Fécamp, a small fishing town north of modern Le Havre on the coast of Normandy, shares some of its history with England dating back over a thousand years. At one time, it had an important link with Norwich that helped shape the cathedral city.
Norwich began life as a small Anglo-Saxon settlement on the north of the Wensum at the start of the 10th century. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, less than 200 years later, it had a population of about 6000, was one of the largest towns in England, and was the main commercial centre of East Anglia. In 1094 it became the centre for the diocese. The bishop was Herbert de Losinga, who had been educated and started his monastic life at Fécamp Abbey.
The monastic connection
Herbert had risen to become prior in Fécamp. King William II, known as William Rufus, had invited him to come to England and appointed him abbot of Ramsey, in Cambridgeshire. By early 1091 he was bishop of Thetford. As the first bishop of the newly created see of Norwich, he was also prior for the Norwich Benedictine priory that grew to house 60 monks. In 1096, Herbert laid the foundation stone for Norwich Cathedral, although he didn’t live to see its completion in 1145.
Herbert’s letters reveal that after a few years he sent a delegation of two of his somewhat unruly monks to Fécamp to learn the proper conduct of Benedictine life – and a third to train in the Fécamp kitchens. Perhaps East Anglian cuisine fell short of his expectations.
A long-standing connection
Fécamp was under English domination for 40 years during the Hundred Years War. Henry V visited the town on his way to his historic victory at Agincourt.
Three centuries later, King Charles II, escaping Cromwell, landed in Fécamp in 1651. The annual Royal Escape Race, established at the 1977 Silver Jubilee, retraces his voyage from Shoreham-by-Sea, and crews receive a warm welcome from the Société des Régates de Fécamp.
Despite its shared early history, in 1959 Norwich twinned not with Fécamp but with the now much larger city of Rouen. However, members of the Norfolk and Norwich Rouen Friendship Association (NNRFA) are sufficiently intrigued with Fécamp’s history that they will spend a day in the town during a visit to Rouen in mid-June. They’ll be visiting the Abbatiale de la Sainte Trinité, in some respects a ‘mother church’ to Norwich’s Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity.
Cheers! And blessings?
The NNRFA group will also be visiting the Palais Bénédictine, which must rank among the more flamboyant of liqueur distilleries. Using an old medicinal recipe for an elixir for good health, in 1863 wine merchant Alexandre Le Grand enlisted the help of a local chemist to develop a recipe for a liqueur that he named “Bénédictine”. There are various origin stories, but the one promoted by Le Grand was that he had found the recipe among a collection from the Benedictine monastery, acquired by an ancestor during the French revolution. He further claimed that King François I had visited Fécamp in the 16th century (there is no historical record of this), had tasted the elixir, and pronounced it excellent. Le Grand’s finely tuned marketing instincts led to tremendous commercial success. Within thirteen years, he was planning a new distillery to expand production.
The building opened in 1888, only to be destroyed by fire four years later. Its even more splendid replacement opened in 1900. Le Grand’s Palais Bénédictine was designed as promotion on a grand scale: visitors could watch the process and view his eclectic collection of artworks and museum pieces that bolstered the medieval aura of Bénédictine. It included illuminated manuscripts and stained glass, some of which immortalised the origin story that underlay his marketing strategy.
Le Grand was an enlightened 19th-century industrialist. A practising Catholic, he embraced the Catholic emphasis on human dignity and the common good. He not only set up a pension fund for his workers, but also insured them against workplace accidents. He further established a company orchestra and set up an orphanage in the town.
Fishing and leisure sailing
Normandy, like Norfolk, has fishing in its blood. Fécamp was famed for its salt herrings and smoked herrings from the early middle ages. In 1561 Nicolas Selles, owner of a cod-fishing ship, landed 70,000 cod caught off Newfoundland. Fourteen years later he eventually lost a legal battle with the abbey, which exacted taxes on his catch and imposed a heavy fine. Newfoundland and its Grand Banks were a major fishing ground for the Terre-Neuvas, cod fishermen from Western Europe, and their long absences at sea are commemorated in a poignant statue by Georges Thurotte, “L’Attente” (Waiting). It was installed above the beach in 1948 and its current weathered state eloquently illustrates the conditions the fishermen may have endured.
The last remaining seaworthy cod-fishing schooner, Le Marité (yes, ships are generally masculine in French), was built in Fécamp and launched in 1923. Having fished for cod until 1929, when it was bought by a Danish ship owner, it was used during WW2 to supply fish to the UK. Following a checkered career, it was bought in 2003 by a French association, restored, and brought back into use as a leisure cruiser. Marité returned to its Fécamp home this last weekend to celebrate its centenary, and sailed up the Seine overnight to feature at Rouen’s Armada 2023, where the NNRFA group will have the opportunity to view it.
The NNRFA are looking forward to visiting the colourful Normandy hometown of a monk who turned Norwich into a cathedral city and ensured its preeminence not just in East Anglia but in England for nearly a thousand years.