The Chateau de Caen is one of the largest and best preserved Norman castles in Europe. It is possibly the finest medieval castle still standing in France, as most others were converted to useas residential palaces. For a short period in the 11th and 12th centuries, Caen was one of the most important and powerful cities in Europe, ruling a loosely organized colonial empire that included Normandy, most of the British Isles and Southern Italy & Sicily, as well as Crusader territories in the Holy Land. The Castle of Caen is also one of the oldest, predating many other major castles in Western Europe. Most of the outer structure, including the walls and battlements, are in nearly pristine condition. The Chateau de Caen is now one of Normandy’s premier tourist attractions.
The Northmen, or Normans, arrived in Northern France during the late 9th century as part of the last major wave of Viking invaders from Scandinavia. In 911 AD, King Charles the Simple of France formally recognized their territory as the Duchy of Normandy. Nominally a vassal state of the French monarchy, in reality Normandy was effectively independent of royal authority. However, after only a few generations, the Normans were assimilating to the local territory, and by the 12th century were culturally indistinct from the rest of France.
In 1035 AD, William II became the Duke of Normandy. Under William’s leadership, Normandy was transformed from a region of restless, landless knights into a formidable military state. He made his capital at Caen and began a vigorous building program that included the castle, two abbeys and a host of lesser buildings. By the 1060s, the Normans were ready for conquest. In 1066, a dispute over the English succession led to the Norman invasion of England. After the disastrous Battle of Hastings, England fell quickly to the Norman onslaught. William the Conqueror became ruler of two powerful European states, ruling England as King William I and Normandy as Duke William II.
After the reign of William the Conqueror, England and Normandy were governed as separate entities. However, because of their joint Norman heritage, England regularly claimed Normandy as part of its sovereign territory. Caen, the richest city in Northern France, was fought over viciously. During the 1340s, the opening phases of the Hundred Year’s War took place around Caen. In 1346, the English arrived in force and sacked the town, but could not breach the castle. After their departure, the English then went on to its stunning victory at the Battle of Crecy. Over the next century, Caen witnessed many more battles and skirmishes, but was ultimately ceded to the French in the 15th century.
The Hundred Year’s War effectively ended English rule in Northern France, and the citizens of Normandy became French rather than Normans. Afterwards the French army was redirected along other frontiers, and Caen’s military impotance dwindled. For five-hundred years Caen avoided the bulk of the ravages of the Revolution, Napoleanic Wars, Franco-Prussian War and World War I. However, it was dragged back into the thick of things during World War II, when it served as a base of operations for Germany’s Atlantic Wall. Caen was the scene of fierce street fighting between the Germans and the English following the D-Day invasion. Although havily damaged, many of the city’s historic buildings, including the castle were fully restored after the war.
Caen Castle is among the largest surviving Norman castles in Europe. While slightly smaller than Trim Castle in Ireland, Caen is in a vastly superior state of preservation. The enormous ramparts which enclose the castle grounds are nearly complete and in perfect condition. There is only a small gap near the keep where the wall has been breached to provide access to the parking lot. The square towers were added a century or so after the wall was built. Access into the castle is via two gatehouses, the Port de Champs and the Port St. Pierre. These are substantially larger than typical gatehouses of the period, and could almost function as mini-keeps during times of assault. A deep moat still protects the northern walls of the castle.
The main keep dominates the large enclosed courtyard of the fortress. The current structure was built over an earlier castle early in the 12th century by Henry Beauclerc. It was severely damaged over the years, notably during the French Revolution. What is left was largely restored in the 1960s, and includes portions that were constructed later by the French army for use as a barracks. Immediately adjacent to the keep are the ruins of William the Conqueror’s original royal apartments. In addition to the keep, one other building in the castle, St. George’s Church, dates from the early Norman construction. Other important sites within the castle are the Exchequer; the 14th century Bailiff’s House, which now houses the Normandy Museum; and the Musee des Beaux Arts de Caen, a modern structure with an excellent art collection, spanning numerous periods.
The Chateau de Caen is located in the heart of the City of Caen, approximately eight miles south of the English Channel and 100 miles west of Paris. The castle is open daily and admission is free. Web: www.chateau.caen.fr (official website).
Normandy is thick with chateaux, but there are few left of William the Conqueror’s time. The majority are later period palaces that make the region seem more like an extension of the Loire Valley. However, there are a few exceptions, notably the Chateau d’Avranches, one of the few other truly medieval castles in the region that has survived intact. Other worthwhile casltes in the region are the Chateau de Dinan and the Chateau de Falaise. The Normandy region also boasts the Abbey of Mont St. Michel, one of the world’s most famous fortified church edifices.