CHAPTER IX. Concerning St Lo and Bayeux

The richest pasture lands occupy the great butter-making district that lies north of St Lo. The grass in every meadow seems to grow with particular luxuriance, and the sleepy cows that are privileged to dwell in this choice country, show by their complaisant expressions the satisfaction they feel with their surroundings. It is wonderful to lie in one of these sunny pastures, when the buttercups have gilded the grass, and to watch the motionless red and white cattle as they solemnly let the hours drift past them. During a whole sunny afternoon, which I once spent in those pastoral surroundings, I can scarcely remember the slightest movement taking place among the somnolent herd. There was a gentle breeze that made waves in the silky sea of grass and sometimes stirred the fresh green leaves of the trees overhead. The birds were singing sweetly, and the distant tolling of the cathedral bells at Carentan added a richness to the sounds of nature. Imagine this scene repeated a thousand times in every direction and you have a good idea of this strip of pastoral Normandy.

About four miles north of St Lo, the main road drops down into the pleasant little village of Pont Hebert and then passes over the Vire where it flows through a lovely vale. In either direction the brimming waters of the river glide between brilliant green meadows, and as it winds away into the distance, the trees become more and more blue and form a charming contrast to the brighter colours near at hand.

To come across the peasants of this pretty country in the garb one so frequently sees depicted as the usual dress of Normandy, it is necessary to be there on a Sunday or some fete day. On such days the wonderful frilled caps, that stand out for quite a foot above the head, are seen on every peasant woman. They are always of the most elaborate designs, and it is scarcely necessary to say that they are of a dazzling whiteness. The men have their characteristic dark blue close-fitting coats and the high-crowned cap that being worn on week days is much more frequently in evidence than the remarkable creations worn by the womenfolk.

There is a long climb from Pont Hebert to St Lo but there are plenty of pretty cottages scattered along the road, and these with crimson stonecrop on the roofs and may and lilac blossoming in the gardens, are pictures that prevent you from finding the way tedious. At last, from the considerable height you have reached, St Lo, dominated by its great church, appears on a hill scarcely a mile away. The old town, perched upon the flat surface of a mass of rock with precipitous sides, has much the same position as Domfront. But here we are shut in by other hills and there is no unlimited view of green forest-lands. The place, too, has a busy city-like aspect so that the comparison cannot be carried very far. When you have climbed the steep street that leads up through a quaint gateway to the extensive plateau above, you pass through the Rue Thiers and reach one of the finest views of the church. On one side of the street, there are picturesque houses with tiled roofs and curiously clustered chimneys, and beyond them, across a wide gravelly space, rises the majestic bulk of the west front of Notre Dame. From the wide flight of steps that leads to the main entrance, the eye travels upwards to the three deeply-recessed windows that occupy most of the surface of this end of the nave. Then the two great towers, seemingly similar, but really full of individual ornament, rise majestically to a height equal to that of the highest portion of the nave. Then higher still, soaring away into the blue sky above, come the enormous stone spires perforated with great multi-foiled openings all the way to the apex. Both towers belong to the fifteenth century, but they were not built at quite the same time. In the chancel there is a double arcade of graceful pillars without capitals. There is much fine old glass full of beautiful colours that make a curious effect when the sunlight falls through them upon the black and white marble slabs of the floor.

Wedged up against the north-west corner of the exterior stands a comparatively modern house, but this incongruous companionship is no strange thing in Normandy, although, as we have seen at Falaise, there are instances in which efforts are being made to scrape off the humble domestic architecture that clings, barnacle-like, upon the walls of so many of the finest churches. On the north side of Notre Dame, there is an admirably designed outside pulpit with a great stone canopy overhead full of elaborate tracery. It overhangs the pavement, and is a noticeable object as you go towards the Place de la Prefecture. On this wide and open terrace, a band plays on Sunday evenings. There are seats under the trees by the stone balustrade from which one may look across the roofs of the lower town filling the space beneath. The great gravelly Place des Beaux-Regards that runs from the western side of the church, is terminated at the very edge of the rocky platform, and looking over the stone parapet you see the Vire flowing a hundred feet below. This view must have been very much finer before warehouses and factory-like buildings came to spoil the river-side scenery, but even now it has qualities which are unique. Facing the west end of the church, the most striking gabled front of the Maison Dieu forms part of one side of the open space. This building may at first appear almost too richly carved and ornate to be anything but a modern reproduction of a mediaeval house, but it has been so carefully preserved that the whole of the details of the front belong to the original time of the construction of the house. The lower portion is of heavy stone-work, above, the floors project one over the other, and the beauty of the timber-framing and the leaded windows is most striking.

