Normandy has a long history, which didn’t start on D-day when the Allies landed. It was already a rich province at the time of Charlemagne, with prosperous cities and a lot of monasteries. Rouen was the second wealthiest city of the Kingdom of Francia Occidentalis (not yet France) after Paris, when Viking boats appeared offshore. Coming from the north, they were the “Norsemen”, or Normans. They first raided in order to pillage and capture slaves, in the 9th C. Then, they started settling in the area of Rouen.
In 911 the king of Francia gave them the county of Rouen, and their chief Rollo is considered nowadays as the first Duke of “Normandy”, the land of the Normans. Under the leadership of the Dukes, Normandy became one of the richest states of Europe which had a lot of influence on the history of the continent.
William the Conqueror, the seventh Duke, invaded England in 1066, and became its king. It was his family who governed both of Normandy and England for two centuries. Normandy was captured by the king of France, Philip August, in 1204, but a little more than one century later started a long war between France and England : the Hundred Years War. Normandy was destroyed several times, but was always able to rise from its ashes.
Track William the Conqueror in his country : he was born in the castle of Falaise, and is buried in the Abbey of the Men in Caen. The story of the invasion of England is on the nearly one thousand-year old Tapestry of Bayeux. Come to see the castles, churches, cathedrals, and abbeys built in the middle ages and discover the remnants of the time when Normandy was part of the leaders of Europe!
Founded by the Romans in the 1st C, the city became a bishopric in the 4th C. Bayeux was one of the major towns of the Dukedom of Normandy.
The cathedral was built along centuries, mostly in the 11th and the 13th C. At the origin of this impressive building is Odo, bishop of Bayeux and William the Conqueror’s half-brother. He probably also commissioned the famous Bayeux Tapestry a 230 feet long embroidery. Nearly one-thousand years-old, it tells in pictures why the Duke of Normandy wanted to invade England, and how he won the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
In World War II, after 4 years of German Occupation Bayeux was the first town of importance liberated by the Allies the day after D Day. Unlike most towns of our region, it was liberated intact… After the visit of the cathedral and the Tapestry Museum, your guide will lead you through the medieval streets flanked with old houses, some of them half-timbered. You might see the last lace-makers at work in the “Conservatoire de la Dentelle”, or visit the new Baron Gérard Fine Arts museum.
Don’t forget to pay tribute to the nearly 4700 troops at rest in the British Cemetery, or more exactly Commonwealth Cemetery.
Caen is the city of William the Conqueror, the most famous of the dukes of Normandy.
After their wedding, William and Mathilda of Flanders were excommunicated because they were cousins (at the sixth degree !) To be forgiven by the pope, William had to build the Abbey of the Men, and Mathilda, the Abbey of the Women, where they were respectively buried.
The duke started the construction of a castle on a rocky outcrop overlooking the city, but it was his son, Henry I Beauclerc who completed it.
The city, built on calcareous soil, got covered with stone quarries from where was extracted the “Caen stone”. Nice creamy-yellow limestone, homogeneous and dense, used for building many monuments in Normandy, but also on the other side of the English Channel, like the Tower of London, when William the Conqueror, became King of England in 1066. This stone exported around the world, was also used for the reconstruction of Caen after the Second World War : strategic objective when the Allies landed on June 6 1944, the city was bombarded during a month before being liberated : 72% of the buildings were in ruins and 2 000 civilians were killed.
Fortunately, the major monuments were spared, as well as a few old streets. The castle and the two Abbeys were well put in value by the very successful reconstruction of the city.
During the visit, you will see William the Conqueror’s grave, in the Abbey of the Men, Norman church with exceptional proportions. Then, you will visit the remnants of the palace of William inside the castle and enjoy the view on the city, and the flamboyant gothic spire of the church St Pierre. Before leaving, you will see the black marble headstone of Queen Mathilda in the beautiful church of the Abbey of Women. You will be surprised by the purity and soberness of Norman architecture.
The city of Rouen has developed since the Roman times, on a meander of the Seine river. Ideally situated between Paris and the sea, it became the second richest city of the kingdom of France.
Main city of the county given to Rollo and his Normans in 911, the Dukes of Normandy let it prosper even more.
Normandy archbishopric‘s see, Rouen cathedral, crowned by the highest spire in France, is a work of art of gothic and flamboyant gothic architecture. Its exceptional dimensions are breathtaking, as well as the amazing façade covered by sculptures, like a lace of stone. Inside, the cathedral consists in a long narrow and high nave, ended by a choir full of light, some stained glasses from the 13th C. and some remarkable sculptures.
Monet was fascinated by the façade of the Rouen cathedral that he painted about 30 times, in different types of weather, and at different hours of the day.
One can find in the city a lot of other examples of the gothic, and flamboyant gothic architecture : the church St Ouen, church St Maclou, the Hall of Justice… These large and richly decorated monuments can be discovered by walking along cobbled streets that haven’t changed so much since middle ages and Renaissance times : entire streets of half-timbered houses, sometimes cantilevered.
Don’t miss the uncommon Aitre St Maclou, and ask your guide why it’s decorated by sculptures of bones and skulls… Go to see the Big Clock, which is like the emblem of Rouen and you will finally arrive on the market square, where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake by the English during the Hundred Years War. Visit the modern church St Joan of Arc, built here after the Second World War, as a shrine for the beautiful stained glasses of the destroyed church St Vincent.
Built on a rocky outcrop, the castle of Falaise, majestically dominating a vast plain, is one of the rare examples of medieval castles in Normandy.
This is the place where William the Conqueror was born in 1027, from the union of Robert the Magnificent and Herleva, a very attractive young woman, the daughter of a rich tanner who became his official mistress. As Robert never married, William was his only son, and though he was illegitimate, he was officially introduced to the court of Normandy as his legal heir.
But William was only 8 when his father died and suffered of lot of trouble created by his barons in rebellion, who didn’t accept the authority of a “bastard son”. Surviving several murder attempts, he had to recapture his dukedom piece by piece, before being accepted as the sole master of Normandy.
When he invaded England in 1066 after the victory of the Battle of Hastings, he was named William the Conqueror.
Almost nothing of the castle remains from William’s time, the big square keep was built by his son, Henry I Beauclerc. His grandson Henry II Plantagenet built another smaller rectangular keep. He and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine stayed in the castle, and organized a nice party for Christmas 1159.
The circular keep, or Talbot Tower, was erected by the king of France Philip Augustus, after he had captured Normandy from John Lackland. Inside the keeps, the different spaces have been organized so that one can imagine the way people used to live there.