24 Nov 2008
Avranches and London
Avranches should be an appealing town: in existence for over 2,500 years, perched on a promontory overlooking the Bay of Mont St Michel, and the abbey itself, politically and religiously important for many centuries. But I have never really taken to it, primarily because most of it was destroyed by American bombing in1944. Only a small part of the ramparts and a few small corners with old buildings survived, and the 19c large church.
There used to be a medieval cathedral right on the edge overlooking the bay, which really stood out and was visible for miles. Unfortunately, it fell down early in the 19c. It was replaced by a huge Gothic thing at the top of the town, on a sort of plateau, so that it really has no great visibility. And as with most other Victorian gothic churches, it doesn't really work. Medieval gothic soars out of the earth, with scale, activity and huge power, for example Coutances, Mont St Michel itself, or indeed Salisbury and Exeter. The Victorians made gothic buildings that were either absurdly overdecorated and defiantly false, such as the Houses of Parliament and the Natural History Museum, or solid, grumpy things that squat on the ground. Avranches is the latter.
Recently, the medieval manuscripts and books from the Abbey were moved to a specially built museum – the Scriptorial – built into the remains of the ramparts, which turns about to be well worth a visit. Going there with a friend from Canada and therefore being a tourist, I also discovered a few buildings in a corner nearby that dated back to the 12c. I also discovered a slight connection with London that I hadn't known about.
I used to work in the heart of the City, and about 100 yards from the office, there is a blue plaque stating that Thomas a Becket was born in a house on that site. Just one of the sudden historical resonances that one comes across throughout the City. The Avranches connection is that Henry II who was held responsible for the murder of Becket in Canterbury Cathedral eventually received a pardon from the Pope, in 1172 in Avranches. On the corner of the site of the old cathedral, there is a plaque in the ground recording the details, in exactly the spot where Henry knelt down and asked forgiveness. The building where he and his retinue stayed has also survived, but is hard to see because of later construction on one side, and on the other is has been severely modified over the centuries; it is still occupied.
Henry was the great grandson of William the Conqueror (Guillame le Conquerant (conquering) as they call him here) and apart from being King of England, was also Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, Duke of Aquitaine (he was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, who has already been the wife of the King of France)), and Duke of Gascony, amongst others. He was the first king of the Plantagenet dynasty (plant a genet, broom twig, being the family symbol). This goes to reinforce the reminders that Normandy and England have a huge amount of shared history.
My other connection with Avranches is more personal. My father joined the RAF in 1939, and didn't come home again until he had a week's leave in December 1944. In August 1944 he landed near St Tropez in the D-Day of the South, and over the next few weeks made his way through France, arriving at Avranches. The town was unexpectedly full of American troops who made it difficult to do the things the British army and air force were supposed to do. On enquiry by the British senior officer, it turned out that the large contingent of Americans had been ordered to go to Arromanches, to help with unloading materials and supplies, but had ended up in the wrong town because they couldn't understand maps, and just decided to stay there.