Caen, capital of Normandy, and remembrances of William the Conqueror and D-Day

This week-end I am off to Normandy for the birthday of my longtime friend Anne. She lives in the fine city of Caen, where she teaches law with extraordinary skill and passion (and a great sense of humor too.)

Caen, as I hardly need to remind you, was one of the capitals, with Rouen, and later London, of Guillaume, Duc de Normandie, remembered by posterity as William the Conqueror, King of England.

You can still admire the Dukes’ impressive chateau, as well as the gorgeous Abbaye aux Hommes, the Abbey of the Men, founded by Guillaume to expiate the sin of marrying his cousin, Mathilde de Flandres. Guillaume and Mathilde were related to a degree forbidden by the Church, and the proper dispensations had not been secured beforehand.

The marriage was off to a rocky start, apart from any issues of canon law. When Guillaume and Mathilde were first introduced, the prospective bride declared rather bluntly that “she would rather be a cloistered nun than married to a bastard.” Guillaume took offense at his fiancee’s comment. He seized her by her braids and dragged her across the room. Indeed he was born out of wedlock, the son of the prior Duke, Robert the Magnifique, and his concubine Arlette.

In Normandy this kind of arrangement, know as a more danico union, a Danish-style union, was common among people of Norse descent, like the Dukes. It was a recognized relationship, though not sanctioned by the Church. Apparently Mathilde, who had just arrived from faraway Flanders, had not been informed of the customs of Normandy. Or if she had, she did not think much of them.

But the newlyweds soon settled their differences, and by the standards of the times it was a happy marriage. Then Guillaume went on to claim the throne of England, cross the Channel, defeat the Saxons at the battle of Hastings in 1066, and become King William I.

But that’s another story, and it shall be told, along with that of Guillaume’s direct ancestor, the Danish chieftain Göngu-Hrólfr, first Duke of Normandy, in a later post.

I am all the happier to visit Caen at this time, because today is the anniversary  of D-Day, and the celebration will continue over the week-end.

On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces (American, British, Canadian and Free French) landed on the beaches of Normandy, a few miles north of Caen, heralding the liberation of France. Thanks to Richard de Brantigny for remembering this anniversary.

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