As two nations commemorate the Battle of Hastings, Gillian Thornton goes on the trail of William the Conqueror
Stroll the length of the Bayeux Tapestry and from the very first scene, the Norman Conquest of England comes to life in astonishing medieval detail. Stretching for 70 metres, this UNESCO-listed stitching – an embroidery on linen rather than a tapestry – is packed with powerful horses and proud noblemen, imposing castles and armed sailing boats. But it’s the little things that capture my imagination. The hawks in hand and the dogs underfoot. The decorated shields and rich costumes. And along the borders, top and bottom, mini works of art featuring everything from agricultural tasks to mythical beasts and dismembered soldiers. Reality embroidery at its very best.
October 14th 2016 marks the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the day when William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, became William the Conqueror. He was crowned William 1 on Christmas Day 1066. His victory in a field just outside Hastings – today, the pretty town of Battle - was to have a huge influence on our customs, language and administration, not to mention our English bloodlines.
Normandy has always been proud of its most famous son, born in Falaise in 1027, the illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy. Every summer, the region stages medieval festivals with markets and minstrels at a variety of atmospheric locations, especially across Calvados, ancestral seat of the Dukes of Normandy, and in the historic city of Rouen. But this year, holidaymakers can expect an extra dose of the Middle Ages as Normandy celebrates 1066 with a wealth of special events and exhibitions aimed at all ages and levels of interest.
Thanks to the Tapestry, Bayeux is the name that everyone knows, its annual Fête de Bayeux (24 June – 3 July 2016) bringing markets and minstrels to the pretty streets around the Gothic cathedral. It was William’s half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, who commissioned the Tapestry to decorate his cathedral, probably from skilled embroidery guilds in England.
There will be medieval fun and games too at Falaise during the Fête des Jeux (13-14 August) but this formidable fortress makes a great excursion at any time of year. Tour the cavernous chambers within its thick walls with the aid of an interactive tablet and soak up the atmosphere of an age where nobles were constantly looking over their shoulders.
Used as both a residential home and military stronghold, Falaise castle stands on the edge of the modern town with a commanding view over the surrounding countryside. Look out too for the magnificent statue of William the Conqueror on horseback in the square nearby.
Most school children – and their parents – love the drama, colour and combat of the Middle Ages, and families can have fun with the William the Conqueror Activity Booklet. Aimed at 7-12 year-olds, it’s on sale in local Tourist Offices for just €3. There’s online fun to be had too at lafabuleuseepopee.com which brings William’s Epic Adventure to life.
Bayeux and Falaise are, however, only part of the William story. The Duke extensively remodelled his father’s castle at Falaise but chose Caen, 20 miles to the north, as the strategic location for his own Ducal Castle in 1060. Today it is still one of the largest medieval enclosures in Europe, its lofty ramparts enclosing open green space as well as museums of local life and fine art.
Caen is also home to twin abbeys founded by William and his wife Mathilde of Flanders, distant cousins who married at Eu near Dieppe in 1050. Mathilda died from the plague in 1083 and William in 1087 from injuries sustained in a riding accident. Today husband and wife are buried across town from each other in the churches of the Men’s Abbey and Women’s Abbey. All that remains of William, however, is his thigh bone, after his grave was ransacked during the Wars of Religion.
Ask at local Tourist Offices about medieval events taking place in Normandy from April to October, as well as in southern England. The Battle of Hastings will be re-enacted on the 1066 battlefield on 15 and 16 October against the backdrop of Battle Abbey, built by William to commemorate men lost on both sides. But it’s in Normandy that you’ll get a real feel for the man who shaped life and customs on both sides of the Channel, the local lad who really did hit the big time.