William the Conqueror’s Caen | Historical Landmarks | History Hit

William the Conqueror’s Caen

From its picturesque abbeys to its powerful castle, the French city of Caen and its surrounding area brims with impressive sites, thanks in part to its most famous resident, William the Conqueror. Here are 6 historic sites connected to this medieval king.

Amy Irvine

22 Dec 2023

Located in the heart of Normandy, the city of Caen is 2 hours from Paris, and just 15 minutes from the cross-Channel port of Ouistreham. Today, Caen is famous for its proximity to the D-Day landing beaches and the first crucial, successful action of D-Day operations on 6 June 1944 (at what is now Pegasus Bridge). However, Caen’s growth as a great centre of power in Normandy was largely due to William the Conqueror.

Falaise in Normandy was the birthplace and home of William, Duke of Normandy – close to Caen where later, he and his wife, Matilda of Flanders, each commissioned grand and impressive abbey’s that still stand today. Between these lie Caen Castle, one of the largest medieval fortifications in Europe and one of the duchy of Normandy’s most important strongholds, built around 1060 for William on the eve of his conquest of England.

As a result of its position as capital of the Duchy of Normandy and as City of William the Conqueror (William chose to reign from this city and was buried there), Caen has inherited a rich architectural heritage consisting of ancient churches and abbeys and other numerous traces of his visits. Here are 6 sites related to William the Conqueror in captivating Caen and its surrounding areas.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

1. Caen Castle

The Château de Caen is a Norman castle, built around 1060 by William the Conqueror.

Constructed with Caen stone, the castle stood first and foremost as a place of power, where the Dukes of Normandy and Kings of England regularly held major assemblies. William’s son, Henry I, later built the Saint George’s church, a keep and a large hall for the ducal Court.

Along with the rest of Normandy, Caen Castle was recaptured by the French Crown in 1204, and Philip II reinforced the fortifications. The castle saw several engagements during the Hundred Years’ War, and its keep was pulled down in 1793 during the French Revolution. The castle was used as a barracks during World War Two, but received severe bomb damage in 1944.

Today, the castle serves as a museum, housing the Museum of Fine Arts of Caen, the Museum of Normandy and the Exchequer of Normandy. Visitors can climb to the top of the northern rampart for a general view, with restoration work enabling visitors to view the archaeological relics. The pretty neighbourhood of Vaugueux is nearby, containing a host of popular bars and restaurants.

Read More

2. Abbaye aux Hommes

The Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen, also known as the Abbey of Saint-Étienne, is a beautiful 11th century Romanesque abbey church founded by William the Conqueror – now predominantly known for being his gravesite.

Consecrated in 1077, William built the Abbaye aux Hommes as atonement for his marriage to Matilda of Flanders, which the Pope had condemned due to their family connection as distant cousins. The former Benedictine monastery was a counterpart to the Abbaye aux Dames. Upon his death in 1087, William was buried in the foundations. However his grave has been disturbed on multiple occasions, including during the Wars of Religion and later the French Revolution when his remains were scattered, resulting in only his thighbone remaining in the marked grave.

Despite its initial construction in a Norman style, the the Abbaye aux Hommes was completed in a gothic style in the 13th century. However much of the original Norman church remains, forming the core of what visitors see today. The large monastic buildings that were later attached to the abbey now house Caen’s Town Hall.

One of the abbey’s most distinctive features is the white Caen stone it is carved from. This same stone was taken to Britain to build the Tower of London, Canterbury Cathedral and the abbeys of Durham, Norwich and Westminster. The abbey itself was used a model for many Norman churches built throughout England, making it a must-see for those interested in both French architecture and Britain’s Norman history.

Read More
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Patrick / CC BY-SA 2.0

3. Abbaye aux Dames

Founded around 1062 by William the Conqueror and his wife, Matilda of Flanders, the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen (also known as the Abbey of Sainte-Trinité) is a former Benedictine convent, built on a similarly grand scale to the Abbaye aux Hommes (the Abbey of Saint-Étienne).

Built between 1060-1080, in exchange for Papal sanction of William’s marriage to Matilda, the abbey was consecrated on 18 June 1066. It is a fine and highly renowned example of Norman architecture, and considered a masterpiece of Norman Romanesque art.

