CHAPTER V. Concerning Lisieux and the Romantic Town of Falaise

Lisieux is so rich in the curious timber-framed houses of the middle and later ages that there are some examples actually visible immediately outside the railway station whereas in most cases one usually finds an aggregation of uninteresting modern buildings. As you go towards the centre of the town the old houses, which have only been dotted about here and there, join hands and form whole streets of the most romantic and almost stage-like picturesqueness. The narrow street illustrated here is the Rue aux Fevres. Its houses are astonishingly fine, and it forms - especially in the evening - a background suitable for any of the stirring scenes that took place in such grand old towns as Lisieux in medieval days. This street is however, only one of several that reek of history. In the Rue des Boucheries and in the Grande Rue there are lovely overhanging gables and curious timber-framing that is now at any angle but what was originally intended. There is really so much individual quaintness in these houses that they deserve infinitely more than the scurry past them which so frequently is all their attractions obtain. The narrowness and fustiness of the Rue aux Fevres certainly hinder you from spending much time in examining the houses but there are two which deserve a few minutes' individual attention. One which has a very wide gable and the upper floors boarded is believed to be of very great antiquity, dating from as early a period as the thirteenth century. It is numbered thirty-three, and must not be confused with the richly ornamented Manoir de Francois I. The timber work of this house, especially of the two lower floors is covered with elaborate carving including curious animals and quaint little figures, and also the salamander of the royal house. For this reason the photographs sold in the shops label the house "Manoir de la Salamandre." The place is now fast going to ruin - a most pitiable sight and I for one, would prefer to see the place restored rather than it should be allowed to become so hopelessly dilapidated and rotten that the question of its preservation should come to be considered lightly.

If the town authorities of Lisieux chose to do so, they could encourage the townsfolk to enrich many of their streets by a judicious flaking off of the plaster which in so many cases tries to hide all the pleasant features of houses that have seen at least three centuries, but this sort of work when in the hands of only partially educated folk is liable to produce a worse state of affairs than if things had been left untouched. An example of what over-restoration can do, may be seen when we reach the beautiful old inn at Dives.

The two churches of Lisieux are well fitted to their surroundings, and although St Jacques has no graceful tower or fleche, the quaintness of its shingled belfry makes up for the lack of the more stately towers of St Pierre. Where the stone-work has stopped short the buttresses are roofed with the quaintest semi-circular caps, and over the clock there are two more odd-looking pepper boxes perched upon the steep slope that projects from the square belfry. Over all there is a low pyramidal roof, stained with orange lichen and making a great contrast in colour to the weather-beaten stone-work down below. There are small patches of tiled roofing to the buttresses at the western ends of the aisles and these also add colour to this picturesque building. The great double flight of stone steps which lead to the imposing western door have balustrades filled with flamboyant tracery, but although the church is built up in this way, the floor in the interior is not level, for it slopes gently up towards the east. The building was commenced during the reign of Louis XII. and not finished until nearly the end of the reign of Francois I. It is therefore coeval with that richly carved house in the Rue aux Fevres. Along the sides of the church there project a double row of thirsty-looking gargoyles - the upper ones having their shoulders supported by the mass of masonry supporting the flying buttresses. The interior is richer than the exterior, and you may see on some of the pillars remains of sixteenth century paintings. A picture dating from 1681 occupies a position in the chapel of St Ursin in the south aisle; it shows the relic of the saint being brought to Lisieux in 1055.

The wide and sunny Place Thiers is dominated by the great church of St Pierre, which was left practically in its present form in the year 1233. The first church was begun some years before the conquest of England but about a century later it suffered the fate of Bayeux being burnt down in 1136. It was reconstructed soon afterwards and shows to-day the first period of Gothic architecture that became prevalent in Normandy. Only the north tower dates from this period, the other one had to be rebuilt during the reign of Henri III. and the spire only made its appearance in the seventeenth century. The Lady Chapel is of particular interest owing to the statement that it was built by that Bishop of Beauvais who took such a prominent part in the trial of Joan of Arc. The main arches over the big west door are now bare of carving or ornament and the Hotel de Ville is built right up against the north-west corner, but despite this St Pierre has the most imposing and stately appearance, and there are many features such as the curious turrets of the south transept that impress themselves on the memory more than some of the other churches we have seen.

Lisieux is one of those cheerful towns that appear always clean and bright under the dullest skies, so that when the sun shines every view seems freshly painted and blazing with colour. The freshness of the atmosphere, too, is seldom tainted with those peculiar odours that some French towns produce with such enormous prodigality, and Lisieux may therefore claim a further point in its favour.

