CHAPTER X. Concerning Caen and the Coast Towards Trouville

Caen, like mediaeval London, is famed for its bells and its smells. If you climb up to any height in the town you will see at once that the place is crowded with the spires and towers of churches; and, if you explore any of the streets, you are sure to discover how rudimentary are the notions of sanitation in the historic old city. If you come to Caen determined to thoroughly examine all the churches, you must allow at least two or three days for this purpose, for although you might endeavour to "do" the place in one single day, you would remember nothing but the fatigue, and the features of all the churches would become completely confused.

My first visit to Caen, several years ago, is associated with a day of sight-seeing commenced at a very early hour. I had been deposited at one of the quays by the steamer that had started at sunrise and had slowly glided along the ten miles of canal from Ouistreham, reaching its destination at about five o'clock. The town seemed thoroughly awake at this time, the weather being brilliantly fine. White-capped women were everywhere to be seen sweeping the cobbled streets with their peculiarly fragile-looking brooms. It was so early by the actual time, however, that it seemed wise to go straight to the hotel and to postpone the commencement of sight-seeing until a more rational hour. My rooms at the hotel, however, were not yet vacated, so that it was impossible to go to my bedroom till eight o'clock. The hotel courtyard, though picturesque, with its three superimposed galleries and its cylindrical tower containing the staircase, was not, at this hour in the morning at least, a place to linger in. It seemed therefore the wisest plan to begin an exploration of some of the adjoining streets to fill the time. After having seen the exterior of three or four churches, the interiors of some others; after having explored a dozen curious courtyards and the upper part of the town, where the Chateau stands, the clocks began to strike seven, although to me it seemed like noon. By half-past eight the afternoon seemed well advanced, and when dejeuner made its appearance at the hotel it seemed as though the day would never cease. I had by this time seen several more churches and interesting old buildings, and my whole senses had become so jaded that I would scarcely have moved a yard to have seen the finest piece of architecture in the whole of Normandy. The circumstances of this day, were, no doubt, exceptional, but I mention them as a warning to those who with a pathetic conscientiousness endeavour to see far more than they can possibly comprehend in the space of a very few hours. It would be far better to spend one's whole time in the great church of the Abbaye aux Hommes, and photograph in one's mind the simplicity of the early Norman structure, than to have a confused recollection of this, St Pierre, the church of the Abbaye aux Darnes and half a dozen others.

The galleried hotel I have mentioned was known as the Hotel St Barbe. It is now converted into a warehouse, but no one need regret this for it was more pleasant to look at than to actually stay in. I am glad, personally, to have had this experience; to have seen the country carts, with the blue sheep-skins over the horse collars, drive into the courtyard, and to have watched the servants of the hotel eating their meals at a long table in the open air. There was a Spanish flavour about the place that is not found in the modern hotels.

There is no town I have ever known more confusing in its plan than Caen, and, although I have stayed there for nearly a week on one occasion, I am still a little uncertain in which direction to turn for the castle when I am at the church of St Jean. The streets, as a rule, are narrow and have a busy appearance that is noticeable after the quiet of Bayeux. The clatter and noise of the omnibuses has been subdued in recent years by the introduction of electric trams which sweep round the corners with a terrifying speed, for after a long sojourn in the country and quiet little towns one loses the agility and wariness of the town-bred folk.

