Every year, Normandy is the scene of commemorations of the D-Day landings – yet it’s another anniversary that will take centre-stage this summer: the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. Although it’s not until 14 October, the victory of its most famous son, William the Conqueror, over King Harold’s Saxon army will be observed with medieval merriment throughout the summer.
Whether you think 1066 is a matter for regret or celebration, it’s an excellent excuse to brush up on your medieval history while enjoying Normandy’s pretty villages and towns, fine beaches and fabulous cheeses. Especially as travel is so much easier than in William’s day, with regular flights to Caen from London Southend Airport, which – you will almost certainly be surprised to discover – has been crowned by Which? magazine the best airport in Britain.
WILLIAM THE CHILD DUKE
“William the Bastard” – William the Conqueror’s other nickname – was born in the town of Falaise in about 1028, although probably outside the walls of the Château because he was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Normandy and a tanner’s daughter.
Nevertheless, he was named successor to the dukedom at the age of eight when his father died on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Normandy was pitched into civil war as nobles attempted to assassinate the child duke. William’s first act of war was to regain control of the Château de Falaise; he was 15.
Château de Falaise
Perched on a crag overlooking Falaise and lush countryside, the Château is much grander now than the modest keep over which the young duke presided. Younger visitors will enjoy the “histopads” handed out – a touch-screen tablet that shows what each room might have looked like in the Middle Ages – and video projections that tell the story of the castle’s medieval rulers.
In honour of the 950th anniversary of that famous victory over King Harold II of England, William’s army will rise again at Château de Falaise’s fête des jeux in mid-August: 250 horsemen in medieval armour will parade through its park along with jugglers, jesters and knights.
THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY
The jewel in Normandy’s crown is, of course, the Bayeux Tapestry, which was probably commissioned by William’s half-brother, Odo, who was the Bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent. No histopads here: a remarkably RP audioguide deciphers the tableaux for English-speaking visitors. Most of the tapestry (strictly speaking, it’s an embroidery) depicts the preamble rather than the battle: how King Harold broke his promise to William, who was rightful heir to the English throne. In other words, it’s a marvellous example of medieval propaganda.
The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the Norman troops of William the Conqueror
The first incarnation of Bayeux’s Notre-Dame Cathedral was also the handiwork of Odo, and William, now the King of England, attended its consecration in 1077. Look out for the gargoyles inside (including a chained-up monkey depicting the victory of Christianity over paganism), frescoes of angels in the crypt and what looks like a dolls’ house tucked behind the left tower – a watchtower from the Hundred Years’ War.
Local councillors will don 11th-century garb for a special mass during Bayeux’s festival at the end of June, which will also boast an authentic medieval market, concerts, parades and street theatre.
CAPITAL OF FREE FRANCE
Unlike nearby Caen, Bayeux escaped Allied bombing and it was the first town to be liberated on 7 June 1944. A week later, crowds lined the main street to hear General Charles de Gaulle’s stirring speech. Nowadays, it’s a charming place to while away an afternoon, with dozens of boutiques and bistros. (Try the local aperitif Kir normand, made with cider.)
It’s also worth visiting Bayeux Broderie on rue Nesmond, which sells cross-stitch patterns that teach the distinctive Bayeux stitch. Owner Chantal James has resurrected the technique and is the only one authorised to reproduce the tapestry. Her copies adorn the walls, revealing how vivid those tableaux were when first sewn. Historians dispute whether the tapestry was embroidered in the south of England or France, but Chantal isn’t fussed. “For me, it’s only important to keep this technique, because it’s very easy to do and very beautiful.”
Claire stayed at Château La Chenevière, Port-en-Bessin, a family-run 18th century Norman chateau with gourmet restaurant. Rooms start from 220 euros in low season and 260 euros in high season. For more information, visit: lacheneviere.com
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Normandy by Eurostar, five days from £419pp. For a short break with a difference, Normandy is hard to beat — it really is one of the truly unspoilt corners of Europe. Normandy has French countryside how you imagine it to be, lush and green, with tiny fields, half-timbered buildings and a history so intertwined with our own. You will see echoes of Joan of Arc, the D-Day landings, Richard the Lionheart and of course, most famous of all, William the Conqueror. Read more and book.