In the latest article in the World Travel Blogger series, archaeologist and travel writer Thomas Dowson, takes us to the historic city of Caen, in northern France.
From the walls of the imposing castle in the centre of Caen you have a vast view over this northwestern French city and beyond. Presumably this is why William, then Duke of Normandy but later William the Conqueror, chose the location for his ducal château. The castle is still one of the largest Medieval fortresses in Europe today housing the departmental art, archaeology and local history museums.
Looking east, to your right are the striking spires of the abbey Church of Saint Etienne. To your left you would be able to see the large and somewhat unassuming towers of the abbey church of Sainte Trinité if you could see them. They are now blocked from sight by more modern high-rises. Although separated by the city centre and at least a 45 minute walk between them, these two abbeys have a much more intimate history.
The Abbey of Saint Etienne is also known as the Abbaye aux Hommes, or the ‘Men’s Abbey’. It was dedicated to Saint Stephen and founded in 1063. Founded in the same year, the Abbey of Sainte Trinité is also called the Abbaye aux Dames as it was a monastery for women. That both of these abbeys were founded in the same year is no coincidence. Rather, it is a consequence of the power of the Catholic church in France in Medieval times.
Anyone who has read anything about William will know how ruthless he was in seeking out and establishing political alliances. For himself, he had decided to marry Matilda of Flanders. Matilda was the daughter of the Count of Flanders and Adèle of France (daughter of France’s Robert II). He was initially refused her hand, and there are differing legends that detail his reaction and his brutal treatment of Matilda.
Whatever the truth of these legends, Matilda eventually wanted to marry no one but William. This was strictly against her father’s wishes, but more importantly, against a Papal decree from Pope Leo IX. William and Matilda were cousins. Not to be deterred, William and Matilda were married in the city of Eu (in Normandy) in 1051 or 1052.
The Prior of a nearby abbey, Lanfranc of Pavia, despite his reservations with the marriage, sought a reconciliation between the Pope and William. William and Matilda agreed to establish two monasteries as penance and to gain Leo IX’s forgiveness, one for men and one for women. And so the two abbeys of Caen were founded in 1063. For his services, Lanfranc was made the first Abbot of Saint Etienne.
Both abbeys suffered greatly in the battles that have raged across Normandy in the intervening years since their founding: the Hundred Years War, the French Revolution, and World War II. But both are definitely worth a visit today. Saint Etienne is one of the finest Romanesque buildings in Normandy. The spires of the abbey Church of Sainte Trinité were destroyed during the Hundred Years War. Although these were replaced by the less striking towers we see today, there are still some wonderful Romanesque features surviving around the church.
Most poignantly, these two abbey churches in Caen are the final resting places of William and Matilda.
Thomas Dowson is an archaeologist turned traveller, writing about his journeys back in time on Archaeology Travel. You can follow him on Facebook Archaeology Travel Twitter @archtrav and Instagram @thomasdowson, where he shares his experiences of visiting archaeological and historic sites around the world, from our earliest times to the not so distant past.
Thanks so much for sharing this intriguing story Thomas – hadn’t heard of Matilda. Wonder if she was happy married to William; he sounds quite ruthless!
Thank you for the opportunity Zoe. Yes, he was a bit ruthless – but I am intrigued by their ‘separation’ in death.
And of course, there are many other wonderful Abbeys in Normandy – particularly in the Seine Valley. A great place to explore Medieval religious traditions in art and architecture.
Delighted to have you feature here Thomas. It’s always interesting to discover the human story hidden within an ancient building’s walls and your combination of history and photography helps bring it alive.
Very interesting. I knew nothing about William the Conqueror except that he invaded England, Killed Harold and built the Tower of London.
Ditto Carol – interesting to get another perspective on him.
There are several stories for William and mathilda ‘ s wedding. And the stories of the dukes and Normandy. The abbey’s guides ‘s parish are big knowing of st Stephen and is for you!! We expect for you !
Mercie beaucoup Jacques for your enthusiasm and hopefully you will get plenty more visitors to discover more about William and Matilda 🙂