A tremendously imposing medieval castle still dominates the town of Falaise. It acts as a reminder that this was the birthplace of the fearsome William the Conqueror, although the fortifications you now see date from after his time. Falaise suffered appallingly in the latter stages of the 1944 Battle of Normandy, but it has attractions beyond its great fort.
Falaise means cliff in French, and the little plateau atop the craggy rock-faces rising above the Ante and Masceron Rivers here was chosen as an excellent place for a major castle for the ruling Norman family as they built fortifications around their region. Early in the 11th century, it became the main base for Robert, rebellious younger brother of Richard, heir to the duchy. On their father’s death, the elder son became Duke Richard III of Normandy, but he soon died in mysterious circumstances. Robert cast aside his young nephew to become Duke Robert I of Normandy. His eight-year reign was fraught with dissent, but Falaise would play a crucial role in Norman and English history during those years.
Here at Falaise, it might be said that the seeds were sown for a huge shift in English history. Based at Falaise castle, Duke Robert fell for the charms of a young local woman, Herleva, or Arlette, the daughter of a local tanner. Legend has it that Robert spotted the young woman beside a stream and was immediately smitten. In late 1028, or possibly in 1029, she gave birth to their illegitimate son, William. Although the duke would not marry Herleva, she acquired power through her relationship with him. Little is known about William’s childhood, although it is assumed that many of his early years were spent in Falaise with his mother.
At the end of 1034, the repentant Duke Robert decided to head out on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and designated his young bastard son William as his rightful heir. The Bastard William succeeded on his father’s death in 1035 and would become one of the most successful leaders of his time, the conqueror of England and England’s first Norman king.
The castle lording it above Falaise today was developed in large part for William’s successors. It may be the highlight of a visit to town, but down below, there are also a couple of grand historic churches to see (even if so much of historic Falaise was devastated by World War II bombings) and a couple of interesting museums.
Château de Guillaume le Conquérant (William the Conqueror's Castle): despite the name, the vast castle you see today was developed for the Anglo-French kings of England in the 12th century, then further extended in the 13th for French royals. It has been magnificently restored in recent years and the tour makes the most of modern technology to recreate the castle’s illustrious past and bring courtly life back to life.
Automates Avenue Museum: Parisian shops used to put on elaborate displays in their windows, featuring automated figures. At this place, you can admire several hundred of them, placed in elaborately reconstituted shop windows.
André Lemaître Museum: this museum is dedicated to an accomplished painter from Falaise
Gothic churches: two mighty Gothic churches stand out in Falaise, the Eglise de la Trinité just below the castle and the church of Saint-Gervais Saint-Protais across town. Also note the bellicose statue of William the Conqueror on horseback beside the Trinity Church, with panels below it illustrating other dukes of Normandy.