Caen, of course, does not compete with Lisieux for its leading position as the possessor of the largest number of old houses, but it nevertheless can show some quaint carved fronts in the Rue St Pierre and the narrow streets adjoining. At the present time the marks of antiquity are being removed from the beautiful renaissance courtyard of the Bourse near St Pierre. The restoration has been going on for some years, and the steps that lead up to the entrance in one corner of the quadrangle are no longer stained with the blackish-green of a prolonged period of damp. But it is better, however, that this sixteenth century house should assume a fictitious newness rather than fall entirely into disrepair. It was originally the house of one of the wealthy families of Caen named Le Valois, and was known as the Hotel d'Escoville. Another splendid house is the Hotel de la Monnaie built by the famous and princely merchant Etienne Duval, Sieur de Mondrainville, whose great wealth enabled him to get sufficient supplies into Metz to make it possible for the place to hold out during its siege in 1553. In his most admirably written book "Highways and Byways in Normandy," Mr Dearmer gives an interesting sketch of this remarkable man whose success brought him jealous enemies. They succeeded in bringing charges against him for which he was exiled, and at another time he was imprisoned in the castle at Caen until, with great difficulty, he had proved the baseness of the attacks upon his character. Duval was over seventy when he died, being, like Job, wealthy and respected, for he had survived the disasters that had fallen upon him.

The gateway of the Chateau is the best and most imposing portion of the fortifications of Caen. The castle being now used as barracks, visitors as a rule are unable to enter, but as the gateway may be seen from outside the deep moat, the rest of the place need not tantalise one. In William the Conqueror's time the castle was being built, and the town walls included the two great abbeys for which Caen is chiefly famous. These two magnificent examples of Norman architecture have been restored with great thoroughness so that the marks of antiquity that one might expect are entirely wanting in both buildings. The exterior of the great church of St Etienne disappoints so many, largely from the fact that the gaunt west front is the only view one really has of the building except from a distance. Inside, services seem to go on at most times of the day, and when you are quietly looking at the mighty nave with its plain, semicircular arches and massive piers, you are suddenly startled by the entry from somewhere of a procession of priests loudly singing some awe-inspiring chant, the guttural tones of the singers echoing through the aisles. Following the clerical party will come a rabble of nuns, children and ordinary laity, and before you have scarcely had time to think a service has commenced, people are kneeling, and if you do not make haste towards the doors a priest will probably succeed in reaching you with a collecting dish in which one is not inclined to place even a sou if the service has hindered the exploration of the church. Owing to the perpetuation of an error in some of the English guides to Normandy, it is often thought that a thigh-bone of the founder of the abbey is still lying beneath the marble slab in the sanctuary, but this is a great mistake, for that last poor relic of William the Conqueror was lost during the Revolution. The whole story of the death, the burial, and the destruction of the tomb and remains of the founder of the abbey are most miserable and even gruesome. William was at Rouen when he died, and we need scarcely remind ourselves of that tragic scene discovered by the clergy when they came to the house not long after the great man had expired. Every one of William's suite had immediately recognised the changed state of affairs now that the inflexible will that had controlled the two kingdoms had been removed, and each, concerned for himself, had betaken himself with indecent haste to England or wherever his presence might be most opportune. In this way, there being no one left to watch the corpse, the Archbishop of Rouen discovered that the house and even the bed had been pillaged, so that the royal body was lying in great disorder until reverently tended by a Norman gentleman named Herluin. Having fulfilled William's wishes and brought the remains to Caen, a stately funeral was arranged. As the procession slowly passed through the narrow streets, however, it was interrupted by an alarm of fire-some of the wooden houses blazing fiercely just when the bier was passing. The flames grew so quickly that in some danger the mournful procession was dispersed and the coffin was only attended by a few monks when the gates of the Abbaye aux Hommes were reached. Eventually the burial ceremonies were in progress beside the open grave within the church, but another interruption ensued. Scarcely had the Bishop of Evreux concluded his address when everybody was startled at hearing the loud voice of Ascelin resounding through the church. He was a well-known man, a burgher, and a possessor of considerable wealth, and it was therefore with considerable anxiety that the clergy heard his claim upon the ground in which they were about to bury William. It was the actual site of a house that had belonged to Ascelin's father, for the dead king had shown no consideration to private claims when he was building the great abbey to appease the wrath of the church. The disturbance having been settled by the payment for the grave of a sum which Ascelin was induced to accept, the proceedings were resumed. But then came the worst scene of all, for it has been recorded that the coffin containing the ponderous body of the king had not been made with sufficient strength, and as it was being lowered into the grave, the boards gave way, and so gruesome was the result that the church was soon emptied. It thus came about that once more in the last phase of all William was deserted except by a few monks.