It is generally a wide, hedgeless stretch of country that lies between Lisieux and Falaise, but for the first ten miles there are big farm-houses with timber-framed barns and many orchards bearing a profusion of blossom near the roadside. A small farm perched above the road and quite out of sight, invites the thirsty passer-by to turn aside up a steep path to partake of cider or coffee. It is a simple, almost bare room where the refreshment is served, but its quaintness and shadowy coolness are most refreshing. The fireplace has an open hearth with a wood fire which can soon be blown into a blaze by the big bellows that hang against the chimney corner. A table by one of the windows is generally occupied in her spare moments by the farmer's pretty daughter who puts aside her knitting to fetch the cider or to blow up the fire for coffee. They are a most genial family and seem to find infinite delight in plying English folk with questions for I imagine that not many find their way to this sequestered corner among waving trees and lovely orchards.

A sudden descent before reaching St Pierre-sur-Dives gives a great view over the level country below where everything is brilliantly green and garden-like. The village first shows its imposing church through the trees of a straight avenue leading towards the village which also possesses a fine Market Hall that must be at least six hundred years old. The church is now undergoing restoration externally, but by dodging the falling cement dust you may go inside, perhaps to be disappointed that there is not more of the Norman work that has been noticed in the southern tower that rises above the entrance. The village, or it should really be called a small town, for its population is over a thousand, has much in it that is attractive and quaint, and it might gain more attention if everyone who passes through its streets were not hurrying forward to Falaise.

The country now becomes a great plain, hedgeless, and at times almost featureless. The sun in the afternoon throws the shadows of the roadside trees at right angles, so that the road becomes divided into accurate squares by the thin lines of shadow. The straight run from St Pierre is broken where the road crosses the Dives. It is a pretty spot with a farm, a manor-house and a washing place for women just below the bridge, and then follows more open road and more interminable perspectives cutting through the open plain until, with considerable satisfaction, the great thoroughfare from Caen is joined and soon afterwards a glimpse of the castle greets us as we enter Falaise.

There is something peculiarly fascinating about Falaise, for it combines many of the features that are sparingly distributed in other towns. Its position on a hill with deep valleys on all sides, its romantic castle, the two beautiful churches and the splendid thirteenth century gateway, form the best remembered attractions, but beyond these there are the hundred and one pretty groupings of the cottages that crowd both banks of the little river Ante down in the valley under the awe-inspiring castle.

Even then, no mention has been made of the ancient fronts that greet one in many of the streets, and the charms of some of the sudden openings between the houses that give views of the steep, wooded hollows that almost touch the main street, have been slighted. A huge cube of solid masonry with a great cylindrical tower alongside perched upon a mass of rock precipitous on two sides is the distant view of the castle, and coming closer, although you can see the buttresses that spring from the rocky foundations, the description still holds good. You should see the fortress in the twilight with a golden suffusion in the sky and strange, purplish shadows on the castle walls. It then has much the appearance of one of those unassailable strongholds where a beautiful princess is lying in captivity waiting for a chivalrous knight who with a band of faithful men will attempt to scale the inaccessible walls. Under some skies, the castle assumes the character of one of Turner's impressions, half real and half imaginary, and under no skies does this most formidable relic of feudal days ever lose its grand and awesome aspect. The entrance is through a gateway, the Porte St. Nicolas, which was built in the thirteenth century. There you are taken in hand by a pleasant concierge who will lead you first of all to the Tour La Reine, where he will point out a great breach in the wall made by Henri IV. when he successfully assaulted the castle after a bombardment with his artillery which he had kept up for a week. This was in 1589, and since then no other fighting has taken place round these grand old walls. The ivy that clings to the ruins and the avenue of limes that leads up to the great keep are full of jackdaws which wheel round the rock in great flights. You have a close view of the great Tour Talbot, and then pass through a small doorway in the northern face of the citadel. Inside, the appearance of the walls reveals the restoration which has taken place within recent years. But this, fortunately, does not detract to any serious extent from the interest of the whole place. Up on the ramparts there are fine views over the surrounding country, and immediately beneath the precipice below nestle the picturesque, browny-red roofs of the lower part of the town. Just at the foot of the castle rock there is still to be seen a tannery which is of rather unusual interest in connection with the story of how Robert le Diable was first struck by the charms of Arlette, the beautiful daughter of a tanner. The Norman duke was supposed to have been looking over the battlements when he saw this girl washing clothes in the river, and we are told that owing to the warmth of the day she had drawn up her dress, so that her feet, which are spoken of as being particularly beautiful were revealed to his admiring gaze. Arlette afterwards became the mother of William the Conqueror, and the room is pointed out in the south-west corner of the keep in which we are asked to believe that the Conqueror of England was born. It is, however, unfortunate for the legend that archaeologists do not allow such an early date for the present castle, and thus we are not even allowed to associate these ramparts with the legend just mentioned. It must have been a strong building that preceded this present structure, for during the eleventh century William the Norman was often obliged to retreat for safety to his impregnable birthplace. The Tour Talbot has below its lowest floor what seems to be a dungeon, but it is said that prisoners were not kept here, the place being used merely for storing food. The gloomy chamber, however, is generally called an oubliette. Above, there are other floors, the top one having been used by the governor of the castle. In the thickness of the wall there is a deep well which now contains no water. One of the rooms in the keep is pointed out as that in which Prince Arthur was kept in confinement, but although it is known that the unfortunate youth was imprisoned in this castle, the selection of the room seems to be somewhat arbitrary.

