As Falaise and Guillaume le Bâtard, or Guillaume de Normandie, or Guillaume le Conquérant, William the
Bastard, or William of Normandy, or or William the Conqueror (King of England) are so inextricably intertwined, recourse has been made to my partner, Jean-Michel, professor of history at Université
de Bretagne Occidentale, Brest and his vast historical knowledge. He kindly agreed to assist us in writing this particular guide.
This is a town full of charm and serenity, situated in the Ante Valley about 32 kilometres south-east of Caen, an area where the Bocage landscapes are interrupted by cliffs, gorges and ravines. Here the ravine is marked by scattered rock spurs that makes the town (Falaise means 'steep cliff') look quite rugged and somewhat medieval with its enormous fortress dominating the skyline.
Strolling through this peaceful small town provides you with an opportunity to admire the 17th – 18th century houses, the fountains and reminders of a bygone age.
Église de Ia Trinité — The west front of the church features a triangular Gothic porch. On the south side note the gargoyles and small carved figures. At the east end the Renaissance buttress arches, flying buttresses and pillars of the nave add to the charm.
Fontaine d’Arlette — the fountain in the Ante Valley stands quite close to a public swimming pool. A high relief (1957) recalls the meeting of Robert and Arlette (Herleva). From this spot there is an impressive view of the castle towering above,
Automates Avenue — this is a magical museum of clockwork actors. It offers the passer-by an amazing trip through time and space as these shop-window actors come to life again. Manufacturers of automatons for more than 100 years, the Decamps Company traditionally decorated the windows of Parisian department stores with animated scenes during the Christmas festive period; this went on until the 1950’s to the delight of the population. The museum has a collection of more than 300 of these automatons still in working order. Many of the shop window displays are still in working order and can be seen functioning just as they did in the past.
Église Notre-Dame-de-Guibray — This church, which was already under construction at the time of William the Bastard, has survived better than the horse fair of the same name that were held here in earlier times. Although the interior has undergone numerous architectural changes, the apse and the apsidal chapels are still pure Romanesque. The magnificent organ is by Parizot (1746).
As this is the land of the "Goustiers" (Officers of Local Gourmet Food Appreciation Societies) and gastronomic centre, you must sample fresh produce with a regional flavour in the numerous restaurants and farm inns:
• Pommeau or Poiré as an aperitif, followed by dishes cooked with butter and thick cream.
• Between courses, perhaps you should try the famous "Trou Normand": a small glass of Calvados by itself or with a sorbet – often apple-based – before the dessert. It aids digestion and helps you to finish your meal.
• You must try the world-renowned regional cheeses: Camembert, Pont-L’Eveque and Livarot, all washed down with local cider "cidre bouché".
Now we hand over the remainder of this guide to the more than capable hands of Jean-Michel, who will provide you with an insight into the life and times of Guillaume le Bâtard and the château Guillaume-le-Conquérant.
The story of William is legenday, with roots in Viking Mythology and its crowning glory the the crown of England.
Firstly, allow us to explain why we refer to William the Conqueror as William the Bastard. He was the illegitimate son of a relationship between Robert the Magnificent, Duke of Normandie and, Arlette, some say Hervela (among other names), the daughter of Faubert, most likely a local tanner. It would appear that she was born in 1010. When she was sixteen gave birth to a son called Richard. The boy's father was Gilbert, Count of Brionne, one of the most powerful landowners in Normandie. As she was not married to Gilbert, the boy became known as Richard Fitz Gilbert. The term 'Fitz' was used to show that Richard was the illegitimate son of Gilbert.
The following year, Robert, Duke of Normandie took her into the château as his mistress. She was a shrewd woman, scorning secrecy in her eventual assignation by riding publicly through the main entrance to meet him. During her pregnancy, she is said to have dreamed of bearing a mighty tree that cast its shade over Normandie and England. William is believed to have been born in either 1027 or 1028, more than likely in the autumn of the later year. He was born the grandnephew of Queen Emma of Normandie, wife of King Ethelred the Unready and later of King Canute the Great. Instead of marrying Arlette/Herleva, Robert persuaded her to marry his friend, Herluin of Conteville. After marriage, Arlette/Hervela had three more children, Odo, Robert and Muriel. Later the sons became known as Odo of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain.
In 1035, Robert, Duke of Normandie died. Although William, only seven at the time and illegitimate, he was Robert's only living son, and so inherited his father's title. Gilbert, Count of Brionne, became William's guardian. A number of Norman barons would not accept an illegitimate son as their leader and in 1040 an attempt was made to kill William. The plot failed but they did manage to kill Gilbert of Brionne.
