Last edited 07 Mar 2020

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The Dukes of Normandy and the second world war

The Bayeux Tapestry.png
The Bayeux Tapestry shows Duke William lifting his helmet to be recognised on the battlefield of Hastings (Photo: Myrabella, Wikimedia).

When Britain, Canada and the USA formed the D-Day landing forces that liberated Normandy, it was the current Queen’s father, King George VI, who was commander-in-chief of the British and Canadian forces. He was also the Duke of Normandy. These Dukes of Normandy have had a remarkable impact on world history.

Among the cataclysmic events that shook the world in the 1920s and 30s were Mussolini coming to power in Italy in 1922, and Hitler becoming Germany’s chancellor in 1933. Rising inflation in the USA led to the 1929 Wall Street stock market collapse, resulting in the withdrawal of American capital from Germany. Then Japan initiated its expansionist Greater East Asia project. On 27 September 1940 a Tripartite Pact was agreed between Germany, Italy and Japan.

Between 1939 and 1945, Hitler established hundreds of Jewish ghettos across his occupied territories, the largest being in Warsaw with over 400,000 inhabitants. These ghettos, transition zones to the death camps, were enclosed sites under constant surveillance. Anyone found trying to escape was executed, and ultimately all of the inhabitants were to be deported and executed.

From 1940–1 Britain stood alone against Germany and its allies. Churchill had said: ‘It is better to perish than live as slaves’. British troops were defending their home skies against the Luftwaffe; defending the Atlantic Ocean against U boats; and combating German and Italian forces in the Mediterranean.

What does this have to do with the Dukes of Normandy?

The legacy of the Dukes of Normandy, most notably William I (the Conqueror), led to a system of government that eventually enabled Britain to build the largest land empire that has ever existed, and to influence the development of the USA and Canada, in a way that created the combined forces necessary to defeat Germany, Italy, Japan and Vichy France.

The first Duke of Normandy, Rollon, the Viking, was given the land of Normandy, with a capital in Rouen, in 911 by the French King, Charles III, in return for a peaceable coexistence. Rollon converted to Christianity and was baptised. He died in around 933 and is buried in Rouen Cathedral.

When Robert I, the 6th Duke of Normandy, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1034 he arranged for William, his illegitimate son, to succeed him, should he not return. Robert died on his return from Jerusalem. William, while still a child, became the 7th Duke of Normandy. He also became a devout Christian. Before William inherited, there had been a monastic revival in Normandy, including investment in cathedral schools for lay pupils, teaching literature, medicine, commerce, agriculture, music and art. These pupils continued the ecclesiastical and architectural revival in Normandy, which led to better government and the magnificent ornamentation of places of worship, including those at Rouen, Lisieux, Bayeux and Le Mont-Saint-Michel.

The Norman abbeys, cathedrals and castles of this time were built in the Romanesque style, combining features of ancient Rome with Byzantine and local traditions. They were characterised by round arches and sturdy pillars, which by the 12th century developed into the lighter, taller, gothic style, with pointed arches, rib vaults and flying buttresses.

It was in this world of castles and a monastic revival that William grew up. He surrounded himself with a loyal group of barons, some of them pupils of the cathedral schools, who would later help him apply the Norman model across England.

Edward the Confessor, King of England, had no heir, but he had given instructions that his cousin William, Duke of Normandy, was to succeed him. In January 1066, Edward died, and Harold, a powerful courtier but not a blood relation, seized the throne. After Harold’s coronation, Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky, which many took to be a portent of doom.

William now used the strength of Normandy to prepare to take the crown of England. He convinced his barons to support him in return for English land and treasure. William instructed his carpenters to take down the forests to build an armada of more than 700 ships that would carry his troops and horses across the English Channel. William’s ship had a banner blessed by the Pope and he believed he was engaged in a holy war.

The epic story of how William secured the throne of England was made into the 11th-century equivalent of a blockbuster movie in the form of the 70-metre-long Bayeux Tapestry. A box office hit for nearly 1,000 years.

