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The Rouen Chronicles: Arques La Bataille, Dieppe

May 12, 2014
1965 - 04 - France - Normandy Chateau 3

Didier Vergos and Frank Kappler a top a wall at Arques-La-Bataille chateau; April 1965 (I think)

It is fifty years since it was my good fortune to spend a year in France, a junior year abroad in a very well-organized program of St. Lawrence University, where I got my undergraduate degree (and that in French!). Now a half century on, I have tried to mark the occasion in a number of ways, among them:

– reading as much Balzac as I can

– reading the works (in French) of one of our professors at the University of Rouen – Robert Merle, who was one of the finest professors I have had the pleasure of studying with.

– seeing the films made of Robert Merle’s books (Day of the Dolphin, Weekend A Zuydcoote).

– remembering some of the places I had the good fortune of visiting that memorable year and writing about them, places whose significance I barely understood at the time, among them Arques-La-Bataille and Dieppe.

I first visited Arques-La-Bataille nearly half a century ago with Dominique, Didier and “Mr.’ Vergos and Frank Kappler. It was a part of a day trip on which the Vergoses were kind enough to take Frank K. and me. We were in the midst of our junior year abroad (September 1964 – July 1965) in Paris and then Rouen France. In Rouen we lived with the Vergos family at their home at 75bis rue de Renard (Fox St.) . After poking around the castle at Arques-La-Bataille for an hour, mostly climbing around the ruins, we went on the spend the rest of the day in Dieppe. It was a wondrous day all in all, filled with vivid impressions. Years later – 25 to be exact, in July 1989 – with Nancy, Molly and Abbie – I visited the same places. We stayed about a week just outside of Dieppe and took a day trip to Arques-La-Bataille. That summer was the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution of 1789, an interesting time to be there.


What do I recall  being told by Monsieur Vergos about Arques-La-Bataille?: that it was a castle from which – or one of the castles from which – William-The-Conqueror launched his invasion of England in 1066. That was about it although that leaves out much of the more weighty history of the place, the details of which I would only learn more recently. An imposing place even in ruins, the castle at Arques was actually built by William-The-Conqueror’s uncle, one William of Talou between 1040 and 1045. It stands on top of a rocky hill dominating two valleys encircled by a man-made ditch.   Not trusting his own uncle (imagine!), William-The -Conqueror besieged and occupied it after a year and half siege.  using it as a base for the invasion of England. In 1123, Henry 1st, King of England, the youngest son of William-The-Conqueror, strengthened the castle by re-enforcing the wall. Not long afterwards, in 1204, French King Philippe Auguste took the castle from Richard-The-Lion-Heart, the last Norman fortress to fall to France.

In the ensuing centuries it changed hands frequently eventually, in 1419 becoming a base for the English in Normandy. They were expelled in 1449. 140 years later, Arques-La-Bataille was the scene of one of the most decisive battles in French history of that period. It was just after the assassination of Henry III at St. Cloud by fanatic catholic priest. Henry IV would not be formally crowned until five years later, but nearby Dieppe was a key base for his operations against the Catholic League.

There, at Arques, during the two-week period between September 15-29, 1589, Henry IV, then leader of the Huguenot faction, whose right to the crown was contested by the Catholic League, met his adversaries on the battle field at Arques.  It was a fierce battle in which the outcome was in doubt much of the time. In facing down the Catholic League, Henry IV was facing an army twice his size. If successful, he military leader of the Catholic League, Charles, Duke of Mayenne, had promised  to take Henry IV back to Paris in a cage, parade him through the city so that people could spit and throw refuge at him, have him tried for heresy, and then garroted.

Coming to the aid of her Protestant ally, at a critical moment, Elizabeth I of England gave what turned out to be decisive aid that turned the tide on the battle field in Henry’s favor. In less than three day’s time, England sent 4000 troops, among them 40 English officers and 1200 Scottish troops to engage their Catholic opponents. With this aid, the Catholic League forces, led by Charles de Lorraine, the Duke of Mayenne, younger brother of the Duke of Guise, were decisively defeated.

As a consequence of Henry’s victory, the Huguenots maintained control of the key port city of Dieppe, a mere six kilometers away from Arques. Dieppe controlled the lucrative trade both from Amsterdam and London at the time. Had the Catholic League won the battle, and thus moved to control Dieppe and its rich commercial resources, it is unlikely that Henry IV would have had the momentum to seize the French crown (which was rightfully his). The consequences of the battle went far beyond France to the United Provinces (today the Netherlands). It strengthened the hand of the United Provinces in their fight against Spanish domination, by weakening the Spanish-Catholic position. Spanish troops in the Netherlands had to be diverted south towards France to counter Henry IV’s growing influence giving the Dutch needed breathing space.