St Lo teems with soldiers, and it has a town-crier who wears a dark blue uniform and carries a drum to call attention to his announcements. In the lower part of the town, in the Rue des Halles, you may find the corn-market now held in the church that was dedicated to Thomas a Becket. The building was in course of construction when the primate happened to be at St Lo and he was asked to name the saint to whom the church should be dedicated. His advice was that they should wait until some saintly son of the church should die for its sake. Strangely enough he himself died for the privileges of the church, and thus his name was given to this now desecrated house of God.

The remains of the fortifications that crown the rock are scarcely noticeable at the present time, and it is very much a matter of regret that the town has, with the exception of the Tour Beaux-Regards, lost the walls and towers that witnessed so many sieges and assaults from early Norman times right up to the days of Henry of Navarre. It was one of the towns that was held by Geoffrey Plantagenet in Stephen's reign, and it was burnt by Edward III. about the same time as Valognes. Then again in the religious wars of the sixteenth century, a most terrific attack was made on St Lo by Matignon who overcame the resistance of the garrison after Colombieres, the leader, had been shot dead upon the ramparts.

It is fortunate for travellers in hot weather that exactly half-way between St Lo and Bayeux there lies the shade of the extensive forest of Cerisy through which the main road cuts in a perfectly straight line. At Semilly there is a picturesque calvary. The great wooden cross towers up to a remarkable height so that the figure of our Lord is almost lost among the overhanging trees, and down below a double flight of mossy stone steps leads up to the little walled-in space where the wayfarer may kneel in prayer at the foot of the cross. Onward from this point, the dust and heat of the roadway can become excessive, so that when at last the shade of the forest is reached, its cool glades of slender beech-trees entice you from the glaring sunshine - for towards the middle of the day the roadway receives no suggestion of shadows from the trees on either side.

In this part of the country, it is a common sight to meet the peasant women riding their black donkeys with the milk cans resting in panniers on either side. The cans are of brass with spherical bodies and small necks, and are kept brilliantly burnished.

The forest left behind, an extensive pottery district is passed through. The tuilleries may be seen by the roadside in nearly all the villages, Naron being entirely given up to this manufacture. Great embankments of dark brown jars show above the hedges, and the furnaces in which the earthenware is baked, are almost as frequent as the cottages. There are some particularly quaint, but absolutely simple patterns of narrow necked jugs that appear for sale in some of the shops at Bayeux and Caen.

Soon the famous Norman cathedral with its three lofty spires appears straight ahead. In a few minutes the narrow streets of this historic city are entered. The place has altogether a different aspect to the busy and cheerful St Lo. The ground is almost level, it is difficult to find any really striking views, and we miss the atmosphere of the more favourably situated town. Perhaps it is because of the evil influence of Caen, but certainly Bayeux lacks the cleanliness and absence of smells that distinguishes Coutances and Avranches from some of the other Norman towns. It is, however, rich in carved fronts and timber-framed houses, and probably is the nearest rival to Lisieux in these features. The visitor is inclined to imagine that he will find the tapestry for which he makes a point of including Bayeux in his tour, at the cathedral or some building adjoining it, but this is not the case. It is necessary to traverse two or three small streets to a tree-grown public square where behind a great wooden gateway is situated the museum. As a home for such a priceless relic as this great piece of needlework, the museum seems scarcely adequate. It has a somewhat dusty and forlorn appearance, and although the tapestry is well set out in a long series of glazed wooden cases, one feels that the risks of fire and other mischances are greater here than they would be were the tapestry kept in a more modern and more fire-proof home. Queen Mathilda or whoever may have been either the actual producer or the inspirer of the tapestry must have used brilliant colours upon this great length of linen. During the nine centuries that have passed since the work was completed the linen has assumed the colour of light brown canvas, but despite this, the greens, blues, reds, and buffs of the stitches show out plainly against the unworked background. There is scarcely an English History without a reproduction of one of the scenes portrayed in the long series of pictures, and London has in the South Kensington Museum a most carefully produced copy of the original. Even the chapter-house of Westminster Abbey has its coloured reproductions of the tapestry, so that it is seldom that any one goes to Bayeux without some knowledge of the historic events portrayed in the needlework. There are fifty-eight separate scenes on the 230 feet of linen. They commence with Harold's instructions from Edward the Confessor to convey to William the Norman the fact that he (Harold) is to become king of England. Then follows the whole story leading up to the flight of the English at Senlac Hill.

