Caen – part one.

Monday 27 May 2019

About 15km inland from Sword Beach, along the canal and River Orne from Pegasus Bridge, stands Caen. It took about a month to liberate it in 1944 and it was significantly damaged in the process. However, little sign of that now. The town has been wonderfully restored.

Caen is the burial place of Guillaume le Counquérant, or Bill the Conk to his friends. He was buried here,

the Abbey of Saint-Étienne which he founded in 1063 as part of a deal to get forgiveness from the Pope for marrying someone too close to him in kinship. Seems everything has a price.

After a brief but successful gap year in England, William returned to Normandy having set up the mechanisms to rule it from abroad. He did a pretty good job of keeping England under control, Doomsday Book and all, but had problems in France, and died in Rouen while on a campaign to sort some upstarts. That was the start of the indignities.

Everyone who had been at his deathbed left his body at Rouen and hurried off to attend to their own affairs. Eventually, the clergy of Rouen arranged to have the body sent to Caen, where William had desired to be buried in the Abbey of Saint-Étienne. The funeral was disturbed by a citizen of Caen who alleged that his family had been robbed of the land on which the church was built. After hurried consultations, the allegation was shown to be true, and the man was compensated. A further indignity occurred when the corpse was lowered into the tomb. It was too large for the space, and when attendants forced the body into the tomb it burst, spreading a disgusting odour throughout the church.

William’s grave is currently marked by a marble slab with a latin inscription dating from the early 19th century. The tomb has been disturbed several times since 1087, the first time in 1522 when the grave was opened on orders from the papacy. The intact body was restored to the tomb at that time, but in 1562, during the French Wars of Religion, the grave was reopened and the bones scattered and lost, with the exception of one thigh bone. This lone relic was reburied in 1642 with a new marker, which was replaced 100 years later with a more elaborate monument. This tomb was again destroyed during the French Revolution but was eventually replaced with the current marker.

Here lies Bill’s thigh bone.

Caen is lovely and passes the ‘romantic weekend break’ test, with plenty to see and do. It’s not short of a church or three, but there are wonderful public spaces as well.

This is the River Orne.

which runs by this racecourse.

You can watch the racing from the street.

As I wandered around I was getting drawn on by interesting views around every corner.

I am parked near Caen Memorial Museum.

It has exhibitions about Wars 1, 2 and Cold, but my sights are set elsewhere tomorrow. There is still much to see.

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