The monument which was raised over the Conqueror's grave, was, however, of a most gorgeous character. It was literally encrusted with precious gems, and it is known that enormous quantities of gold from the accumulated stores of wealth which William had made were used by Otto the goldsmith (sometimes known as Aurifaber) who was entrusted with the production of this most princely tomb. Such a striking object as this could scarcely pass through many centuries in safety, and we find that in the Huguenot wars of the seventeenth century it was largely destroyed and the stone coffin was broken open, the bones being scattered. We only know what became of a thigh-bone which was somehow rescued by a monk belonging to the abbey. He kept it for some time, and in 1642 it was replaced in a new, but much less gorgeous tomb. About one hundred years later, it was moved to another part of the church, but in the Revolution this third tomb was broken into, and the last relic of the Conqueror was lost. Then after some years, the Prefet of Calvados placed upon the site of the desecrated tomb the slab of black marble that still marks the spot. The inscription reads "Hic sepultus est, Invictissimus Guielmus Conquestor, Normanniae Dux et Angliae Rex, Hujusce domus Conditor Qui obit anno MLXXXVII."

When Lanfranc had been sent to the Pope by William with a view to making some arrangement by which the King could retain his wife Matilda and at the same time the good offices of the Church, his side of the bargain consisted in undertaking to build two great abbeys at Caen, one for men and one for women. The first we have already been examining, the other is at the eastern side of the town on the hill beyond the castle. It is a more completely Norman building than St Etienne, but its simple, semi-circular arches and round-headed windows contrast strangely with the huge pontifical canopy of draped velvet that is suspended above the altar, and very effectually blocks the view of the Norman apse beyond. The smallness of the windows throughout the building subdues the light within, and thus gives St Trinite a somewhat different character to St Etienne. The capitals of the piers of the arcade are carved with strange-looking monkeys and other designs, and there are chevron mouldings conspicuous in the nave. The tomb of Queen Mathilda is in the choir. Like that of her husband it has been disturbed more than once, so that the marble slab on top is all that remains of the original.

Opposite the Place Reine Mathilde stands the desecrated church of St Gilles, one of the numerous beautiful buildings in Caen now in partial ruin and occupied as warehouses, wine-vaults or workshops. They are all worth looking for, and if possible examining inside as well as out, for they include some beautiful flamboyant structures and others of earlier date, such as St Nicholas, illustrated here, which in part dates from Norman times. St Etienne le Vieux, quite close to the Abbaye aux Hommes, is a beautiful building rich in elaborate carving and rows of gargoyles. It was built in the early years of the fifteenth century in place of one which had fallen into ruin when Henry V. besieged Caen. It is still unrestored, and if you peep inside the open doors you will see the interior filled with ladders, boxes, brooms, and a thousand odds and ends, this most beautiful structure being used as a municipal workshop.

We have more than once referred to the church of St Pierre, but as yet we have made no reference to its architecture. The tower and graceful spire needs no detailed description, for it appears in the coloured illustration adjoining, and from it one may see what a strikingly perfect structure this is for such an early date as 1308. It is a marvel of construction, for the spire within is hollow, and without any interior framework or supports at all. Although it is so seemingly frail, it was used during the sixteenth century for military purposes, having been selected as a good position for firing upon the castle, and it naturally became a target for the guns inside the fortress. You cannot now see the holes made by the cannon balls, but although they were not repaired for many years the tower remained perfectly stable, as a proof of the excellent work of Nicholas, the Englishman who built it.

Unlike the church of the Abbaye aux Dames, St Pierre is brilliantly lit inside by large, traceried windows that let in the light through their painted glass. In the nave the roof is covered with the most elaborate vaulting with great pendants dropping from the centre of each section; but for the most crowded ornament one must examine the chancel and the chapels.

