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France facts and history in brief

Coutances, was once the capital of the Cotentin peninsula. Coutances also have the superb Norman Gothic cathedral, the Cathedrale Notre Dame.


from "French Cathedrals, Coutances", written by Jocelyn Perkins, edited by The Sheldon Press.

The name of COUTANCES and much of its importance is derived from Imperial Rome.
Originally the capital of a tribe known as the Unelles, and called Cosedia, it fell a victim to one of Julius Caesar's lieutenants in 58 B.C.
Subsequently its name was changed to Constantia in honour of the Emperor Constantius Chlorus ; and with its castle, forum, temple, and fortifications, to say nothing of its splendid strategic position, it became a place of great importance.
Christianity was brought to Constantia in the fifth century by St. Ereptiole, who became its first Bishop, and erected a one-aisled basilica on the site of the pagan temple, where the Cathedral now stands.
Coutances, as it must now be called, suffered terribly at the hands of the Scandinavians - first the Danes, and then the Northmen.
The great promontory known as the Cotentin was ravaged by Hasting in 837, while thirty years later the Northmen did such terrible damage to the city that the Bishop and his Chapter had to fly to St. Lo, subsequently migrating to far-distant Rouen.
Here they remained for one hundred and sixty years, and their Cathedral city must have been left desolate and bare.
The formation of the Duchy of Normandy, and the adhesion of Rollon to Christianity, brought relief to this distracted region; but not until the time of Duke Richard the Fearless, in the first half of the eleventh century, was any attempt made to restore Coutances to its original splendour.
In 1030 a capable man, Bishop Robert, put on end to the long exile of the Bishops of Coutances at Rouen, and with the help of Gonnor, the widow of Duke Richard, set about the building of a new Romanesque Cathedral.
An even more remarkable man appeared eighteen years later, Geoffroi de Montbray, who occupied the See of Coutances for nearly half a century.
He became one of the most trusted of all William the Conqueror's lieutenants.
He was present at the Battle of Hastings, and a few weeks later took part, together with Ealdred, Archbishop of York, in the coronation of the Duke in Westminster Abbey.
A family named Tancred, cousins of Bishop Geoffroi lived within a short distance of Coutances.
It fell to the lot of this impecunious family of adventurers to found dynasties, protect a Pope, and defeat both the Holy Roman Emperor and his comrade at Constantinople.
Devoted sons of the Church, these monarchs of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies were as generous as they were courageous.
They lavished their wealth upon their episcopal cousin at Coutances, and, thanks to this timely aid, Geoffroi had the joy of consecrating the nave of his Cathedral in the presence of Duke William just ten years before the two men set forth upon their English adventures.
Later on, Geoffroi succeeded in adding two massive towers at the west end, which rose to the height of nearly 100 feet.
Eastward he erected an equally striking central tower, surmounted by a celebrated gilded cock.
When he passed away in 1093, old and well stricken in years, he had the satisfaction of knowing that his task was done, and that his Cathedral stood complete in all the massive splendour of its Romanesque architecture.
The twelfth century is a blank, so far as Coutances Cathedral is concerned; but in 1204 when the Duchy of Normandy fell into the hands of Philip Augustus, King of France, art generally flourished everywhere, not least at Coutances.
At this time, another great Bishop, Hugh de Morville, carried out an amazing transformation of his church.
He encased the old Romanesque nave of Geoffroi de Montbray, with new stone, completely converting its original features.
Thus, the great church has come to bear the stamp of the thirteenth century from end to the other.
The eleventh-century building still exists, but if the visitor wishes to discover the original work,he must go into the two western towers, and enter the passages above the side aisles of the nave.
Later on in the same century appeared the choir, the transept, and the two western spires, an immense piece of work, which must be attributed to Jean d'Essey, who was Bishop from 1248 to 1274.
A cloister which has now disappeared followed on the north side of the nave, and before the end of thirteenth century another Bishop, Robert d'Harcourt, built walls around the Cathedral.
During the Hundred Years' War both city and Cathedral suffered severely.
The place suffered a terrible siege, and was just saved from falling by the timely arrival of a French army - a fate it failed to escape however later on after the Battle of Agincourt.
In 1364, as a result of the damage done on this former occasion, Charles V ordered the city to be surrounded by walls, so as to give a greater measure of protection.
About the same time there appeared another of the great Bishops to whom Coutances owed so much, Sylvestre de la Cervelle, a relative of the famous Constable, Bertrand du Guesclin.
He at once set about raising money, and during the sixteen years of his episcopate (1370-1386) accomplished an immense work of renovation.
The choir and apse were almost entirely rebuilt, the easternmost chapel was added, and certain details altered in the decoration of the nave.
Finally, the same energetic prelate constructed a number of the nave chapels, which, with their fascinating partition walls, form such a beautiful feature of Coutances Cathedral.
By this time this noble church was complete.
No addition has been made to it since, nor any essential modification, save the outrageous destruction of the rood-screen in the eighteenth century.
From end to end it does not, so far as its architecture is concerned, display the very slightest trace of either Flamboyant or Renaissance feeling.
It was however to suffer more damage.
During the Wars of Religion it was shamelessly profaned by the Protestants, led first of all by Gabriel de Montgomery in 1561, and then by Colombières in 1566.
Its furniture and artistic treasures were ruthlessly destroyed, but the actual fabric escaped comparatively lightly.
Since the sixteenth century the history of both city and Cathedral has been uneventful, save for the horrors of the French Revolution, during which time the Cathedral was used as a storehouse for grain, a temple of Reason, and a temple of the Supreme Being.
Statues were ruthlessly smashed, and the Cathedral was stripped of its stalls and other woodwork, its iron grilles, and a number of the altars in the chapels.
Later on, lead was removed from the roof for the purpose of making ammunition.
Whatever the Protestants had spared two centuries before was now handled mercilessly; indeed, the Cathedral itself was only saved from ruin by the bold and friendly intervention of M. Duchamel, the representative of the Government in this region.
A certain amount of drastic restoration took place during the nineteenth century, but, apart from this, it is clear that Coutances Cathedral has undergone no alteration since the fourteenth century.

Coutances is not just a town of the beautiful Cathedral and history!
Coutances is proud of its beverages such as Calvados & Cider and the top quality Foie-Gras produced locally.
'La Teurgoule' is another local tradition which, if you like rice pudding, is sure to get the taste buds going.

Hui Chin and I enjoyed Coutances and the friendly people, especially the nice and helpful lady at the Post Office.

You can click on these photos for an enlargement.


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