In the period after Henry’s victory at Arques, 1589 – 1595, with a weaker Spanish military presence in the Netherlands, the Dutch were able to push the Spanish back from areas in the eastern and southern zones of the Netherlands, adding greater protection to the rich port cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, etc. The Dutch would battle Spain for their legal independence for another half century, but their ability of wrest control of territory during those critical years when Spanish attention was fixated on countering French influence helped the United Provinces consolidate their economic and political control. It was during this period of extended political control of its surrounding regions that the Dutch, while still at war with Spain, launched their maritime ventures into the Mediterranean and shortly thereafter to East Asia – India and (modern-day) Indonesia.

Its days of glory behind it, in 1668 the castle edifice was abandoned by the military and experienced a long period of decay. The site was used as a quarry from 1735 to 1771 without any formal authorization and then formally closed down by Louis XVI not long before he lost his crown and his head. Then in 1860 the remaining rooms in the mostly decayed castle were converted into a museum, the inside cleaned up and visits were permitted. The museum was permanently closed in 1939. The next year, the invading Nazi armies occupied Arques-La-Bataille. Forced to withdraw with the advent of the D-Day Allied Invasion of June 6, 1944, the Germans blew up the ammunition dump they had used there, leaving the behind a very ruined castle, now with almost a millennium of history. It has been left untouched since – still a fascinating place to poke around – and was in that state when visited in 1965 and again in 1989.


In a wheat field above the chalk cliffs just north of Dieppe, just east and above Le Puys. Julius Caesar's army was said to camp on the spot and it is from here that Caesar launched his invasion of England in 55 B.C. From these heights Nazi machine gunners massacred a Canadian raiding party on August 17, 1942

In a wheat field above the chalk cliffs just north of Dieppe, just east and above Le Puys. Julius Caesar’s army was said to camp on the spot and it is from here that Caesar launched his invasion of England in 55 B.C. From these heights Nazi machine gunners massacred a Canadian raiding party on August 17, 1942

That same day long ago that with the Vergoses and Frank Kappler I visited Arches-La-Bataille, we went on and spent several hours in Dieppe where we walked on the beach and visited the chateau, now a local museum where the city’s rich maritime history was on display. That was in April, 1965. Twenty four years later, in the summer of 1989, I returned with the family, Nancy, Molly, Abbie. Molly was twelve, Abbie seven at the time. Through the intervention of a French friend in Finland where I was working at the time, we were able to get accommodations at what we were told was “a chateau” a few kilometers north of town right on the English Channel where we stayed for ten days.

The accommodations were, well, less than luxurious, yet we adjusted to the situation well enough and had a fine time all the same. The chateau was not so much a chateau but a youth hostel whose hospitality we shared with a large group of Italian teenagers who woke up talking, spent their waking hours doing likewise and did not stop until sleep finally overcame them. It turns out that during World War II, the same facility, no more than 100 yards from the beach up a narrow ravine that led to the top of the cliffs, was apparently the headquarters of the Nazi SS, on the alert for an allied invasion.

Dieppe today is a shadow of its former self, a pleasant enough seaside resort and fishing town, but a shrunken version of what was 400 years ago one of France’s most active ports engaged in global trade and exploration. The maritime history of Dieppe is everywhere, from the port and market place where fresh fish were for sale daily, to the chapel for lost sailors at sea just north of town, to the museum that sits just south of the main part of town on a hill overlooking the beach and the sea. Mementos of World War II abound, from the nearby Allied cemeteries to the memorial to, “Operation Jubilee”, the aborted Canadian landing of August 1942, a precursor of sorts to the D-Day invasion.

Forty seven years later, in 1989 when we last visited, locals told us that more often than not Canadians visiting Dieppe drink in the town’s bars for free, in appreciation for the botched mission. It was only decades later (in the past few years actually) that the rationale for the operation, which, for anyone looking up from the beach at the cliffs makes little tactical sense. In a recent documentary, Dieppe Uncovered, and book  Dieppe Decoded, Canadian historian David O’Keefe argued that the mission was designed solely to provide cover for 15 to 20 ultra-secret commandos. That unit, pulled together specifically for Dieppe, had their eye on Hotel Moderne, where they hoped to snatch documents, books, even the infamous Enigma machine, anything that would help crack the Germans’ revamped coding system.

The Canadians were ordered to attack the Nazi positions at Dieppe, which meant scaling the cliffs to reach the high grounds. It turned into a turkey shoot for the German; Canadians were slaughtered by Nazi machine gun fire as they tried to storm the ravines or climb the cliffs by ropes. Considered the worst Canadian military debacle of the war, of the 4,963 Canadians involved, only 2,210 returned to England after the Dieppe raid, according to Veterans Affairs Canada. Another 1,946 were taken prisoner and 913 were killed. The commando unit never got close to the Hotel Moderne. Two years later, the Allies liberated Dieppe.

