Bayeux

Although small, quiet and unpretentious, Bayeux is a town with an impressive history.

The old mill in Bayeux
The old mill in Bayeux

It was from Bayeux that William the Conqueror set out to invade England in 1066. The details of his departure, the battle Hastings, the death of the English King Harold and William’s coronation as King of England are chronicled in the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The tapestry, which is in fact an embroidery, was said to have been created by William the Conqueror’s wife, Mathilde and her ladies in waiting. 70 metres long and 50 centimetres high, it depicts more than 600 people, 200 horses, 40 ships and hundreds of animals and mythological figures.

The tapestry was originally displayed in the magnificent Norman Romanesque Cathedral of Notre Dame, built by William’s half brother Odo of Conteville, which dominates the Bayeux skyline even today. Ironically, it was here that Harold Goodwinson of England had taken an oath on ancient relics to support William as the successor to the English throne. When he broke his oath and took the throne himself, William went to war against him. The tapestry can now be viewed in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum.

Much later, Bayeux was to play an equally important role in another invasion, this time, not as the point of departure but as the point of arrival. On June, 6 1944, the Allied forces landed on the beaches just north of the Bayeux. It was the first French town liberated from Nazi occupation in the Battle Normandy and it was to Bayeux that General Charles De Gaulle returned to make his first speech on free French soil, on June 16, 1944.

Rouen

Although it was the largest and one of the most prosperous cities in mediaeval Europe and the seat of the Norman and Anglo/Norman Dynasties from the 11th to the 15th centuries, Rouen owes most of its fame to a humble peasant girl and her tragic end.

Rouen Cathedral
Rouen Cathedral

Jeanne D’Arc, or the maid of Orleans, was born 1412. Claiming divine guidance, she led the French Army to a number of important victories during the Hundred Years War. Needless to say, she made many enemies. Eventually, she was captured, tried for witchcraft at burned at the stake in the place now known as Le Vieux Marché, in Rouen on May, 30, 1431, at the age of 19 years. Twenty five years after the execution, Pope Callixtus III examined the trial, pronounced her innocent and declared her a martyr. St Jeanne D’Arc was canonised in 1920 and become one of the patron saints of France.

The Church of Saint Jeanne now stands in le Vieux Marche, on the site where she was immolated. Built in 1979, it is a large structure whose form represents an upturned Viking boat. Its beautiful stained glass windows were rescued from the church of Saint Vincent which stood nearby until it was destroyed in the bombings of World War II.

Rouen is also famous for its magnificent Cathedral which has survived war, fire and storms since the 12th century.