The church of St Jean is not conspicuous, but it is notable for two or three features. The western tower is six and a half feet out of perpendicular, the triforium has a noticeable balustrade running all round, and the chancel is longer than the nave. St Sauveur, in the Rue St Pierre is of the same period as St Jean, but its tower if it had been crocketed would have very closely resembled that of St Pierre, and it is chiefly notable for the fact that it is two churches thrown into one - that of St Eustace being joined on to it.

Another feature of Caen that is often overlooked is the charm of its old courtyards. Behind some of the rather plain stone fronts, the archways lead into little paved quadrangles that have curious well-heads, rustic outside staircases, and odd-shaped dormer windows on the steep roofs. One of these courtyards behind a house in the Rue de Bayeux is illustrated here, but to do justice to the quaintnesses that are to be revealed, it would have been necessary to give several examples. In the Boulevard St Pierre, where the pavements are shaded by pink horse chestnuts there stands the Tour le Roy. It is the most noticeable remnant of the days when Caen was a walled and strongly fortified city, but as you look at it to-day it seems too much like a good piece of the sham antique to be found at large exhibitions. It is the restoration that is at fault, and not the tower itself, which is really old, and no doubt is in quiet rebellion at the false complexion it is obliged to wear.

The view of Caen from across the race-course is a beautiful one, but under some aspects this is quite eclipsed by the wonderful groupings of the church towers seen from the canal as it goes out of the town towards the east. I can remember one particular afternoon when there was a curious mistiness through which the western sunlight passed, turning everything into a strange, dull gold. It was a light that suppressed all that was crude and commercial near at hand and emphasised the medievalism of the place by throwing out spires and towers in softly tinted silhouettes. I love to think of Caen robed in this cloth of gold, and the best I can wish for every one who goes there with the proper motives, is that they may see the place in that same light.

On the left, a few miles out of Caen on the road to Creully, stands the Abbaye d'Ardennes where Charles VII. lodged when his army was besieging the city in 1450. The buildings are now used as a farm, and the church is generally stacked with hay and straw up to the triforium.

Although they start towards the east, the canal and the river Orne taking parallel courses run generally towards the north, both entering the sea by the village of Ouistreham, the ancient port of Caen. Along the margin of the canal there is a good road, and almost hidden by the long grass outside the tall trees that line the canal on each bank, runs the steam tramway to Cabourg and the coast to the west of the Orne. Except when the fussy little piece of machinery drawing three or four curious, open-sided trams, is actually passing, the tramway escapes notice, for the ground is level and the miniature rails are laid on the ground without any excavating or embanking. The scenery as you go along the tramway, the road, or the canal, is charming, the pastures on either side being exceedingly rich, and the red and white cattle seem to revel in the long grass and buttercups. Heronville, Blainville and other sleepy villages are pleasantly perched on the slight rise on the western side of the canal. Their churches, with red roofs all subdued with lichen into the softest browns, rise above the cottages or farm buildings that surround them in the ideal fashion that is finally repeated at Ouistreham where locks impound the waters of the canal, and a great lighthouse stands out more conspicuously than the church tower. Seen through the framework of closely trimmed trees Ouistreham makes a notable picture. The great Norman church is so exceedingly imposing for such a mere village, that it is easy to understand how, as a port in the Middle Ages, Ouistreham flourished exceedingly.

The tramway crosses the canal at Benouville on its way to Cabourg, and leaving the shade of birches and poplars takes its way over the open fields towards the sea. Benouville is best remembered on account of its big chateau with a great classic portico much resembling a section of Waterloo Place perched upon a fine terraced slope. Ranville has an old church tower standing in lonely fashion by itself, and you pass a conspicuous calvary as you go on to the curious little seaside resort known as Le Home-Sur-Mer. The houses are bare and (if one may coin a word) seasidey. Perched here and there on the sandy ridge between the road and the shore, they have scarcely anything more to suggest a garden than the thin wiry grass that contrives to exist in such soil.