This unrest continued with rival Norman noblemen, who had better claim for dukedom, plotting to usurp him. This cost William, who was supported by King Henry I of France, three guardians, though not Count Alan of Brittany, who was his last guardian. At the age of 15 William was knighted by Henry. By the time he was 19 he was successfully dealing with threats of rebellion and invasion. With the assistance of Henry, William finally secured control of Normandy by defeating rebel Norman barons at Caen in the Battle of Val-ès-Dunes in 1047, obtaining the Truce of God, which was backed by the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1053, William married Matilda of Flanders in 1053 in the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Eu, Normandy (Seine-Maritime) after a tempestuous courtship that included violence by both parties. The most spectacular being when Matilda told a representative of William, who had come to ask for her hand in marriage that she was far too high-born (descended from King Alfred the Great of England) to consider marrying a bastard. William, on hearing this, then rode from Normandie to Brugge, found Matilda on her way to church, dragged her off her horse by her long braids, threw her on the ground in front of her astounded attendants, and then rode off. The wedding took place despite a papal ban by Pope Leo IX. At the time, William was about 26 years old and Matilda was 22. William was a faithful husband who cherished his wife throughout his life; their marriage produced four sons and six daughters. In repentance for what was a consanguine marriage (as in "same blood"), William donated St-Stephen's church (l'Abbaye-aux-Hommes) and Matilda donated Sainte-Trinité church (Abbaye aux Dames). Although Matilda was only 127 centimetres tall, the smallest adult queen in British history, she was just as ferocious as William: Whilst acting as his Regent in England, she used her authority to confiscate the lands of the man she had loved as a young woman, a love that was not reciprocated, Brihtric, and threw him in prison, where he died. The old saying: “There is nothing worse than the wrath of a woman scorned” comes to mind.
However, King Henry became concerned because the noble marriage of William increased the power of the Normans too much. Consequently, Henry attempted invading Normandie twice (1054 and 1057), to no avail.
Following the assassination of Gilbert of Brionne, his large estates in Normandie passed on to his legitimate son, Baldwin of Flanders. As Richard Fitz Gilbert was illegitimate, he received a very meagre portion of his father’s estate. When William, Duke of Normandie, decided to invade England in 1066, he invited his three half-brothers, Richard Fitz Gilbert, Odo of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain to join him. Richard, who had married Rohese, daughter of Walter Giffard of Normandie, also brought members of his wife's family with him.
Later in life the enemies of William are said to have commented derisively that William was as stinking as a tanner shop, and the residents of besieged Alençon hung skins from the city walls to taunt him.
As you can see, even in those times, there was illegitimacy, in-breeding, mistresses and consanguine marriages.
Château Guillaume le Conquérant
Firmly rooted to a rocky outcrop between the valleys of the Ante and Marescot, formerly surrounded by swamps, the château is in the perfect position for defence and dominates the town and towers over the Fontaine d'Arlette down by the river, one of the most evocative historic sights imaginable.
On the 11th July, 1199, John “Lackland” (a nickname from the French: Sans Terre, for his lack of an inheritance as the youngest son and for his loss of territory to France), King of England and Duke of Aquitaine signed a charter founding the Jurade du St-Emilion, the body responsible for controlling the quality of the famous St-Emilion wines. Needless to say King John had a second nickname, “Soft-sword" for his alleged military ineptitude!!
The Dukes of Normandie, the Angevin Kings and (from 1204) the Kings of France fortified the castle though many turbulent years in line with castles built by William the Conqueror and his successors after the conquest of 1066. The two square keeps are rare examples of medieval architecture that associate military purpose and residential functions are part of a group of Anglo-Norman “palace-keeps” built by William the Conqueror and his successors after the 1066 conquest of England.
King Henry I built the Square Keep at Falaise. This is probably where William de Braose III held Arthur of Brittany in 1202. At the tender age of sixteen, Arthur had challenged his uncle, King John, in an effort to take the crown. William de Braose captured Arthur at the siege of Mirebeau and held him in honourable captivity at the château.
King John was elated at this victory, not least because his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine had been trapped inside Mirebeau castle when Arthur attacked it. Soon William de Braose realised that John intended to harm the young prince. He informed the King that it was his duty to protect Arthur, and the Prince was moved to Rouen. Here Arthur disappeared mysteriously. It was said that King John murdered him with his own hands and threw the body into the River Seine.
The casts of three famous tombs have been placed in the castle chapel. They represent Henry II, his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their son Richard I. The originals lie at Fontevrault. The tomb of Eleanor is particularly exquisite. Some people believe that Maud de Saint Valery, William de Braose III's wife, once served Eleanor as a hand maiden, however I have yet to find any source for this story.
Very little work was done in the centuries that followed the construction of the château, which had become indefensible because of the progress of artillery and abandoned at the beginning of the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th century the ditches surrounding the keep had been progressively filled in, the roofs and upper floors of the square keeps had caved in and disappeared. A suggestion was made at the time that it should be demolished; however the idea was abandoned on grounds of cost.
