The region of Normandy in France is a place where history, culture, and cows collide in a charmingly stimulative way. The region is famous its rich history, with the legacy of William the Conqueror, Joan of Arc, and World War II still having a deep impact on the local culture.
Indeed it can be so difficult to choose what Normandy is most famous for, visitors to the region easily find themselves overwhelmed. So let’s explore a few interesting facts about Normandy, shall we? Allons-y!
1. It has some very famous cheeses.
France is known for its cheeses, and the region of Normandy is no exception. There are several famous cheeses from Normandy, with the most popular being Camembert, Pont L’Eveque, Livarot, and Neufchâtel.
The Camembert de Normandie is from the village of Camembert, around the 18th century. It became widely known during World War II, when it was included in the soldier rations.
Pont-l’Eveque, from the village of Pont L’Eveque, is an uncooked and unpressed cheese, and has a slightly pungent smell. It is the oldest of the Norman cheeses, dating back to the 12th century.
Nêufchatel is a slightly crumbly cheese made in the Neufchâtel-en-Bray, Normandy. It is believed to date back to the 6th century. (The American Nêufchatel has cream added to it.) You can read more about food specialties from Normandy here.
2. It has inspired some world-class impressionist artists.
With beautiful scenery, Normandy has inspired some famous French artists to put paint to canvas. Perhaps the most famous is Claude Monet who lived in the Norman village of Giverny and painted many scenic landscapes about the area.
Other Impressionist artists who flocked to Normandy include Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Eugene Boudin, Paul Signac and more.
3. William the Conqueror is buried in Caen.
William the Conqueror may have conquered England in 1066, leaving his descendants to rule through the House of Windsor, but his heart was in France. He is buried in Caen, Normandy in the Abbaye aux Hommes, in the heart of his duchy.
His beloved wife Mathilde is also buried in Caen, in the Abbaye aux Femmes which a few steps away. William had married his cousin, and so as repentance, they were buried separately. You can read more about William the Conqueror here.
4. The name Normandy comes from the Vikings.
The name Normandy comes from the Vikings who descended from Scandinavia to raid greener pastures. They were known as “Northmen”, in Latin “Northmanni”, eventually leading to “Normandy” when they settled here.
5. The Royal family is descended from Rollo the Viking who is buried in Rouen, Normandy.
Rollo of the Vikings is seen as the forefather of many of the great European monarchies. He was born in either Norway or Denmark, who came to become the 1st ruler of Normandy.
Rollo was William the Conqueror’s great-great-great grandfather, establishing the House of Normandy and the Duchy of Normandy that William descended from.
Thus the current British Royal Family, the Windsors, along with the other monarchies of Europe can all trace their lineage back to Rollo. Rollo died in 928AD and was buried at the Rouen Cathedral in central Normandy.
6. Its Normande cows are a breed apart.
Normandy is known for their breed of dark brown and white cows called the Normande. The cattle was brought to the country by the Vikings who came along with Rollo in the 9th and 10th centuries.
It is the milk of these cows that is used for the Normande cheeses like Camembert, etc.
7. It has the oldest restaurant in France.
Established in 1345, La Couronne in the city of Rouen in Normandy is the oldest inn in France. Today it is a hotel and restaurant right in the center of town.
The restaurant is said to have welcomed many a distinguished guest, from American Cornélus Vanderbilt to Julia Child.
8. Mont-Saint-Michel is officially part of Normandy.
It is a medieval monastery perched on a giant rock in between the coast of Brittany and Normandy. Both regions have laid claim, and for the moment, the town is deemed to be in Normandy, much to the annoyance of the residents of Brittany.
9. The Bayeux tapestry is still on display here.
One of the most important artefacts of the medieval age is the Bayeux tapestry in Normandy. It is an exquisitely stitched medieval tapestry that tells the story of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066.
The tapestry is a large embroidered cloth nearly 70 metres long and 50 centimetres high that depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England, culminating in the Battle of Hastings and the death of King Harold II of England in 1066.
