Calvados is celebrating this year the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, won by William the Conqueror in 1066. This is the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the illustrious native of the country who marked Normandy. From Falaise to Bayeux, via Dives-sur-Mer and Caen, a weekend in the shape of a time machine, through medieval Calvados.
William the Conqueror, a Norman hero
Before tackling geography, a little historical revision is in order: Normandy was founded in 911, ceded to the Viking leader Rollo by the King of the Franks, Charles the Simple.
On October 14, 1066, his great-great-great-grandson, William the Conqueror fights a decisive battle which seals the destinies of France and England. After having been victorious of the troops of Harold in Hastings, in the south of Great Britain, he is crowned. He is the first sovereign to hold both the titles of Duke of Normandy and King of England.
Some 950 years later, from Bayeux to Falaise, via Caen, Normandy preserves the heritage of William the Conqueror and celebrates an epic battle. Welcome to a summer of medieval festivals, which gives us the opportunity to (re) visit Calvados!
Falaise, the original castle
It is at Cliff, peaceful town of Calvados, which was born the most illustrious of the Dukes of Normandy. In the year of its birth, the city's fortified castle did not yet have its monumental appearance. But the inhabitants could see its ramparts rising. Inside, the farmyard now serves as an ideal location for wedding photos. The solidity of this castle, also popular with crows, may well symbolize a union.
The building has evolved over time, like an age-old Meccano game. William the Conqueror couldn't even see the castle's first dungeon. In front of the castle, the recently built defensive concrete outer harbor still arouses criticism. But the Falaise castle has been tastefully refurbished. The scenography places the emphasis on teaching and immersion. Even the modern furniture, from floor to ceiling, blends into the intimacy of the place. At the top of the 35 m high tower, a splendid 360 degree panorama over the countryside.
The "must" of visiting the castle is to let yourself be carried away by the touchscreen tablet, nicknamed the "histopad". In eight parts of the castle, augmented reality technology shows the interiors as they were in the 12th century: the colors were much less austere than one might think.
Caen, the mark of William the Conqueror
William the Conqueror left his mark on the cityscape of Caen. Saint Etienne abbey, said "to men," it is he, the abbey of the Trinity known as “aux Dames”, it was under the leadership of his wife Mathilde. And of course, the castle, which would become the favorite residence of the Dukes of Normandy, was also built for William in the XNUMXth century.
These three monuments were miraculously spared by the Allied bombardments during the Landing of June 1944. Thus, the ramparts of the castle of Caen still mark the limits of one of the largest fortified walls in Europe. The church of the Abbey aux Hommes houses the tomb of the sovereign. The place having been profaned on multiple occasions, of Guillaume only remains one bone: the left femur. Sad fate.
It is also to William the Conqueror that we owe the influence of stone of Caen, a noble rock of good quality. Proof of its success? This limestone formed during the Jurassic, nearly 160 million years ago, was used in the construction of Tower Bridge in London, Cologne Cathedral and St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.
The exploitation of the Caen stone has left invisible cavities on the surface. One of the old open-air quarries has been transformed into underground cooler in the 19th century. An astonishing work located under the Jeanine Boitard square, which also served as a shelter for the inhabitants during the Second World War. Small group visits are regularly organized there.
Dives-sur-Mer, the departure of the armada
William's path to glory began at Dives-sur-Mer : a thousand vessels set off there in the English Channel… before falling back on Saint-Valery-sur-Somme. It was nothing less than a "dress rehearsal" of the embarkation and disembarkation towards England, notes the historian Pierre Bouet in his book on Hastings.
We must imagine, in 1066, the sound of axes resonating in the woods of trees, stones transported by boat on the Dives, and then a camp of 8 soldiers, awaiting departure. In medieval church of the town, a 24 m2 plaque details the names of “Guillaume's companions”. Sir Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, is even an illustrious descendant.
The construction of the town's church was financed by donations from William the Conqueror. You can still read the legend of Christ Saint-Sauveur told on its stained glass windows. Eight other 14th century stained glass windows, musical angels, are housed by the Tourist Office. The latter is himself in an unusual building. Léon Le Rémois, owner in the 19th century of this old inn, made it a place dedicated to William the Conqueror.
From one bank to the other of the Dives estuary, today we are witnessing the shock of contrasts. The popular Dives-sur-Mer faces the bourgeoisie Cabourg and its 5-star Grand Hotel. A palace where Marcel Proust had his habits and which he describes in rather caustic terms in Du Côté de chez Swann and In the shade of young girls in bloom. The promenade that runs along the hotel bears the name of the writer.
Bayeux, the tapestry of exploits
Almost 400 visitors contemplate it each year. We talk about Europe's “first comic strip” about the Bayeux tapestry. It is also the storyboard of a spectacular blockbuster, with feats of arms and heroic rides. The most curious will have fun finding there the testimony of the passage of Halley's comet.
After having traversed the fresco of nearly 70 meters, a exposure on the upper floor retraces his incredible destiny. It is luck that this embroidery has come down to us. In 2023, the tapestry will be transposed in a new setting, in order to observe it more easily. An audioguide currently carries visitors in 25 breathless minutes. During busy periods, the “pause” feature is deactivated.
In the process, a visit to the bayeux cathedral, inaugurated in 1077, is essential. This is where the tapestry was deployed every year in order to impress the people while educating them. You have to look everywhere, on its towers, then descend into the crypt, whose massive pillars date from the time of William. Along the way, faces carved in the bas-reliefs of stone make you grimace.
Adjacent to the cathedral, the Liberty Square is dominated by a plane tree planted in 1797! What to feel humble. Summer is screened there with sound and lights, three times a week in July and August. A very beautiful tree, the troops of William the Conqueror would no doubt have gladly cut it into planks ...
The commemorations of the 950th anniversary
In Normandy, the commemorations of the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings take place throughout the summer and continue until the fall. Here is a selection, from a well-rounded program:
- At Falaise : the 14th Games Festival, on August 13 and 14, to learn all about the art of war in the Middle Ages, for two days: 250 people, including 200 soldiers and 14 horsemen, will resuscitate a medieval army in the field .
- In Caen : until November 6, the great room of the Exchequer of the Dukes of Normandy, at the castle of Caen, hosts a dizzying exhibition: aerial photographs, taken with a kite by François Levalet.
- In Caen : July 26, at nightfall, the castle esplanade will host a huge medieval banquet: shows and games.
- In Dives-sur-mer, Cabourg and Houlgate: from Sunday 7 to Tuesday 9 August. The association La Rurée vers art presents the reconstruction of Guillaume's preparations in the estuary of the Dives. The drakkars will sail peacefully in the sea.
Consult our Normandy online guide
The program of medieval festivities in Calvados
Or sleep ?
Where to eat ?
Le Baligan, 8, avenue Alfred Piat, in Cabourg. This restaurant's specialty is fish and seafood. The Grand large menu (Starter, main course, dessert € 29,90) makes you hesitate between cuttlefish Carbonara or cod cassoulet with bacon and mussels.
Where to have a drink?
Bar chez Guillou, 4 avenue de la Mer, Cabourg. Guillou died, his successor perpetuated the recipes for his cocktails. But he took the reason for their names with him to his grave. Why the Quéquette? And the Taxpayer? Specialty of the establishment to be tested: cocktails with crème fraîche!