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.


William’s Ducal Chateau in Caen

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.

Caen_France_ DennisPeeters

Caen and the Abbey of St Etienne – photo Dennis Peeters

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.


Abbaye aux Hommes

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.

Caen - the central portal of Sainte-Trinité, (Abbey aux Dames) with Romanesque detail.

Abbey aux Dames central door

Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror (as depicted in the Victorian era)

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.


William the Conqueror’s tombstone

Most poignantly, these two abbey churches in Caen are the final resting places of William and Matilda.

thomas dowsonThomas 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.