Cambrai is the seat of an archdiocese whose jurisdiction was immense during the Middle Ages. The territory of the Bishopric of Cambrai, roughly coinciding with the shire of Brabant, included the central part of the Low Countries. The bishopric had some limited secular power.
The Battle of Cambrai (20 November 1917 – 3 December 1917), a campaign of World War I took place there. It was noted for the first successful use of tanks. A second Battle of Cambrai took place between 8 October 1918 – 10 October 1918 as part of the Hundred Days Offensive.
Little is known with certainty of the beginnings of Cambrai. Camaracum or Camaraco, as it was known to the Romans, is mentioned for the first time on the Peutinger table in the middle of the 4th century. It was a town of the Nervii, whose "capital" was at Bagacum, present-day Bavay.
In the middle of the 4th century Frankish raids from the north led the Romans to build forts along the Cologne to Bavay to Cambrai road, and thence to Boulogne. Cambrai thus occupied an important strategic position. In the early 5th century the town had become the administrative centre of the Nervii in replacement of Bavay which was probably too exposed to the Franks' raids and perhaps too damaged.
Christianity arrived in the region at about the same time. A bishop of the Nervii by the name of Superior is mentioned in the middle of the 4th century, but nothing else is known about him.
In 430 the Salian Franks under the command of Clodio the Long-Haired took the town. In the early 6th century Clovis undertook to unify the Frankish kingdoms by getting rid of his relatives. One of them was Ragnacharius, who ruled over a small kingdom from Cambrai.
In 870 the town was destroyed by the Normans.
When the treaty of Verdun (843) split Charlemagne's empire into three parts the county of Cambrai fell into Lothaire's kingdom. However on the death of Lothair II, who had no heir, king Charles the Bald tried to gain control of his kingdom by having himself sacred at Metz. Cambrai thus reverted, but only briefly, to the Western Frankish Realm. By 925 Henry the Fowler had regained control of Lothair's former domains. Cambrai henceforth belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, in an uncomfortable position on the border with France, until it was annexed by France eight centuries later after being captured by Louis XIV in 1677.
In the Middle-Ages the region around Cambrai, called Cambrésis, was a county. Rivalries between the count, who ruled the city and county, and the bishop, ceased when in 948 Otto I granted the bishop with temporal powers over the city. In 1007 emperor Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor, extended the bishop's temporal power to the territory surrounding Cambrai. The bishops then had both spiritual and temporal powers. This made Cambrai and Cambrésis a church principality, much like Liège, an independent state which was part of the Holy Roman Empire.
In 958 one of the first communes in Europe was established in Cambrai. The inhabitants rebelled against the bishop's power and abuses. They were severely repressed, but the discontent flared up again in the 10th and 11th centuries. In 1226, following another period of unrest, the burghers of Cambrai finally had to give up their charters and accept the bishop's authority, while retaining some freedom in the running of the town.
Cambrai has a distinguished musical history, particularly in the 15th century. The cathedral there, a musical center until the 17th century, had one of the most active musical establishments in the Low Countries; many composers of the Burgundian School either grew up and learned their craft there, or returned to teach. In 1428 Philippe de Luxembourg claimed that the cathedral was the finest in all of Christianity, for the fineness of its singing, its light, and the sweetness of its bells. Guillaume Dufay, the most famous European musician of the 15th century, studied at the cathedral from 1409 to 1412, and returned in 1439 after spending many years in Italy. Cambrai cathedral had other famous composers in the later 15th century: Johannes Tinctoris and Ockeghem went to Cambrai to study with Dufay. Other composers included Nicolas Grenon, Alexander Agricola, and Jacob Obrecht. In the 16th century, Philippe de Monte, Johannes Lupi, and Jacobus de Kerle all worked there.
Martin and Martine are two legendary characters who have come to represent the city which they are said to have saved. There are different versions of the story. The most commonly accepted version runs as follows: around the year 1370, at the time of Bishop Robert, Count of Geneva, Martin, a blacksmith of Moorish descent established in Cambrai, was among the burghers who left the city to fight the lord of Thun-Lévêque, who was then reputed to ransom the population around the city and generally to afflict the region. Martin, armed only with his heavy iron hammer, soon came face to face with the enemy. He dealt such a heavy blow on his opponent's head that, although the helmet of the lord did not break, because it was made of good steel, it was driven down to his eyes. Dazed and blinded, the lord of Thun quickly surrendered. Today the automatons of Martin and Martine, standing at the top of the town hall, strike the hours with a hammer as a reminder of that mighty blow.
In 1543 Cambrai was conquered by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and annexed to his already vast possessions. He had the medieval monastery of Saint-Sépulchre demolished and a citadel built in its place.
In 1623, the community of nuns of the English Benedictine Congregation was founded at Cambrai, which was expelled during the French Revolution and its successor community has since 1838 been established at Stanbrook Abbey, near Malvern.
In 1677, Louis XIV, in an effort to "safeguard the tranquility of his borders for ever" ("assurer à jamais le repos de ses frontières"), decided to take Cambrai and supervised the siege in person. The city was taken on April 19 1677. By the Treaty of Nijmegen of 1678 Spain relinquished Cambrai, which has remained to this day a part of France.
The first archbishop appointed by the king of France was François Fénelon. He came to be known as the "swan of Cambrai" ("le cygne de Cambrai"), in opposition to his rival Bossuet, the "eagle of Meaux" ("l'aigle de Meaux"), and he wrote his Maxims of the Saints while residing in the city.
The city suffered from the Revolution: Joseph Le Bon, sent by the Comité de salut public, arrived in Cambrai in 1794. He was to set up an era of "terror", sending many to the guillotine, until he was tried and executed in 1795. Most of the religious buildings of the city were demolished in that period: in 1797, the cathedral, which had been dubbed the "wonder of the low countries", was sold to a merchant who exploited it as a stone quarry. Only the main tower was left standing by 1809, when it collapsed in a storm. However the cathedral's archives have been preserved (they are now at the Archives Départmentales du Nord in Lille).
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Cambrai is twinned with: