A breath of French air for heritage lovers

Let’s be honest, there are many who hate France and the French and others who love everything across the Channel. The real problem started in 1066 when William the Conqueror took control of the country and planted his henchmen to run everything.

In Hampshire alone, Hugh de Port, originally from Port-en-Bessin, has got his hands on more than 50 mansions. He responded to Bishop Odo of Bayeux, where this tapestry miraculously survived for visit after visit.

Port-en-Bessin is now a pleasant fishing port to stroll around or visit by boat if you feel like it. Its impressive outer harbor gives way to two basins controlled by locks where yachtsmen can relax in complete safety after crossing the Channel.

Located between Omaha and Gold beaches, it was a strategic port in D-Day operations and targeted by Royal Marine commandos from the 4th Special Service Brigade. Other key parts of the coast were Riva Bella Ouistreham and the nearby Pegasus Bridge site at Bénouville.

Although there are many other traces of the last war in France – milestones marking the path taken by the forces to liberate the country, plaques honoring the English and Americans who liberated villages and resistance fighters, a café at Etel in Brittany where the Germans went and many others – many older contacts between the two countries are widespread.

There are clues in the surprisingly large number of documents held by the Hampshire Record Office, some written in French, albeit in a Norman dialect. One came from Richard I, who spent only six months of his reign in England and conducted most of his business abroad.

In 1190, in Nonancourt, today in the department of Eure, he responded to a request from the merchants of Winchester demanding better trading conditions. In response, he signed a document, still held by the HRO, “exempting them from pleading outside the city walls” and other charges. One of the witnesses to the act was the Archbishop of Rouen.

A Bishop of Winchester, John de Pontoise (1282-1304), who briefly served as Chancellor of Oxford University, named his Parisian estate after the cathedral city, although you would never suspect it. Its current name is Le Kremlin-Bicȇtre, the prefix coming from the fact that after Napoleon’s Russian campaign many veterans were convalescing there in a hospital, and the suffix from ‘Winchester’ via ‘Vinchestre’ and ‘Bichestre’.

There are many other links with the department, notably its religious houses. Of the 96 English priories held after 1066 by French mother houses (known as “outsiders”), Hampshire had more than any other county. Hayling Island belonged to the abbey of Jumièges, St Florent Saumur had a priory at Andover, St Vigor Cerisy that at Moine Sherborne.

Ellingham was under St Sauveur Viscount, while Tiron Chartres had priories at Andwell, Hamble and on the Isle of Wight (St Cross).

In these “twin places” you may find a reference to Hampshire in a local church or museum. But you’re unlikely to get a warm welcome walking into a cafe, say, in St Florent by the Loire and saying, “I live in Andover” – although it’s worth a try – and you should first read Andover Priory by Martin Coppen and the late Richard Jones, a rare readable scholarship available at: [email protected]

None of these foreign priories were real convents where the monks chose their superiors. They were to be appointed by French abbots. Predictably, this was a situation that irritated the locals – trying to settle a dispute with a landlord or bishop in a nearby “castle” was one thing. Having to refer to a Norman or Breton monk across the water was another. It was a great relief in the early 1400s when these ties were severed and the income from the holdings was distributed.

It was the sign that the English were unraveling the cohabitation that had followed the Norman invasion. Much like a drawn-out divorce settlement, the Hundred Years’ War determined who really was the king of France, although the English crown did not finally relinquish its claim until 1802.

HRO holds a number of records giving orders for prayers to be said for success in war, such as one from 1359 in the register of William Edington, Bishop of Winchester (see Volume 8 of the Hampshire Record series) .

Unfortunately, these prayers have not been answered. Indeed, in Chartres, on Easter Monday 1360, a hailstorm hit a camp of 10,000 English soldiers preparing for battle. Lightning killed some, others were hit by huge hailstones and tents were ripped apart. Incredibly, it is estimated that in half an hour 1,000 men and 6,000 horses lost their lives.

The army was so weakened that Edward believed God was giving him a message and negotiated a treaty. He (temporarily) renounced his claim to the French crown, returned Normandy and other territories to the French, and kept only Aquitaine for the English.

This led to a nine-year truce. Another period of peace followed in 1389-1415, after which warfare resumed. Henry V set out from Southampton on the road to Agincourt in northeastern France (not far from Le Touquet). The place of the battle is hardly worth the detour although the modern town of Agincourt, populated by just over 300 inhabitants, has a museum. It has the shape of a long bow – very French!

Calais is of course the main port of entry into France and was ruled by the English until 1558. Once again HRO has documents that help tell the story. Lucrative sinecures were often in the hands of local notables, such as the Tudor diplomat William Sandys (later 1st Baron Sandys), seated at The Vyne, Sherborne St John and Treasurer of Calais.

There’s so much more than poring over a map and perusing Wikipedia can suggest a truly interesting vacation on the water. But one place that stands out for those who want to appreciate the true meaning of ‘1066 and all that’ is the city of Caen, easily accessible via the ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham.

Caen was the power base of William the Conqueror, 7th Duke of Normandy. Just walking around the surviving castle says as much about the power of the Normans as anything else. It was started in 1060 and continued by William’s son, Henry Beauclerc – Henry I of England. In its final form, it still dominates the center of a city of 400,000 inhabitants.

The site is freely accessible and extends over more than 5 hectares, with 800 meters of ramparts. In 1182, it was large enough to accommodate more than 1,000 Norman knights, who gathered there to celebrate Christmas.

Allied bombing in 1944 destroyed huge parts of the castle, although the Exchequer Room survived. Like many disasters, there was a silver lining. During the 1960s, archaeologist Michel de Bouard and his colleagues were able to carry out major excavations for the first time. They discovered remains of the Conqueror’s palace and a low-walled footprint of a huge keep built by Henry I.

The Conqueror’s Palace had a large hall, private apartments and a chapel dedicated to Saint George, which was bombed in 1944. A symbol of oppression and imprisonment, the keep had been destroyed much earlier, during the French Revolution.

In 1989, Hampshire County Council signed an agreement with Lower Normandy, to promote trade and cultural inks. Like EU membership, this did not last, but even without formal ties, the legacy of both countries will always be there to be explored.

To find out more about Hampshire, visit: www.hampshirearchivestrust.co.uk and www.hantsfieldclub.org.uk.

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