Normandy’s English connection

The region combines ancient and modern splendours with an eye turned ever northwards


This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

For English travellers to France in the first half of the eighteenth century, Normandy held a certain allure and familiarity. Despite the many marked differences that came with crossing the channel, Englishmen felt themselves unexpectedly at home in Normandy. Projecting a medieval history that lingered in the popular imagination onto their built environment, one such gentleman wrote in a published travel account of 1701 that “All public Buildings, and some private in Roan [Rouen], are built by the English.” 

The antiquary and librarian Andrew Ducarel declared that “NORMANDY does so nearly resemble OLD ENGLAND, that we could scarce believe ourselves to be in FRANCE,” commenting on a vernacular architecture of half-timber and thatch he recognised from his travels in Hertfordshire and Rutland.

An oolitic limestone that verges between clotted cream and brilliant white

The foundations of such insistent recognition lie in a feeling of shared cultural heritage between this region of France and England, most strongly expressed by Ducarel when he visits the tapestry at Bayeux, relating a hardly believable account of the ignorance of its custodians. Everywhere Ducarel looks, he sees something familiar: the castle at Caen is said “both in stile and manner of building so much to resemble rochester castle”. The Abbey of St Stephen is an unmistakable cousin to St Alban’s, “having the same kind of little arched work towards the top”. 

For many of these English visitors, Normandy felt like a version of home frozen in time: neither reformation nor revolution had yet swept away its great monastic foundations; Rouen was growing, but certainly not at the rate of many English cities in this period. They felt this former exclave could offer them a view into a lost, shared past. 

Ducarel wasn’t wrong when he recognised these family resemblances. After the conquest, Norman building projects brought a sweeping wave of increasingly formalised Romanesque building practices to the British Isles which are instantly recognisable in the French province from which the dynasty hailed. They brought a delectable lingua franca of mouldings, whose fanciful anglicised names — Canterbury Billet, N. Hinksey Chevron, Romsey Cable, Upton S. Leonard Nail Head — can’t disguise their continental roots. Equally unmistakable is the shared material palette from which so many buildings of that period were built on both sides of the channel.

The vast quarries at Caen have been churning out an oolitic limestone that verges between clotted cream and brilliant white for a millennium. Its use in major building projects in England after the Norman conquest was a projection of power, but also a question of practicality. So great are the labour-saving advantages of transporting stone by water, that travel from Caen to London — or any number of building projects in the southeast of England — was significantly less expensive than transporting stone overland within the British Isles. 

[1] William I’s ruined abbey at Jumièges

The ruined Abbey at Jumièges in Normandy [1] is perhaps the most visible expression of this connection. Everywhere the motifs of Anglo-Norman Romanesque architecture peer out of its hulking remains; its great crossing tower shorn clean off, stark white stone rendering the deep shadows of its sharp cut arches ever darker. The abbey was completed in 1067, its consecration by William I the starting pistol of a campaign of similar building projects for this newly-
established sovereign over the narrow sea. Its ruination came with the French revolution: it was spared the fate of many of its English cousins for only a couple of centuries.

More than a century after Guillaume le Bâtard put the finishing touches on Jumièges, Richard the Lionheart, as part of a long-running campaign to protect his claim to Normandy from the avaricious Philip II, chose another tight, meandering loop of the Seine to throw up another great edifice of Caen limestone. 


Château Gaillard [2] [3], at Les Andelys was built from 1196 using the most cutting-edge practices of crusader castle-building honed in the Middle East, despite being in direct contravention of the Treaty of Louviers. Its construction was hindered by ill omens, including a rain of blood, and it was ultimately pointless, as the French crown regained control of Normandy in 1204. It became a haven for bandits in the 16th century, leading the French crown to condemn and undermine it, but its silhouette nevertheless looms over the Seine valley, particularly the strange, curvaceously scalloped profile of its keep, which bears a family resemblance to the 20th century’s concrete silos which dot the riverside below [4]. 


This landscape plays a vital role in one of the great novels of the nineteenth century, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The provincial dreariness of Emma Bovary’s marriage to the reticent, dowdy Charles is relieved by the bright lights of Rouen, and her affair with the initially diffident Léon. Rouen, with its belching factory chimneys, rumbling foundries and church chimes in the mist, ushers her into a heightened, dizzying and ultimately perilous state.


Her love grew in the presence of this vastness, and expanded with tumult to the vague murmurings that rose towards her. She poured it out upon the square, on the walks, on the streets, and the old Norman city outspread before her eyes as an enormous capital, as a Babylon into which she was entering.

Much of Flaubert’s Rouen suffered catastrophic damage during the Second World War, a process of ruination that prompted a contested and intriguingly varied approach to post-war rebuilding. The singular highlight is the replacement of the bombed-out sixteenth-century church of St Vincent with Louis Arretche’s Church of Saint Joan of Arc [5]. This square in the centre of the city was the site of Joan of Arc’s burning for heresy by English authorities in 1431, the beginning of the end of the Hundred Years’ War. 

Arretche’s building is a remarkable upturned ship’s hull rendered in tightly-knit slate tile, like dragon’s scales. The church was built 1969-79 and incorporates the Flamboyant Gothic stained glass of St Vincent, preserved from destruction by allied shelling. 

Adjoining the church and its generous loggia is a marketplace, filled with some of the best seafood vendors in the city, sitting under a canopy of upswept peaks, said to conjure up the flames that licked the pyre of the young martyr. The tight grain of this reconstruction scheme was typical of the rebuilding of Rouen’s old city masterminded by Jacques Gréber, and contrasts sharply with the single skyscraper and broad tabula rasa modernism of the city’s left bank.


The war scarred much of Normandy, but nowhere more so than Le Havre, one of France’s mightiest ports, today handling well over 70 million tonnes of cargo annually. The job of rebuilding the city fell to Auguste Perret, an architect in his seventies who had pioneered the use of reinforced concrete in the early twentieth century with his brothers Gustave and Claude. At Le Havre, Perret had a free rein, and the results assured the city UNESCO world heritage status. His rigorously abstracted classical blocks cluster into squares and loggias, creating shade and space for outdoor seating and protection from the rain.

The crowning glory of Perret’s scheme is the church of St Joseph [6] [7]. Its huge octagonal tower evokes the geometries of the Westwerk at Jumiéges, but nothing can prepare you for the interior. The shaft of the building is filled with the most wondrous array of stained glass by Marguerite Huré, continuously arrayed for more than 100 metres above you. 


Inside, the air is thick with colour as the intensity of scale makes the vast board-marked concrete of the structure buzz; it feels like standing inside a rainbow. It is an overwhelming sensory experience in the best traditions of the French gothic; easily on par with Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle. Like my 18th-century predecessors, I find myself looking for the family resemblances to Perret’s work in the British built environment: the first phase of Coventry’s reconstruction after the war, the churches he inspired in the New Towns of Stevenage and Harlow. However, much like the patterns of influence in previous ages, there is something so particular in the landscapes and townscapes of Normandy that make such comparisons, however valid, feel rather trite. 

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