleans took the town by storm but, just a few months later, the Spanish army recaptured it. We also know that the engineers Campi and Corneille Verboom were there in 1655. Three years later, two Irish regiments in the pay of the King of Spain were driven out by Turenne. In 1659 the Peace of the Pyrenees temporarily put an end to the threats to the little town. Its strategic role was of little importance compared with Bergues, Dunkirk, Gravelines and St Omer which were far more formidable.
In July 1676 the Marshal d'Humières once again seized the town and had the castle strengthened. The next year, a French army defeated the Spanish-Dutch army on the plain west of Cassel, in the communes of Noordpeene and Zuytpeene. Cassel was annexed to France by the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678 and its ramparts were dismantled. In the opinion of the strategists of the period, Louis XIV and Vauban, the town was indefensible. Defenders could easily come under enemy artillery fire from the neighbouring Récollets Hill, (also called Vulture Hill as the gibbet stood there), which was scarcely 1,000m away as the crow flies. It would have cost the Crown too much to fortify the two hills. Furthermore, in 1678 the frontier was moved well to the north, since Ghent, Nieuwpoort and Ypres had temporarily come under French domination.
At the beginning of the 19th C, there was discussion of rapidly restoring the defences to protect the town from a sudden attack, but Cassel no longer played a military role, except as a command post for Marshal Foch during the First World War.
The Cassel Trail
The Trail 3km, easy
1. Around the Grand Place, the main square, is a group of fine old town houses in Renaissance style, including its later forms which continued into the early 17th C. Turning your back on the Tourist Office (and its friendly welcome), you will see the long façade of Hotel de la Noble Cour, which, from the end of the 16th C, housed the magistrates whose task was to administer the chatellany. A new Flanders museum will open here in 2001. Next to it, the town house of the provost of St Pierre is awaiting the restoration which the 1735 façade and wrought iron balconies deserve. The Hotel Lenglé, dating from 1634, has windows surmounted by large shells, a decorative motif characteristic of the Renaissance. The same motif can be found inside the Royal Gate of the citadel of Cambrai, which was rebuilt around 1620. Finally, at the corner of the street, is the Hotel MacMahon, once owned by the provost of that name. Its metal ties are dated 1631, but the cellars are gothic.
2. To trace the outline of the ramparts, go down the street and through the Porte d'Aire. The present structure is a fanciful 19th C reconstruction. Turn left, take the cul-de-sac near Chemin du Tilleul and follow the line of the now vanished ramparts. The bottoms of the walls on the right may well be the remains of fortifications. The change of levels alone, however, provided a natural defence.
3. At a bend in this shady lane, a garden wall is decorated with concrete sculptures, which a garden designer used as publicity around 1900. The craftsman's name can be read below a stag's head. Turn left between the houses.
4. Climbing up towards the church of Notre Dame you pass through two narrow picturesque streets laid out in bayonet-fashion on either side of Rue Foch. Similar lanes exist at Montreuil, barely wide enough for one person. The church of Notre Dame is the oldest in Cassel, with parts of the walls dating from the Carolingian era. Entering by the west door, you pass between two severe square towers which form a fortified west-work. To the east, a pre-Romanesque style wall can be recognised by its herring-bone masonry. A little further along the street is the baroque facade of the Jesuit chapel (1634-1687) which subsequently belonged to a college run by the Récollets from 1770. Turn back along Rue Notre Dame, Rue de Bergues and Rue Desmyttere. Then go right either by Sentier des Récollets or the picturesquely decorated, reinforced-concrete staircase.
5. Cross in front of the monument of the three battles. On the castle mound, nothing remains of the fortifications.
6. Beyond the garden, below the statue of Marshal Foch is an orientation table for looking north. Old Roman roads are clearly visible in the countryside. Places as far away as St Petersburg and Oslo are marked with the intention of recalling the memory of Cassel's citizens who died in distant wars. It is also noted that on a fine day you can see five kingdoms from Cassel - Great Britain, France, Belgium, Holland and the Kingdom of the Sky. Do not miss a visit to the mill, which is still in working order. In 1900 some 20 mills produced oil and flour. The mill now grinds wheat although originally it produced oil.
7. On the south side of the castle, another orientation table indicates the direction of the neighbouring main towns and features. The Roman roads can still be made out in the plain. The neighbouring flower-filled park invites you to stroll while meditating on the fate of Cassel's vanished monuments. At the beginning of this century, a spa hotel and a casino failed to give new life to this part of the town, which, throughout its history, has been dedicated to war. Wander down to the Grand Place via the castle gate. Despite the date of 1621 displayed on the facade, it is a pastiche. The carved 1621 stone is the only original one in the building.