Down on the wide sandy beach there is an extensive sweep of the coast to be seen stretching from beyond Ouistreham to the bold cliffs of Le Havre. Keeping along the road by the tramway you have been out of sight of the sea, but in a few minutes the pleasant leafiness of Cabourg has been reached. Here everything has the full flavour of a seaside resort, for we find a casino, a long esplanade, hotels, shops and bathing apparatus. It is a somewhat strong dose of modern life after the slumbering old world towns and villages we have been exploring, and it is therefore with great satisfaction that we turn toward the village of Dives lying close at hand. The place possesses a splendid old market hall, more striking perhaps than that of Ecouche and a picturesque inn - the Hotel Guillaume le Conquerant. The building is of stone with tiled roofs, and in the two courtyards there are galleries and much ancient timber-framing, but unfortunately the proprietor has not been content to preserve the place in its natural picturesqueness. He has crowded the exterior, as well as the rooms, with a thousand additions of a meretricious character which detract very much from the charm of the fine old inn and defeat the owner's object, that of making it attractive on account of its age and associations. Madame de Sevigne wrote many of her letters in one of the rooms, but we know that she saw none of the sham antique lamps, the well-head, or the excess of flowers that blaze in the courtyards. On account of its name, the unwary are trapped into thinking that William the Norman - for he had still to defeat Harold - could have frequently been seen strolling about this hostelry, when his forces for invading England were gathering and his fleet of ships were building. This is, of course, a total misapprehension, for the only structure that contains anything that dates back to 1066 is the church. Even this building dates chiefly from the fourteenth century, but there is to be seen, besides the Norman walls, a carved wooden cross that is believed to have been found in the sea, and therefore to have some connection with William's great fleet and its momentous voyage to England. The names of the leading men who accompanied William are engraved upon two marble slabs inside the church, and on the hill above the village a short column put up by M. de Caumont, commemorates the site upon which William is believed to have inspected his forces previous to their embarkation.

It is a difficult matter to form any clear idea of the size of this army for the estimates vary from 67,000 to 14,000, and there is also much uncertainty as to the number of ships employed in transporting the host across the channel. The lowest estimates suggest 696 vessels, and there is every reason to believe that they were quite small. The building of so large a fleet of even small boats between the winter and summer of 1066 must have employed an enormous crowd of men, and we may be justified in picturing a very busy scene on the shores of this portion of the coast of Normandy. Duke William's ship, which was named the Mora, had been presented to him by his wife Mathilda, and most of the vessels had been built and manned by the Norman barons and prelates, the Bishop of Bayeux preparing no less than a hundred ships. The Conquest of England must have almost been regarded as a holy crusade!

When the fleet left the mouth of the river Dives it did not make at once for Pevensey Bay. The ships instead worked along the coast eastwards to the Somme, where they waited until a south wind blew, then the vessels all left the estuary each carrying a light, for it was almost dark. By the next morning the white chalk of Beachy Head was in sight, and at nine o'clock William had landed on English soil.

Close to Dives and in sight of the hill on which the Normans were mustered, there is a small watering-place known as Houlgate-sur-mer. The houses are charmingly situated among trees, and the place has in recent years become known as one of those quiet resorts where princes and princesses with their families may be seen enjoying the simple pleasures of the seaside, incognito. This fact, of course, gets known to enterprising journalists who come down and photograph these members of the European royal families wherever they can get them in particularly unconventional surroundings.

From Houlgate all the way to Trouville the country is wooded and hilly, and in the hollows, where the timber-framed farms with their thatched roofs are picturesquely arranged, there is much to attract the visitor who, wearying of the gaiety of Trouville and its imitators along the coast, wishes to find solitudes and natural surroundings.