In 1428 the news of Joan of Arc's continued successes was brought to the Earl of Salisbury who was then governor of Falaise Castle, and it was from here that he started with an army to endeavour to stop that triumphal progress. In 1450 when the French completely overcame the numerous English garrisons in the towns of Normandy, Falaise with its magnificent position held out for some time. The defenders sallied out from the walls of the town but were forced back again, and notwithstanding their courage, the town capitulated to the Duke of Alencon's army at almost the same time as Avranches and a dozen other strongly defended towns. We can picture to ourselves the men in glinting head-pieces sallying from the splendid old gateway known as the Port des Cordeliers. It has not lost its formidable appearance even to-day, though as you look through the archway the scene is quiet enough, and the steep flight of outside steps leads up to scenes of quiet domestic life. The windows overlook the narrow valley beneath where the humble roofs of the cottages jostle one another for space. There are many people who visit Falaise who never have the curiosity to explore this unusually pleasing part of the town. In the spring when the lilac bushes add their brilliant colour to the russet brown tiles and soft creams of the stone-work, there are pictures on every side. Looking in the cottages you may see, generally within a few feet of the door, one of those ingenious weaving machines that are worked with a treadle, and take up scarcely any space at all. If you ask permission, the cottagers have not the slightest objection to allowing you to watch them at their work, and when one sees how rapidly great lengths of striped material grow under the revolving metal framework, you wonder that Falaise is not able to supply the demands of the whole republic for this class of material.

Just by the Hotel de Ville and the church of La Trinite stands the imposing statue of William the Conqueror. He is mounted on the enormous war-horse of the period and the whole effect is strong and spirited. The most notable feature of the exterior of the church of La Trinite is the curious passage-way that goes underneath the Lady Chapel behind the High Altar. The whole of the exterior is covered with rich carving, crocketed finials, innumerable gargoyles and the usual enriched mouldings of Gothic architecture. The charm of the interior is heightened if one enters in the twilight when vespers are proceeding. There is just sufficient light to show up the tracery of the windows and the massive pointed arches in the choir. A few candles burn by the altar beyond the dark mass of figures forming the congregation. A Gregorian chant fills the building with its solemn tones and the smoke of a swinging censer ascends in the shadowy chancel. Then, as the service proceeds, one candle above the altar seems to suddenly ignite the next, and a line of fire travels all over the great erection surrounding the figure of the Virgin, leaving in its trail a blaze of countless candles that throw out the details of the architecture in strong relief. Soon the collection is made, and as the priest passes round the metal dish, he is followed by the cocked-hatted official whose appearance is so surprising to those who are not familiar with French churches. As the priest passes the dish to each row the official brings his metal-headed staff down upon the pavement with a noisy bang that is calculated to startle the unwary into dropping their money anywhere else than in the plate. In time the bell rings beside the altar, and the priest robed in white and gold elevates the host before the kneeling congregation. Once more the man in the cocked hat becomes prominent as he steps into the open space between the transepts and tolls the big bell in the tower above. Then a smaller and much more cheerful bell is rung, and fearing the arrival of another collecting priest we slip out of the swinging doors into the twilight that has now almost been swallowed up in the gathering darkness.

The consecration of the splendid Norman church of St Gervais took place in the presence of Henry I. but there is nothing particularly English in any part of the exterior. The central tower has four tall and deeply recessed arches (the middle ones contain windows) on each side, giving a rich arcaded appearance. Above, rises a tall pointed roof ornamented with four odd-looking dormers near the apex. Every one remarks on their similarity to dovecots and one almost imagines that they must have been built as a place of shelter on stormy days for the great gilded cock that forms the weather vane. The nave is still Norman on the south side, plain round-headed windows lighting the clerestory, but the aisles were rebuilt in the flamboyant period and present a rich mass of ornament in contrast to the unadorned masonry of the nave. The western end until lately had to endure the indignity of having its wall surfaces largely hidden by shops and houses. These have now disappeared, but the stone-work has not been restored, and you may still see a section of the interior of the house that formerly used the west end of the south aisle as one of its walls. You can see where the staircases went, and you may notice also how wantonly these domestic builders cut away the buttresses and architectural enrichments to suit the convenience of their own needs.

As you go from the market-place along the street that runs from St Gervais to the suburb of Guibray, the shops on the left are exchanged for a low wall over which you see deep, grassy hollows that come right up to the edge of the street. Two fine houses, white-shuttered and having the usual vacant appearance, stand on steep slopes surrounded by great cedars of Lebanon and a copper beech.

The church of Guibray is chiefly Norman - it is very white inside and there is some round-headed arcading in the aisles. The clustered columns of the nave have simple, pointed arches, and there is a carved marble altarpiece showing angels supporting the Virgin who is gazing upwards. The aisles of the chancel are restored Norman, and the stone-work is bright green just above the floor through the dampness that seems to have defied the efforts of the restorers.