Norman Conquest Coast


Norman Conquest

Mark Horton discovers how William the Conqueror taught the English how to construct castles and why William looked to Normandy for the Tower of London's stone.


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Transcript


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It's good to see ourselves as others see us.

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20 miles or so over there is Dover.

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This is the view of our coast from France.

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At Le Havre, a huge gash opens up in the coast.

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This is where the sea meets one of the world's mightiest rivers -

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the Seine.

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A great river demands a great bridge.

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And the Pont de Normandie rises to the occasion.

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Seven years in the making, 184 steel cables

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suspend the road over the river.

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That's the left bank of the River Seine down there.

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Travel about 120 miles in that direction

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and you arrive in the famous artistic district of Paris.

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But there's another little artistic gem on the left bank of the Seine...

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In Honfleur, even the boat builders have an artistic flair.

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Their craft helped see off the English

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during the Hundred Years' War.

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When peace was finally declared, the boat builders of Honfleur

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used their skills to build a church,

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a wooden church.

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Started in the 1460s,

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its roof reflects its maritime heritage,

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looking like the upturned hull of a ship.

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Oddly, the bell tower's built separately,

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maybe to protect the wooden church against lightning strikes,

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or perhaps the vibration of the bells. No-one's quite sure.

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Honfleur's witnessed a steady stream of traffic

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crossing the Channel for centuries.

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But in 1066, thanks to William the Conqueror,

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it was all heading in our direction.

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Invasion came as second nature to these Normans.

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After all, originally they were Norsemen,

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Viking marauders who'd only been in France 150 years

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before they turned their sights on us.

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But they left a permanent legacy...

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in stone.

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The Normans taught us their tradition of castle construction,

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bringing it to Britain.

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Among their first big builds, the Tower of London

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and Canterbury Cathedral.

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And they built them with French stone.

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In the heart of Normandy, Mark Horton's on his way

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to the city of Caen in search of that special stone,

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worthy of William's English castles.

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In the years after 1066,

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the River Orne that connects Caen to the sea

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would have been busy with Norman longboats like this one,

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transporting great blocks of stone to Britain for building.

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Medieval castle expert Pamela Marshall and I are retracing

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the route to try and discover why.

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Caen stone is one of the best,

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and, I know it seems a long way from England,

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but he's got this waterway.

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He then just whips it across the sea, up the Thames,

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and it's a material that his craftsmen are well versed with.

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-They know how to use it.

-He presumably thinks

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-the Anglo-Saxon masons are rubbish anyway.

-Possibly.

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And remember the Anglo-Saxons aren't used to castles at all,

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let alone stone ones.

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William not only had a might river to transport the stone,

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but at Caen he had a ready supply right beneath his feet.

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The city was built on limestone.

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A rare limestone, containing very few fossils.

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Having used it for castles and cathedrals here,

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William was determined to bring it to England.

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Hidden beneath the streets of modern Caen,

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there's still a labyrinth of ancient stone quarries,

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abandoned since the Middle Ages.

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We've come to one tucked away in a quiet corner of the city.

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It's only accessible, we're told, because the roof collapsed,

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creating a makeshift entrance.

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Inside, it's as if the workers had left yesterday.

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Look at this.

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-That's where the chariot, the wagon...

-The wagon has brushed past!

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..has brushed past it.

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-Regardez ici...

-Oh, these are fantastic.

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To split the rock away, they cut out a wedge shape with chisels

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and then insert a dry wooden wedge, which they then wet.

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And as the wood expands, it helps the rock to split naturally.

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-That's extraordinary, it's like a frozen moment in time.

-Absolutely.

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But what was it about the stone that made it so special?

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Worth hauling across the channel.

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Who better to ask than a group of modern Norman masons?

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Jean Pierre Dauxerre, a former city planner,

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is passionate about Caen stone.

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It's a stone which like to stroke with eyes, with hands.

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Is it possible to break it open?

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Yes, it is.

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Here we go.

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-Deux...

-Two.

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Give it some welly!

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-Hey...!

-Bravo!

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Et voila.

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-You are strong!

-I know, isn't it amazing?

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-Just a few pieces like this and look what happens.

-It's your work.

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There are no fossils or anything.

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It's the colour of churches, castles...

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But the stone now is so soft, just falls apart in one's hands.

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Stone becomes hard because water...goes away.

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-Evaporates?

-Evaporates, yes.

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The stone is quite soft when extracted.

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Easy to split or cut, using even the most basic tools.

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And the longer it's exposed to the air, the tougher it gets.

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That's completely exhausting!

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And without shells or fossils to make it fracture unpredictably,

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it can also be finely worked.

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Which is why it was highly prized among medieval masons.

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The Normans helped shape Britain.

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They laid the foundations for some of our greatest buildings.

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Although these structures have been extended since,

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there's a little bit of Normandy left in most of them.

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E-mail [email protected]

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