History of Normandy

Normandy's history has been long and often turbulent, and has left a rich heritage of listed monuments, world-famous sites, and superb museums.


Normandy has been settled since ancient times. Neolithic peoples were replaced by bronze-age Celtic tribes who spread all over western Europe and the British Isles before the Roman armies of Julius Cesar conquered what is now France. In the 3rd century the Roman Emperor Diocletian created a province whose boundaries were close to those of today's Normandy. He subsequently gave Constantius, father of Constantine I, responsibility for Britain and Gaul, including Normandy. Not for the last time, England and Normandy were to be under the same rule.
The collapse of the Roman empire led to invasions by Germanic tribes, the Franks, who created new kingdoms which initially encompassed Northern France, and in the centuries to come, all of France, the Spanish Marches, and Northern Italy. Power struggles and dynastic conflicts over the next two centuries culminated in the domination of the region by Charlemagne's Carolingian Empire, which extended from the borders of Saxony and Bavaria in the East, to the borders of Spain. After the death of Charlemagne's only son, the empire was divided into three, and the future Normandy became part of the Kingdom of the West Franks until 987, when on the death of the last Frankish king the monarchy passed to the Capetians. Charles the Bald, duke of the region around Paris ("the Ile de France"), became king, and the kingdom became known as France.


During the 8th and 9th centuries, attracted by the riches of the province with which they had often traded, Vikings ventured down in their long boats each summer from their Scandinavian homelands to raid the monasteries and towns, reaching Paris in 845. After a few years they began to over-winter in the region, and by 911 the Viking "jarl" or leader Rollon, Count of Rouen, was powerful enough to force the French king to sign a treaty ceding part of the province to him, from which it took the name of Normandy, the country of the Northmen. In the following century and a half, Rollon and his successors, now converted to Christianity and nominal vassals of the French king, expanded their domains by conquest until they covered roughly the area of today's Normandy. Rollon's grandson Richard I took the title of Duke and the family name, St Clair or Sinclair, from Saint Clair sur Epte, where the treaty had been signed.

In 1035, with the death of Duke Robert of Normandy, the title passed to his illegitemate son William, then 8 years old. William quickly learned the arts of war and politics in the violent society of 11th century Normandy. Knighted by the French king Henri I at the age of 15, a few years later he was successfully leading his troops to put down rebellions and invasions, supported militarily by Henri and politically by the Pope.


When King Edward the Confessor died in 1066, leaving no heirs, three rival claimants appeared to dispute the throne of England : Harold Earl of Wessex, Harald III of Norway, and William, whose great aunt Emma was Edward's mother, wife of Ethelred the Unready. William also claimed that Edward, while in exile in Normandy, had promised him the throne, and that Harold had pledged loyalty to him when knighted by William a few years previously.

Edward's will named Harold as his successor, and the new king, anticipating the reactions of the unsuccessful claimants, raised an army and a fleet to defend the coastline, and found himself assailed by his own brother Tostig as well as the king of Norway.

Meanwhile Duke William, feeling that a consecrated banner sent him by the Pope in his support gave him the moral high ground, assembled a force of 600 ships and 7000 men at St Valéry sur Somme, and after some weeks delay due to bad weather, set forth with his army in his Viking long ships to meet Harold, who having defeated both Harald and Tostig, had marched south to oppose William. The decisive battle of Hastings, in which Harold was defeated after a day-long struggle, established William and founded the lineage which dominated both sides of the Channel until the thirteenth century.


After the Conquest, the Duchy was a source of rivalry between the French and English kings, culminating in 1204 in the recovery of continental Normandy (excluding most of the Channel Islands) by Philip II of France. After a brief re-occupation by the English in the 15th century, the French victory in the Hundred Years War confirmed the Duchy's unification with France, and the centre of influence moved to Paris.
French rule was not much to the taste of the independent-minded Norman people, who had acquired rights and privileges, and local laws, which were not always respected by the increasingly authoritarian monarchy in Paris. In 1314, a series of revolts across France, protesting against Philip le Bel's latest tax, led Philip's successor Louis le Hutin to sign a number of provincial charters, including the "Charte aux Normands", inspired by Magna Carta, which recognised the Norman people's specificities and rights, including that of never being called before a court outside the Duchy. Although repeatedly confirmed over the centuries by French kings, it was often neglected, and finally abolished by Louis XIV.


In 1469 Louis XI symbolically put an end to the Duchy by breaking the Ducal Ring, and Duke Charles was dispossessed of his lands. Normandy became a province ruled directly from Paris. A few years later, another symbol of Norman independence was diminished when the Echiquier, or High Court, of Rouen was renamed the Parliament of Normandy by François I, to become increasingly subject to Royal power. When the same François I founded Le Havre, it was in order to establish a commercial port within a few days' journey of Paris, more than to develop the province's economy.

In the centuries that followed, independent-minded Normandy, so close to Paris, remained something of a thorn in the side of the central power, and when in 1640 the Parliament of Normandy showed insufficient enthusiasm in putting down the Revolt of the "Nu-Pieds" (Bare-foot revolt), one of many in the "century of revolts", it was closed and replaced by representatives from Paris until the following year.

The economy and culture of Normandy suffered greatly during the religious wars that devastated France in the 17th century, and it was not until Henri IV passed the Edict of Nantes, guaranteeing religious freedom, that the economy of the country, and of Normandy in particular, prospered again and continued to do so until the Revolution in 1789, when the old order was overturned, and the province was divided into 5 départements.


When the high hopes of the Revolution led to disappointment and arbitrary incursions on traditional freedoms, revolts spread from Brittany to Normandy, and civil war ravaged the countryside until it was bloodily put down at the battle of Vernon, where the insurrectionary army under the Marquis of Puisaye was defeated by the army of the Convention. The province licked its wounds and remained peaceful, until with the arrival in power of Napoleon, the loss of ancient privileges was compensated by economic prosperity, which continued throughout the 19th century.

When the same François I founded Le Havre, it was in order to establish a commercial port within a few days' journey of Paris


The nineteenth century brought peace and prosperity after the temporary disruption of the Napoleonic Wars, until the war of 1870-71 between France and Germany, when the banks of the Seine between Elbeuf and Le Havre were the scenes of hard-fought battles. Rouen, Dieppe, Fécamp and Boulbec were occupied, and the region paid a high price, both literally and figuratively, for the conflict.

Nevertheless, the economy recovered, and as the century came to a close, Normandy's coastal resorts and ancient towns became popular destinations for the newly well-off middle classes of France, Britain and the rest of Europe, which continued for much of the 20th century. The region was not in the direct front line of World War I, and it was not until the German advance of 1940, and the Allied invasion in 1944, that the population of Normandy again suffered the desolation of war. Four hundred towns and villages were totally destroyed, and thousands of civilians killed, before peace came and rebuilding could begin.

Today, Normandy's battle scars have long healed, and the region is prosperous once again, and looking forward to a future as exciting as its long history.

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