Originally, it was believed to have been stitched under the guidance of Mathilde, William the Conqueror’s beloved wife, but that claim has now been refuted.
Instead, historians believe that it was commissioned by Bishop Odo, William the Conqueror’s half-brother, and is thought to have been made in England at the end of the 11th century, not in Bayeux.
It is unclear how the tapestry ended back in Normandy, and some scholars believe it may have done so during William’s lifetime. The earliest record show it was listed in an inventory of the treasures of Bayeux Cathedral in 1476.
10. Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake here.
In the city of Rouen in Normandy, you will find a discreet statue of Joan of Arc placed on the side of Église Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc to mark the spot where she was burned at the stake for heresy.
She was born in Domrémy (Grand Est region) over 460km away, and she arrived in the French court at 17 years-old, dressed as a male soldier. She made a strong impression on the King, who sent her into battle with his soldiers.
Joan was quite successful, before she was betrayed and killed. She remains one of the most famous women in France, and sanctified for her piety and devotion.
11. The Capital is Caen.
The capital of Normandy used to be Rouen, until William the Conqueror decided he needed to be closer to the coastline to access his lands in England.
The city of Caen became his stronghold and continues to be the capital of the Normandy, even though Rouen is slightly more populated.
Built by William, the Château de Caen is built from Caen stone which is the same stone that he used to build the Tower of London in England.
12. Key figures
Here are some key facts and figures about Bretagne:
- Population: 3.5 million
- Area: 11,547 square miles (29,906 km2)
13. Normandy officially became part of France in 1204.
After William the Conqueror died, his descendants tried to hold on to the Duchy of Normandy. His great-grandson King Henry II of England married Eleanor of Aquitaine, another rich duchy in France, to try to consolidate his hold on the French coast.
But the peace would not last. After several wars, in 1204, during the reign of Henry’s son, John of England was defeated by the King of France Philip II. Normandy officially became part of France.
Several wars would continue, including the War of the Roses and the 100 years’ war fighting for both the French and English crowns, but Normandy would remain part of France.
14. Its lacemakers are recognized by UNESCO.
Normandy is famous for its lace-making tradition which dates back over 300 years. The type of lace is a bobbin lace, which is sometimes dyed in black.
These laces can be in the form of ribbons or ruffles stitched onto clothing, but there are also shawls, mantillas, scarves, etc. made entirely of lace.
15. D-day invasions were almost held elsewhere.
Normandy remains legendary because of the courage of the Allied soldiers who landed on its beaches on June 6, 1944. However, Normandy was not always the 1st choice.
Other possibilities were around Calais, Picardie or the Belgian coast. They each had the benefit of being closer to the English coast, with excellent harbours and the logistical supply lines would have been shorter. However, the Allies wanted the element of surprise, which is why Normandy was picked.
16. There are still bunkers and shrapnel on the beaches and fields here.
The beaches and areas around Normandy still preserve some of the bunkers and artefacts of the war for historical purposes.
17. Allied battle codenames for the beaches have become their official names.
The landings on D-Day occur at 5 main beaches, with code names given to keep their location secret:
- Sword Beach – 28,000 British troops
- Juno Beach – 21,000 Canadian troops
- Gold Beach – 25,000 British troops
- Omaha Beach – 43,000 American troops
- Utah Beach – 21,000 American troops plus 14,000 airborne
Today the names of those beaches have stuck. Street signs refer to the beaches by these code names, and GPS coordinates have been officially updated with those names.
18. Its apples are delicious.
Normandy is famous for its various varieties of apples, with over 800 types of apples grown in the region. Some of the most famous apples range from Belle de Boskoop, Cox Orange, Elstar, Jonagold, Melrose and Reine des Reinettes.
Because of the different types of apples available, apple cider has been made in Normandy since the 11th century and it is one of the main exports of this area.
19. It has some great liquors.
Calvados and Pommeau de Normandie are made from apples, while Benedictine is a herbal liquor. In addition, a cocktail native to Normandy is the Kir Normande, made with fruit liqueur and cider.
