September in Normandy: thoughts of William and 1066
Toward the end of summer, thoughts in this part of the world turn nostalgically to the exploits of William the Conqueror and his invasion of England in the month of October more than nine centuries ago.
Curiously, the Norman invasion of 1066 has been turned around in the 20th century by British and Americans and other English- speaking people who in numbers greater than William's minions tour Normandy to see what William left behind when he cross La Manche (The English Channel).
In Normandy they find a lush countryside dotted with quaint, timbered and stone cottages, midieval villages and churches. Everywhere there are healthy looking cows that produce beaucoupm de meat, milk, cream, and butter. Ask for a plain cheese sandwich here and you get Camembert.
Heavy industry too has helped develop the cities, particularly Rouen, the old Norman capital, and Caen and Le Havre, both smashed during World War II, but now rebuilt as prosperous population centers.
But the antique origin of Normandy as a province is never overlooked. Six generations of Normandy, said when I stopped for a tankful of gas. "that is my hometown -- the birthplace of William the Conqueror."
The town of Falaise itself won't let you forget its great moment in history, either -- the birth there in about 1028 of Duke William, who became King William I of England. A tourist information center, as complete as any you will find in the United States, stands on the main north-south road through town.
You are immediately directed to the bulky stone ruin in the castle in which William was born -- the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy, known as robert the Devil, and Herleve, said to be the daughter of a local tanner.
Falaise, an inland town that can be reached by good highways, is one of a number of sites in Normandy where the patient traveler can find, despite the passage of centuries, definite traces of events in the life of Duke William, including the buildup of his land-sea forces and the departure for England late in the summer of 1066.
A good headquarters for sorties following in the footsteps of the Conqueror is the cathedral city of Bayeux. Arriving at Bayeux later one day I found -- or rather was conducted there by a helpful French motorist -- the Lion d'Or Hotel, as picturesque an old inn as any in Normandy.
The hotel is built around a courtyard, entered through an archway along the Rue St. Jean, in the center of town. A dinner at the Lion d'Or, consisting of Filet de sole la reine Mathilde,m potatoes, and green beans, and you are fit for further sightseeing in bountiful Bayeux. I need scarcely say that even the main course at dinner -- the sole -- commemorating Queen Mathilda, Duke Williams's wife, is another reminder of the Conqueror's era.
I found Bayeux's chief sights to consist of its cathedral, a fine edifice in the Norman Gothic style, and the Bayeux Tapestry, preserved in a museum close by the cathedral.
Of the cathedral, only the towers and the crypt remain of the building completed in 1077 by Bishop Odo, Williams's turbulent companion in arms, later to become the Earl of Kent, and believed to be William's half-brother -- a son of Herleve by a later marriage to the French Vicomte of Conteville.
The 231-foot-long tapestry, the most precise living document to come down to the 20th century from the Middle Ages, is draped around the walls of a room in the Baron-Gerard Museum, and tells the story, in embroidered pictures of colored wool on linen, of the conquest of Saxon England (from the norman point of view).
For any American who was in Paris just after the liberation of 1944, the tapestry can have special significance. For in the autumn of thatyear the tapestry, brought from its hiding place during the years of the Nazi occupaing place during the year of the Nazi occupation of France, was put on display for the public in the Louvre. It is good now revisiting it in its native habitat, the city of Bayeux, the first town liberated by the Allies in the World War II invasion of Normandy.
In the US people tend to overlook some of the salient details in European history which, although ignored, remain part of their general heritage. William the Conqueror, we say, sailed from Normandy, France, for England in 1066. Well, from where, specifically, in Normandy did he sail? Where, specifically, did he land in England?
It is possible now to track down his port -- or ports -- of embarkation. Drive eastward from Bayeux 50 kilometers (about 35 miles) to the seaside resorts of Cabourg. Here you will find the River Dives. At the mouth of the River Dives and the English Channel is an ancient and all-but-forgotten little port.