During the late Saxon period, Winchester, England, contained the largest concentration of Christian institutions north of the Alps. It was a centre of excellence for religious thought, art and learning, a herald of the monastic revival to follow in Normandy. Edward the Confessor had been crowned in Winchester Cathedral. This may all help to explain why William also chose to be crowned, first of all, in Winchester’s Saxon cathedral. He was crowned for a second time, on Christmas day 1066, at Westminster Abbey in London. William built himself a royal residence in a castle on Roman ruins in Winchester, and he made the town a joint capital with London. Winchester remained as a royal residence for centuries.

Following the Conquest, William fundamentally altered the landownership and government of England. He created an exacting form of taxation with the Domesday Book, which enabled him to raise the funds needed for his large army, including mercenaries. William transformed the whole aristocratic structure of Saxon England to the benefit of his Norman barons.

All of the great Norman families, such as Beaumont, Tosny and Montgomery, held their lands by conditional tenure from William, and it was William who personally selected England’s bishops. It was a system of patronage that fitted William’s imperial ambitions. The development of castles, abbeys and cathedrals across the English landscape was tangible evidence of Norman political, military and cultural domination. New ecclesiastical schools taught a Norman curriculum, and the form of land tenure developed by William for his barons and knights ensured that they would provide him with military service on demand.

William, Duke of Normandy, King of England, was overlord. The feudal organisation of William’s realm served to link together Normandy and England, and to join together the Christian Anglo- Norman peoples in a common purpose. Many of the Norman magnates continue to be powerful, landowning families in Britain today. Many of them took their seats in the House of Lords until Tony Blair’s government removed the rights of hereditary peers (but 90 hereditary peers still sit lawfully in the House of Lords).

The troops from the USA who were deployed for the D-Day landings in June 1944 were stationed at Peninsula Barracks, Winchester, the exact site where William the Conqueror had built his royal residence. In 1944 Winston Churchill stood on their parade ground and rallied his American cousins, many of whom had Norman blood. Church services were held on the ships before they departed to liberate Normandy in Operation Overlord.

Hitler knew that Britain and her allies would need to take the European Atlantic ports so he spent four years building Fortress Europe, which included a wall of defences and mined beaches along the coast of France and the Low Countries.

Before D-Day, George VI called his nation to pray for victory, as did William I before the battle of Hastings. The crown, the government and the people were united in petitioning God. On 6 June 1944 the Germans decided not to send out their normal sea patrols or air reconnaissance because of a battering storm, the worst seen in the English Channel for 25 years. Out of that storm came the largest invasion force the world has ever seen, with 156,000 Allied troops from Britain, the USA, Canada and other nations, aboard an armada of 7,000 vessels, including 2,000 warships, supported by 11,600 aircraft.

Weather stations in the north Atlantic had revealed to the Allies that calmer weather was coming on the 6th of June, so that was the day of the landings, just as the storm ebbed. ‘That capricious change in the weather was our Trojan horse,’ US general Omar Bradley said.

The D-Day landings involved leaders from the same families as in 1066, but this time crossing the English Channel in the opposite direction. Field Marshall Montgomery could trace his lineage back to the Montgomery who fought alongside William the Conqueror in 1066. It had taken the Dukes of Normandy and their people almost 900 years to build up the international political, military and industrial might to defeat what Churchill referred to as ‘a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime’.

The city of Caen, where William had established his capital in Normandy prior to his conquest of England, was ruined by the Allied air raids, involving over 2,000 bombers, on 18 July. However, the Abbaye aux Hommes, the magnificent monastery built by William in the centre of Caen in 1063, which is his final resting place, survived. The Allies had agreed with the French resistance that the building would be protected and that civilians should seek shelter within it.

Within three months of landing in Normandy, the Allies had freed practically all of France and the final victory was close to hand.


This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 160 (Page 39), published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation in July 2019. It was written by Nick Corbett, associate director – heritage, WSP | Indigo.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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