Even if this wonderful piece of work finds a more secure resting-place in Paris, Bayeux will still attract many pilgrims for its cathedral and its domestic architecture compare favourably with many other Norman towns.

The misfortunes that attended the early years of the life of the cathedral were so numerous and consistent that the existence of the great structure to-day is almost a matter for surprise. It seems that the first church made its appearance during the eleventh century, and it was in it that Harold unwittingly took that sacred oath on the holy relics, but by some accident the church was destroyed by fire and there is probably nothing left of this earliest building except the crypt. Eleven years after the conquest of England, William was present at Bayeux when a new building built by his half-brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, was consecrated. Ten years after his death, however, this second church was burnt down. They rebuilt it once more a few years later, but a third time a fire wrought much destruction. The portions of the cathedral that survived this century of conflagrations can be seen in the two great western towers, in the arches of the Norman nave, and a few other portions. The rest of the buildings are in the Early French period of pointed architecture, with the exception of the central tower which is partly of the flamboyant period, but the upper portion is as modern as the middle of last century. The spandrels of the nave arcades are covered over with a diaper work of half a dozen or more different patterns, some of them scaly, some representing interwoven basket-work, while others are composed simply of a series of circles, joined together with lines. There are curious little panels in each of these spandrels that are carved with the most quaint and curious devices. Some are strange, Chinese-looking dragons, and some show odd-looking figures or mitred saints. The panel showing Harold taking the oath is modern. There is a most imposing pulpit surmounted by a canopy where a female figure seated on a globe is surrounded by cherubs, clouds (or are they rocks?) and fearful lightning. At a shrine dedicated to John the Baptist, the altar bears a painting in the centre showing the saint's dripping head resting in the charger. Quite close to the west front of the cathedral there stands a house that still bears its very tall chimney dating from mediaeval times. Not far from this there is one of the timber-framed fifteenth century houses ornamented with curious carvings of small figures, and down in the Rue St Malo there is an even richer example of the same type of building. On the other side of the road, nearer the cathedral, a corner house stands out conspicuously.

It is shown in the illustration given here and its curious detail makes it one of the most quaint of all the ancient houses in the city.

Some of these old buildings date from the year 1450, when Normandy was swept clear of the English, and it is probably owing to the consideration of the leader of the French army that there are any survivals of this time. The Lord of Montenay was leading the Duke of Alencon's troops and with him were Pierre de Louvain, Robert Conigrain and a number of free archers. After they had battered the walls of Bayeux with their cannon for fifteen days, and after they had done much work with mines and trenches, the French were ready for an assault. The King of France, however, and the notables who have been mentioned "had pity for the destruction of the city and would not consent to the assault." Without their orders, however, the troops, whose ardour could not be restrained, attacked in one place, but not having had the advice of their leaders the onslaught was quite indecisive, both sides suffering equally from arrows and culverins. It was soon after this that Matthew Gough, the English leader, was obliged to surrender the city, and we are told that nine hundred of the bravest and the best soldiers of the Duchy of Normandy came out and were allowed to march to Cherbourg. The French lords "for the honour of courtesy" lent some of their horses to carry the ladies and the other gentlewomen, and they also supplied carts to convey the ordinary womenfolk who went with their husbands. "It was," says Jacques le Bouvier, who describes the scene, "a thing pitiful to behold. Some carried the smallest of the children in their arms, and some were led by hand, and in this way the English lost possession of Bayeux."