Normandy and Brittany
Normandy is a name forever associated with two of Western history’s most famous dates: 1066, the year in which William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy, invaded England and June 6, 1944, D-Day, when the allied armies landed on the beaches to liberate France.
It is the tension between these two great countries, and in particular the movement between them of remarkable invasion forces, that forms the background to the shared inheritance of the English and French speaking worlds. Britanny shares even its name with its northern neighbor, Great Britain. This is the Celtic fringe of France, whose legacies are both the ancient megalithic monuments and a strong folkloric tradition. Both regions breathe the sea and it is the coastal scenery above all that stays with the traveller to these most original of French regions.
After the settlement of Viking forces in the Seine valley in the second half of the ninth century the creation of Rollo as the first Duke of Normandy in 911 created a march between the French king and the vagaries of further invasion along his exposed north coast. Soon the Dukes of Normandy had close blood ties with the Anglo-Saxon rulers of England and when the opportunity arose to press his claim for the vacant English throne on the death of Edward the Confessor, William leapt at the chance of elevating his status from Duke to King. The famous tapestry in the town of Bayeux documents these historic events in an extraordinary way. Less than a century later Normandy became the heart of a great Angevin empire that stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees. It was to be the first step towards a conjoining of the two kingdoms which would only be resolved at the outcome of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453. Early on in our walk we discover some of the most important sites that relate to the shared Norman heritage of France and England, castles where the great Dukes ruled and Abbeys that sent their religious leaders to head the great institutions of Norman England.
With the arrival of the Celts from Britain in the fifth century AD the region that had been known as Armor received a new name – little Britain or Britanny. The subsequent legends that were to grow up around the great figures of the south west of England were also sung in north west France. This is the shared home of the legends of Tristan and Isolde, Lancelot and Guinevere. Throughout the Middle Ages the history of Britanny was strongly linked with that of Britain and during the Hundred Years’ War the Bretons proved a most formidable fighting force and a thorn in the side of the French monarchs. With its dramatic rocky coastline and magnificent seafood it is the most tantalizingly picturesque region in one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
The long coastline of both Normandy and Britanny links France to her northern, bellicose neighbours. This was always a permeable frontier and for a few weeks in the summer of 1944 it once again became the focus of history. The invasion of north western Europe brought the full might of the Allies together to dislodge the German troops and establish their beachhead in a what was to become the bloodiest campaign of the Second World War. Today it is also its most famous, ‘a second of history that overshadowed all our lives’. We spend two full days examining the legacy of the battles for the beaches and the hedgerows that led to the successful liberation of France.