In amongst all the decluttering I’ve only just found the time to write this post on our Christmas visit to beautiful Honfleur. La Marraine and some other friends where here over the New Year; such wonderful guests! I really enjoyed their company and it was so sad when they went.
Honfleur is not too far from where we live here in Normandy. It is on the southern bank of the estuary of the Seine and its inhabitants are called Honfleurais.
It is charming. It’s especially known for its old port and has been painted many times, including by such famous artists as Gustave Courbet, Claude Monet and Johan Jongkind. This école de Honfleur, including Eugène Boudin, contributed to the Impressionist Movement. No wonder it’s called the city of painters! Here are just a few of the works the town has inspired.
It’s amazing to see, looking at these paintings, how little the bones of the place has changed.
The first written record of Honfleur is a reference by Richard III, Duke of Normandy, in 1027. By the middle of the 12th century, the city was a trade route from Rouen to England.
With a safe harbour Honfleur was regarded as a strategic position from the start of the Hundred Years’ War. The town’s defences were strengthened by Charles V from attacks from the English. However, Honfleur was taken and occupied by the English in 1357 and from 1419 to 1450. When under French control, raiding parties often set out from the port to ransack the English coasts. I know that French, Castilian and Genoese pirates attacked my home town of Southampton in 1338; I wonder if some of them came from here?
At the end of the Hundred Years’ War trade could flow freely again and Honfleur benefited from this until the end of the 18th century.
One of these trades was the slave trade. As Honfleur traded regularly with not only Canada, but the West Indies, the African coasts and the Azores the town became one of the five principal ports for the slave trade in France.
In connection with Canada, the port saw the departure of a number of explorers including one organised by Samuel de Champlain. In 1608 the city of Quebec in modern-day Canada was founded as a result.
The Sainte-Catherine church is the largest church made out of wood in France. It’s set within beautiful buildings beside the port.
The wars of the French revolution and the First Empire caused Honfleur to be largely ruined as a port, with it only partially recovering during the 19th century – trading wood from northern Europe. It is Le Havre that has that crown now.
For the WW2 buffs…
The port was was liberated together by the British and Belgian forces, as well as the Canadian army during the Second World War.
The beauty that remains here, in spite of the need for its Libération, is as a result of its location and reduced significance as a port. As it was some 60 kilometers from Sword Beach Honfleur didn’t play a role in the Normandy beach landings. As a result the city was hardly damaged during WWII and was also spared from the bombings, which was not the case for its neighbor, Le Havre.
Across the other side of the estuary and heavily bombed, Le Havre was known as a ‘martyr city’. Out of 160 000 inhabitants, 5 000 were killed and 80 000 rendered homeless; the whole 150 hectares of the historic centre were devastated, with 12 500 buildings destroyed.
This was largely as a result of the strategic importance of Le Havre, being the second largest port in France. Following the Allied beach landings on June 6, 1944, the German navy Kriegsmarine took on a suicidal mission. Volunteer soldiers boarded speedboats that transported 300 kilos worth of explosives. Only one of these boats would accomplish its mission however.
Due to their location the ports of Honfleur and Le Havre represented an easy opportunity to get to Paris. Consequently for many historians the liberation of Le Havre on September 12, 1944, marked the end of the Battle at Normandy.
The Piron Brigade, named as such for its Colonel Jean-Baptiste Piron, had previously liberated Honfleur from German occupation on August 25, 1944. The following day, power was transferred to the 49th British Division. The Belgian military unit was not only present during the Battle at Normandy but also fought alongside the Allied forces for the liberation of Belgium and Holland.
If you’re here in France it’s a wonderful place to visit – even on a freezing cold day.