Queen Matilda died in 1083, and was buried in the choir under a slab of black marble. The abbey’s original spires were destroyed in the Hundred Years’ War, and replaced by less striking balustrades in the early 18th century. The French Revolution later saw the nuns dispersed and the abbey suppressed.

Despite losing its original spires, the abbey remains hugely impressive, and its 18th century convent buildings with French-style garden are now home to the Lower Normandy Regional offices. Its interior contains a host of details, including an impressive crypt with barrel vaults supported by 16 close-ranked columns.

Read More
Image Credit: Alamy

4. The Bayeux Tapestry Museum

The Bayeux Tapestry Museum, housed in the Centre Guillaume Le Conquerant seminary in Bayeux, holds one of the most famous historical chronicles in the world – the Bayeux Tapestry.

Interestingly, The Bayeux Tapestry is not technically a tapestry, but a 71 metre long wool-embroidery on a linen backing, which gives an account of William, Duke of Normandy’s conquest of England including the Battle of Hastings.

Whilst the origins of this incredibly detailed tapestry are a subject of controversy, it is thought it dates back to the year of the battle and is thought to have been commissioned by Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror’s half-brother, to embellish his newly-built cathedral in Bayeux in 1077.

Told from the Norman viewpoint to justify their conquest of England before God, the Bayeux Tapestry has itself been a subject of debate, but it remains one of the only sources telling the story of the Norman Conquest, and is a useful insight into the medieval world. The importance of this historical document has been recognised by UNESCO, who listed it on their Memory of the World Register.

Situated 19 miles from Caen, The Bayeux Tapestry Museum displays the original embroidered piece in a special gallery and has a further exhibit offering an insight into the story it tells, as well as the way in which it was created.

Read More
Image Credit: Shutterstock

5. Mont Saint-Michel

The imposing and historic village of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France, dominates the skyline from its position atop a small rocky island. Joined to the coast via a causeway, the village is best known for its Benedictine Abbey and Parish Church.

A settlement in Roman times, Mont Saint-Michel was later a stronghold of the Romano-Bretons until it was destroyed by the invading Franks. The area saw a revival in the early 8th century when a church was built – legend has it that the Archangel Michael appeared to Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches, instructing him to build the church there.

However, Mont Saint-Michel rose to real prominence when William I, Duke of Normandy, conquered the area and settled a community of Benedictine monks on the site. Indeed the mount is depicted in The Bayeux Tapestry commemorating the Norman Conquest, with Harold Godwinson pictured rescuing two Norman knights from the quicksand in the tidal flats during the Breton–Norman war. 

In 1067, Mont-Saint-Michel’s monastery gave its support to William the Conqueror in his claim to the English throne. William rewarded this by giving the monastery properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the southwestern coast of Cornwall which became a Norman priory, St Michael’s Mount of Penzance, modelled after the mount.

From the 11th to the 16th century the Abbey was expanded many times. It was a prominent site for Pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages, during which time a village grew up around the Abbey with a maze of streets and buildings that can still be walked today. Mont Saint-Michel was attacked by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, but never captured, and used as a prison during the French Revolution. In 1979 Mont Saint-Michel was declared a UNESCO world heritage historic site.

Read More
Image Credit: Shutterstock

6. Falaise Castle

The first stone castle at this site was built between 962-1020, perhaps by Richard I of Normandy but more likely by his son Richard II, Duke of Normandy.  Around 1028, Richard II’s grandson, William, was born in this castle as an illegitimate son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy. This William, nicknamed ‘the Bastard’, would become the first Norman king of England, following his conquest of England in 1066 and would hence be known as William the Conqueror.

The iteration of the castle that remains today was erected in 1123 by Henry I of England on the remains of its predecessor. Falaise’s main castle consists of 3 keeps. The oldest is the large quadrangular Norman keep, built by Henry I. The second small quadrangular keep was built during Henry II of England’s reign in the latter half of the 12th century. The third is the large round tower built by Philip II of France in the 13th century, after he had taken the Duchy of Normandy for France.

During the Hundred Years’ War, between 1337-1453, Falaise Castle changed hands several times. In January 1590 the castle was besieged by the troops of Henry IV of France, yet later lost its military importance and fell into decline. It was abandoned in the 17th century, after which it fell to ruin.

In the 1870’s the castle’s keeps were restored, and despite damage to the castle walls during the Battle of the Falaise Pocket in August 1944, the keeps escaped unscathed, and were further restored between 1987-1997.

Read More