A Quick History of the Normandy Region
I’ve lived in France for around 7 years now, and one of the first things that I learned after some time of being here is that France is not just Paris! There are so many beautiful cities and regions in this country, and you would be missing out on some seriously interesting places if you limit yourself to exploring the capital.
One of my favorite regions in France is Normandy! It’s about 3 hours north-east of Paris and it’s a great escape from the city. Like most of this country, Normandy boasts some rich history. If you want to learn more, read on!
Setting the scene
Before I jump into more recent history, I’d like to set the historical scene by filling you in on the Normandy region before it was ever called Normandy. Archeologists have found cave paintings that show that humans were present in the prehistoric era. There are also several megaliths (large prehistoric stones. Stonehenge is one of the most famous) throughout the Normandy region.
Archeologists have also found evidence that Celtic tribes once lived in the Normandy region. Objects such as helmets, urns, and ancient cemeteries also confirm the presence of Celtic people.
In the 3rd and 4th centuries BC, Gauls (another kind of Celtic people) invaded Normandy. Eventually, Romans overtook the Normandy Region at the direction of the Roman Emperor Augustus. Routes and roads were constructed and houses were built, along with amphitheaters for entertainment. You can still see the relicts of some of these structures today!
The Middle Ages
By the 3rd century, the Romans had been run out of the region by other invading peoples, particularly Christians. The Franks soon took control of the area little by little. The Franks overtook the Normandy region town by town. Cathedrals and churches popped up throughout the region as Christianity became more popular.
Then, the Vikings arrived. In fact, the name “Normandy” comes from the Latin word used to describe the Vikings at the time – Nortmanni, or, “men of the North.” The Viking raids in the Normandy region began in the 8th century. The Frankish king, Charles III conceded the land around Rouen (including the mouth of the Seine River) to the chief of a large group of Vikings, Rollo. After Rollo took control, other Vikings and their families immigrated to the area, and were known thereafter as Normans, who lived in Normandy!
Flash forward to 1066 and William, the duke of Normandy invades England, becoming William I of England, better known as William the Conquerer. And so England and Normandy were united until in 1150, it was ceded to the future English king Henry II.
Soon, England and France were fighting over the region. In 1204, the French king Philip II Augustus conquered Normandy, but the region wasn’t officially recognized as part of France until 1259, with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.
The English briefly reconquered Normandy during the Hundred Years’ War, but the French were able to win the region back after winning the Battle of Formigny in 1450.
18th, 19th, and 20th centuries
Normandy, now officially part of France for the long haul, didn’t go through many changes throughout the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. Agriculture and farming played an important role in the lives of people in Normandy, but in the 18th century, new industries were introduced to the region. Weaving, ceramics, and shipbuilding are just a few of the new ways people could earn their living.
In the 1780s, France was filled with unrest. There was a lot of angst against the monarch and the French were starving. These feelings of unrest and animosity cumulated with the French Revolution in 1789. While the Normans (as they were still called) felt the economic strain during the Revolution, the region accepted the changes in government that occurred thereafter.
In the 19th century, beach resorts began to open up on the coast, which boosted the economic activity in the region. Normandy became a tourist hot spot with hoards of vacationers flocking to the beach!
However, during World War II, the beaches were the site of violence. The Normandy Landings, also known as D-Day marked the beginning of the end of WWII in Europe. At the time, Normandy was part of Occupied France and was under the control of Nazi Germany. The Allied forces knew that if they wanted to regain control of Paris and the rest of the Occupied Zone, they would need to start from the coast and work their way inland. The operation was successful, but many lives were lost. Today, you can visit the Normandy American Cemetery to pay your respects.
The Normandy region today
If you ever get the chance, I definitely recommend that you visit the Normandy region! The landscape is impressive, there are so many little towns to explore, and the food is excellent.
If you had to start somewhere, you can visit the Mont Saint-Michel, a breathtaking island with an abbey that sits on top of it. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and there are 60 buildings on the island which are classified as historical monuments!
You can also explore the D-Day beaches. Start in the town of Bayeux, where you can also see one of the oldest tapestries in the world. It tells the story of William the Conquerer, who you learned about in this article! The beaches are just a short car ride away, where you can pay homage to the many lives lost there. There’s also a visitor’s center at the American Cemetery where you can pick up a map of the area.
You could also visit Étretat, another beautiful coastal town in Normandy. It’s known for its rock formations and cliffs that line the water.
Now you know a little bit more about the history of the Normandy region in France! I hope that this article has inspired you to explore other areas of France, and not just stick to Paris.
But, if you do happen to be in the capital and are looking for something to do, click here to learn more about our walking tour options. If you like history, you’ll love our tours with local guides.