It’s 950 years since the Battle of Hastings and we’re being encouraged to visit Normandy, birthplace and home of William the Conqueror. But now, 21st century technology is being used to bring some of the area’s rich history to life.
Fran Lambert from Normandy Tourism says British visitors might notice some similarities with the sites just across the water. “The castles and historic buildings are very similar,” says Fran, adding that anyone who has seen the Tower of London will be familiar with the Norman building style. “In Normandy you’ll find castles with enormous keeps, you also have fantastic examples of mediaeval towns, which are enclosed by walls and many beautiful churches,” she adds.
Travel options for Brits are good, with multiple ferries routes across the channel. And if you drive for around two hours south west of the ferry port of Dieppe, you’ll reach Falaise. This was William the Conqueror’s ‘home’ castle. It’s impressive and a must-visit for anyone interested in history.
Fran says it’s not just for history buffs. They have tried to introduce interactive elements to engage the entire family. You can pick up a tablet from reception and use it to guide yourself around the castle. “You hold the device above barcodes in the rooms and the tablet displays how each area would have appeared during William’s time there. You’ll see how his quarters and bedroom would have looked.”
Another thirty minutes’ drive from Falaise is the Norman city of Caen. It boasts an impressive castle and two abbeys, which William ordered as Duke of Normandy, before he conquered England. He had to have them built to obtain papal permission to marry Matilda from Flanders. The Pope was unhappy because she was a relative, but his concerns seemed to vanish when William offered to build two abbeys – one for men and one for women. The couple are buried there.
If you’re taking the ferry into Le Havre, you can drive for an hour to reach Jumièges Abbey. “It is the most impressive example of a Norman ruin in the whole of the region,” says Fran. “You don’t see anything on such a grand scale in the UK.” Again they’ve tried to enhance the visitor experience with technology. “There is another fantastic tablet tour which gives you a chance to see what it looked like in its whole state.”
It’s clear that authorities in Normandy are proud of their past and in this milestone year, they’ve tried to help visitors visualise former times without making it seem like you’re on a school trip. “They are not too history heavy,” says Fran. They’re very good for anybody who just has a fleeting interest in history and they could even get you into history.”
If you visit Normandy you should see the Bayeux tapestry, the UNESCO registered visual account of the Norman conquest of England. It’s effectively a contemporary, 70m long comic strip and is contained in a curved glass case. As you walk along its length you can listen to the story of the conquest on headphones. The commentary describes how English King Harold Godwinson met with William in France before William invaded. It had been agreed that Harold would succeed Edward the Confessor. “I don’t want to give away too much,” says Fran. I’ve never considered that you could have spoilers for events 950 years ago!
The tapestry timeline goes on to depict the Battle of Hastings and Harold famously receiving the arrow in the eye, which led to his defeat and death, and paving the way for the conquest. Southern England was a ‘Norman colony’ says Fran.
She recommends seeing the tapestry. “It’s not until you are there that you realise this tapestry is ‘of its day.’ It tells the story of such a pivotal moment in British and French history,” she says.
In November and December there’s an innovative event where the tapestry is being projected onto the inside walls of Bayeux Cathedral. “You can see the tapestry as it would have been intended, hung all around the nave in the cathedral,” Fran says.
So where should you stay during a trip to Normandy? That could depend on the time of year when you visit. Fran started reeling off the vast events programme. There are coastal fish festivals in the autumn, a springtime ‘fruit route’ and in the summer there are beaches and plenty of activities for outdoor lovers and especially families.
Fran mentioned the region’s horse riding and cycling routes. The climate is very similar to that of southern Britain, so you can forget plans for the November beach break!
The towns and cities of Normandy are worth exploring and Fran says anybody visiting shouldn’t miss Rouen. “It’s a mediaeval city, home to fantastic buildings and it was the place where William the Conqueror held his ceremonial event after conquering England. It’s incredibly beautiful and is known as the ‘city of a hundred spires.’ The skyline is stunning,” Fran says, before adding, “It’s testament to Norman architecture that there are so many structures that still remain across Normandy.”
To find out more about the 950th anniversary celebrations and Normandy in general, visit the Normandy Tourism website.