By 1840, again threatened with destruction and in a state of ruin, it was saved by the Ministre des Beaux-Arts as they deemed it to be a National Heritage Monument. Over the decades that followed many abortive attempts were made to conserve and preserve the château. It wasn’t until 1997 that anything tangible was forthcoming, when, at last, an enormous amount of money and resources was available to be lavished on restoring the central donjon (dungeon), reminiscent of the Tower of London with its cream-coloured Caen stone. It has also made easier access for visitors, albeit has been somewhat controversial locally because of the modern materials used, including steel and glass. A guiding principle was to avoid any possible confusion as to what is original and authentic, and what is new. Rest assured you'll be in no doubt whatever. Steel slabs, concrete blocks, glass floors and tent-like canvas awnings have been erected over the bare ruins, and metal staircases even squeezed into the wall cavities. The raw structure of the keep, down to its very foundations, lies exposed to view, while the newly created rooms are used for changing exhibitions that focus on the castle's fascinating past. The defensive walls of Falaise still survive as do one of the gate houses which are, for me, an unforgettable image of medieval Normandie.
Now for the tour:
Inner Courtyard — as you walk through the Porte St-Nicolas you enter a large area of about a hectare, defined by fifteen towers. Plans are afoot to enhance this area, which was once a hive of activity.
Main keep — this rectangular structure built during the 12th century is surprisingly large; the great flat buttresses, which mark the line of the walls, still convey an impression of impregnability. The huge aula on the second floor was the main reception room. The ambitious restoration involved the latest and most sophisticated techniques: the flooring is made of alternating squares of glass and lead, while the ceiling consists of a Teflon covering stretched over an iron frame. Note the Chapelle St-Prix, a small oratory attended by the lords of the château.
Small keep — This luminous, well-balanced construction commissioned by Henri I
Plantagenet in the late 12th century was designed for a particular purpose: to guard the main keep from attack from the rock platform and provide more comfort for the Duke.
The loopholes under the elegant windows have been adapted for gun fire.
Tour “Talbot” — This impressive round tower, 35 metres high with walls 4 metres thick, was allegedly named after John Talbot (1st Earl of Shrewsbury), Constable of France and governor of the château in 1449, who undertook to restore it. It is linked to the smaller keep by means of a curtain wall. An incredibly deep well (65m/1 97ft) carved out of the wall ensures that water is distributed to all floors of the castle.
From the rock platform there are some inspiring views of the surrounding countryside.
An impressive statue of the Conqueror (surrounded by the early Dukes of Normandie) stands outside the castle entrance. A large memorial, created in bronze in 1931, displays the names of William the Conqueror's companions at the Battle of Hastings. The name of William de Braose appears here as "Guillaume de Briouse".
At the present time the château is closed due to restoration works on the ramparts. It is expected to reopen on Monday, March 31st 2008 (a date to be confirmed). If you wish to check the exact reopening date please contact the château after Monday, February 18th 2008 on if you want to know more using the following numbers:
Telephone: 00 33 (0)2 31 41 61 44.
Fax: 0033 (0)2 31 41 66 87
Admission charges for 2017
Reduced rate adults: 6€
Children (from 6 to 16): 4 € (free under 6 years old)
Family Pass: Special price 20 €: 2 adults and the first child, the other children between 6 and 16 years are free.
Guided Tours in English are available daily at 11.30 each day, 5€ per person. In July and August, a second tour is available at 3.00 in the afternoon.
Finally I turn to the dark days of August 1944 and the climax of the Battle of Normandie. This was the Battle of the Falaise Pocket, where the allied forces sought to encircle the German 5th and 7th Panzer armies and cut off their retreat. The only exit left open to the retreating German armies was a small opening between Trun and Chambois, a road to the south-east of Falaise, known later as the “Corridor of Death” as the allied advance destroyed 730 tanks out of a force of 880 and annihilated two German armies. Reports at the time suggest that there was so much smoke from burning armour that the RAF and Polish pilots were having trouble finding new targets.
It was estimated by the Commander of Canadian 2nd Division, General Henry Duncan Graham “Harry” Crerar, the German armies had lost 70,000 men, killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The town was so badly devastated, bomb craters as far as the eye could see, that the liberating Canadian forces, entering the town at 1500 on August 17th, were unable to determine where the roads were and had to bulldoze a 4 metre wide strip through the centre of the town.
To the south-west of the town you will find Musée Août 1944, a private museum conceived by Eddy Florentin and Joël Tanter, housed in a former cheese factory. Here you will find a collection of lovingly restored heavy English, American and Germany fighting machinery including a V1 flying bomb, 1-tonne half-track gun carrier, an 18-tonne heavy recovery vehicle, an Austin K2 Ambulance and a GM Otter light reconnaissance vehicle.
During your visit, you will be able to see dummies, suitably attired depicting the principle phases of the Battle of Normandie starting with the landings on the Normandie beaches, then the German retreat as well as an area dedicated to the liberation of Falaise. There is also a small area depicting to the work of the Norman Resistance.
The museum is open every day from the end of March to the middle of November and it only costs 6 € for a very informative and interesting hour. Please come and support this enterprise. My thanks to Michel Leloup, the curator, for his time, extensive knowledge and for allowing me open access to all areas of the museum.