20. The highest cathedral in France is in Rouen, Normandy.
The highest cathedral in France is the gothic-style Rouen Cathedral in Normandy, France. It is the seat of the Archbishop of Rouen, Primate of Normandy.
The Rouen cathedral was consecrated in 1063 in the presence of William the Conqueror, 3 years before he went off to England to defeat King Harald in the Battle of Hastings. (He was still a fief to the French Kings at the time.)
21. The people here used to speak Norman.
In the Normandy, the locals used to speak the historic “Norman” language before being overtaken by the dominant French language. It derives from the langues d’Oil, a romance language that is from the same family as with French, Picard and Walloon.
This Norman French became the administrative language of Anglo-Norman and Law French used in England.
In 1539, King François I banned the use of all regional languages like Norman and standardized the French that was being spoken around the different regions of France, including Normandy.
22. Many Parisians have vacation homes here.
In the 19th century, a new train line was built from Paris to the coast of Normandy. A clever developer named the Duc de Morny had an idea.
He bought up several acres of marshland in Deauville on the coast of Normandy, and convinced his half brother Emperor Napoleon III and the aristocrats around him to purchase homes along the sea as it would be good for their health.
Today, Deauville and Trouville-sur-mer, as well as other coastal cities are popular places for wealthy Parisians to own a vacation home, being only 2 hours away from the capital.
23. Empress Sissi stayed in a holiday château here.
Along with other holiday-goers, Normandy was also popular with the famed Empress Sissi of Austria. She stayed several times at Château de Sassetot (now nicknamed “Château de Sissi”) which is just a few miles away from the cliffs of Etretat.
24. The author of Arsene Lupin lived here.
If you are a fan of the Arsene Lupin books, or the Netflix show, or even if you just enjoy mysteries, you may be interested to know that author Maurice LeBlanc lived in Etretat, Normandy.
This is why Normandy features often in the Lupin novels. LeBlanc’s house is is now a museum available to visit, called “Le Clos Lupin”.
25. The Norman flag features golden leopards.
The region of Normandy has a flag and standard featuring two (or sometimes 3) golden leopards.
William the Conqueror adopted those leopards on his standard, and today if you look at the Royal standard of the UK, you will notice the same snarling leopards that originated in Normandy.
26. An oak tree dates back to Charlemagne.
A small village in Normandy, called Allouville-Bellefosse, is known for its ancient oak tree. Known as the “Chêne chapelle”, the tree dates between 800-1200 years old and is said to date back to the reign of Charlemagne.
It is 15 metres (49 ft) high with a circumference of 16 metres (52 ft). Its hollow trunk is used as the walls of the two tiny chapels called the Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix (“Our Lady of Peace”) and the Chambre de l’Ermite (“Hermit’s room”) that were built there in 1696.
27. The Pont de Normandie is one of the largest bridges in the world.
Le Havre is a small port city situated on the mouth of the river Seine in Normandy. It was founded by King François I in 1517 because from the entrance at Le Havre, boats could travel all the way down the Seine to Paris, bringing trade and commerce.
Le Havre was severely bombed during WWII because of its location and had to be entirely rebuilt after the war. The team was led by Auguste Perret who managed the project.
And nothing epitomizes the new Le Havre more than the Pont de Normandie bridge which was completed in 1995. At the time, it was the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world, and also had a record distance between piers for a cable-stayed bridge.
It is the the last bridge to cross the Seine before it empties into the Atlantic ocean.
28. The Normans like to celebrate with herring.
Considered the “King of Fish”, it is a big part of the culture and economy in Normandy. As the French history lesson goes, it was 1429 during the 100 year war. The city of Orleans was under attack and besieged by the English.
Somehow, the French managed to cut off the food supply wagons of herring destined for the invading English, and after a famous battle, managed to liberate the city. All because of the herring.
If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more facts about France. A bientôt!