Earlier History…

From Arques-La-Bataille, the Arques River flows north through nearby Dieppe emptying into the English Channel. By the time that Henry IV defeated the Duke of Guise in 1589, Dieppe had already had a long history and strategic location. First mentioned historically as early as 1015 as Deppa; the derivation of the term coming from the Old English deop or old Norse djupr of the same meaning.The same adjective can be recognized in other place-names like Dieppedalle (f. e. Saint-Vaast-Dieppedalle) and Dipdal in Normandy, which is the same as Deepdale in Great Britain. It is first mentioned, as might be expected as a fishing village. By the time of the Hundred Years War (1337 to 1453) largely between England and France, during which time England maintained a base in northern France. By then it had become a port of some strategic value. The French kings, realizing the strategic importance of the town, granted it numerous privileges; when it was occupied by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, the inhabitants expelled them at the first opportunity, in 1435.

As was the case in much of Northern France, Dieppe with is well established merchant class, was deeply influenced by the Protestant Reformation. Huguenot influences were strong there. In 1588, Phillip II of Spain connived with France’s Duke of Guise, head of the Catholic League, to seize Dieppe and use it as a naval base from which to launch the assault of the Spanish Armada. But the plan was neutralized by forces loyal to Henry III (of France) who nipped it in the bud. Failing in that effort, the Catholic League with Spanish help seized Calais northeastward up the coast.

As a result Dieppe’s support of Protestantism, it suffered greatly during the Wars of Religion, its darkest period coming in the second part of the 17th century. In 1668 almost 10,000 of its people died during a plague; in 1685 the Protestants of the town were persecuted after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes which had granted Protestants religious freedom. Always a commercial prize as well, in 1694 the town was almost completely destroyed by the English and Dutch fleets, rendering the port inoperable in any serious manner for more than a century. Efforts to rebuild the port were undertaken during the 19th century. The 1694 bombing probably prevented Dieppe from emerging as France’s premier northern port, its importance being eclipsed by Le Havre, Brest and Cherbourg.

Varrand Atlas School

Dieppe Cartography School

L’École de cartographie de Dieppe

In its commercial heyday in the 16 century Dieppe produced some of the world’s finest explorers, navigators and one of the world’s finest cartography (map-making) schools. The heyday for L’École de cartographie de Dieppe (the Dieppe Cartography School) was from 1540 – 1585; its great cartographers included Pierre Desceliers, Jean Rotz, Guillaume Le Testu, Nicolas Desliens, Nicolas Vallard et Jacques de Vau de Claye. Although latitude is indicated, like other 16th century maps, those of the Dieppe School do not show longitudinal lines. Longitude begins to appear on maps as of 1568, those of Mercator but these are absent from Dieppe maps.

In David Woodward’s History of Cartography (2007) Sarah Toulouse has published a detailed list of 37 maps and atlases created between 1542 et 1635, apparently by the Dieppe School or other Norman map makers. The maps thus created were utilized and reflect the early French efforts to colonize Canada, with many of the original French settlers there coming from Dieppe itself. They maps also give examples of the Spanish conquest of Peru, and the Portuguese conquest of the Indonesian region at the time. Toulouse speculates that many of the details of the Dieppe cartographers were based on Portuguese sources, especially the earlier ones. The Portuguese explorers had taken the lead early in the 16th century in global exploration (Magellan, etc). Professor Gayle K. Brunelle of California State University has argued that, although the Dieppe school of cartographers was active for only a generation—from about 1535 to 1562—the cartographers associated with it were acting as propagandists for French geographic knowledge and territorial claims in the New World. The decades when the Dieppe school was flourishing were also the decades in which French trade with the New World was at its 16th century height, in terms of the North Atlantic fish trade, the still fledgling fur trade, and, most important for the cartographers, the rivalry with the Portuguese for control of the coasts of Brazil and the supplies of lucrative  Brazilwood.



The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 1

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 2 – Ahmed Ben Bella

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 3 – Robert Merle in Rouen – October 1964

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 4 – “the Brethren: Fortunes de France Translated into English”

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 5 – City of Wisdom and Blood

The Rouen Chronicles – Dieppe 1 – The Botched Raid of August 17, 1942 (in two parts) – Part One

The Rouen Chronicles – Dieppe 2 – The Botched Raid of August 17, 1942 (in two parts) – Part Two

The Rouen Chronicles –  Amsterdam 1965

The Rouen Chronicles – Ferid Boughedir

The Rouen Chronicles – The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos

The Rouen Chronicles – Rouen’s Jewish History – 1

The Rouen Chronicles – The Literary Work of Robert Merle (in two sessions) – Notes

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