It was along the River Dives and in its waters that William's wooden fleet was built in preparation for the overseas expeditioin. There were hundred of ships -- not large ships, but their construction, starting from scratch, required a lot of wood, and the Normans trimmed their forests to get the lumber. Axes and hammers were kept busy. You can see portrayals of some of the ships, in miniature, among scenes depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.
In Dives's 13th-century Gothic church is a tablet placed there in 1862 listing the names of William's companions in arms on the expedition to England -- an honor role for Normandy, but to the Saxons of 11th-century England a list of robbers and marauders.
At Dives, the commercial possibilities in entertaining travelers -- mainly English- speaking -- are being attempted. You won't find a Disneyland, nor an "Old Country" park transporting you to William the Conqueror land, but there is a restaurant, and a little shopping center around the courtyard with buildings restored to the timbered Norman style of centuries ago. The little area in the town's center is called the "Village d'Antiquite."
At the restauant "Guillaume le Conquerant" you can get "Grilled lobster William," or deviled grilled lobster (perhaps synonymous to the Saxon English), for 120 francs -- or about $30 American -- expensive but worth it.
In August, 1066, the last of Duke William's ships was ready and the fleet prepared to sail from the mouth of the River Dives. But in that long-gone day ships were subject to winds and tides -- and the north coast of France, with a scarcity of sheltered ports, was at the mercy of the open sea. Weather conditions kept William at Dives until Sept. 12, when the wind finally was blowing from a favorable direction. The duke gave the order to sail, and men and horses were loaded aboard the ships.
However, England was not the next step -- whether by intention, or by being driven off course by the west wind is not known -- but, battered by a storm, the fleet pulled in at St. Valery-sur-Somme on the French coast, to the east, beyond the border of Normandy.
You can get to St. Valery by driving another 180 kilometers or so (about 120 miles) eastward from Dives. It is not to be confused with St. Valery-en-Caux, not far west from the coastal city of Dieppe. The St. Valery with the William the Conqueror connections is east of Dieppe, site of the famed Canadian raid on the Nazi occupiers of France in 1942, and is at the mouth of the River Somme.
Renoir and other French Impressionists who were fond of painting riverfront scenes could have done something with St. Valery- sur-Somme, at least as it apepars now. From a bridge looking down river toward the sea there is a fine prospect of modern sailboats moored in the very waters on which William's fleet, dispersed by the storm, gathered for the last rendezvous before taking off for England.
William's departure from St. Valery is remembered with a sotne monument surrounded by a group of flagpoles flying colorful banners in a little park on the waterfront. "From this port William of Normandy left on the conquest of England 1066," the inscription reads.
A most pleasant interlude at St. Valery is lunch at the Guillaume de Normandy Hotel, in parklike atmosphere along the Somme on the edge of the little town. A cat, asleep on a radiator,provided a homelike setting as I read the menu.
The hotel, surrounded by tall trees, is flanked by other large houses along a prominade on the river bank. From ther eyou can envision William's fleet, estimated to be 600 ships or more, waiting once again for favorable weather conditions. It was getting late in the year, and it soon became a case, for William, of do or die.
He figured that being a non-Norman territory, he couldn't wait until next year. For him the wind hadm to shift. Finally, by Sept. 26, a south wind struck St. Valery. William and his fleet sailed the next day and landed in England on Sept. 28, 1066.
You can follow the trail of William the Conqueror of England, too -- Pevensey , where he landed on the stony beach, and the site of the battle, north of Hastings, where he defeated King Harold in Oct. 14, 1066.
After his bout with the winds off the northern French coast. William's fleet landed at England almost without loss at just about the time Harold was fighting off another invasion in the north against possibly the foremost warrior of Europe of the time -- the Viking Harald Hardrada, King of Norway. Harold of England won the one -- the Battle of Stamford Bridge, near York, on Sept. 25, turning back the Viking threat to England forever, but, exhausted, he hurried south to meet William 19 days later and lost his life and his kingdom.
William's triumph didn't last forever, either. He had his troubles as King of england and died in 1087, when back in Normandy. He was buried in St. Stephen's Church, which he had ordered to built at Caen. His tomb was desecrated during the religious wars of the 16th century. His birthplace at Falaise is a better place to remember him.