The Notre-Dame Cathedral of Bayeux stands in the southeast of the city in Normandy. It is only a ten or fifteen-minute walk from the Bayeux War Memorial and Allied Military Cemetery.
The imposing Norman-Romanesque core dates back to the time of William the Conqueror. Odo, Earl of Kent – a half-brother of William – dedicated the building on 14th July 1077. Depicted as a warrior with a wooden club on the Bayeux Tapestry, it’s thought Odo was its commissioner. This would make the cathedral the intended home of the world-famous artifact. The cathedral housed the tapestry until 1793.
The war-time tale of the Bayeux Tapestry
The tapestry itself has an interesting war-time tale. The Germans stole the embroidery in 1940, taking it to the Chateau or Sourches in the Sarthe, near Le Mans. Later, it appeared in the abbey of Juaye Mondaye, near Bayeux. German art historians under Count Metternich studied it and decided it was worth preserving.
Later returned to Sourches on 27th June 1944, the tapestry – under instruction from Himmler – was removed to Paris. Like the capital city, and its hometown of Bayeux, the tapestry survived the conflict. It returned to its rightful home after the armistice of 1945.
The cathedral stands in the centre of a large historical conservation area. This medieval part of the city remained untouched for the most part by the events of 1944.
Bayeux Cathedral in 1944
After D-Day in 1944, Bayeux was one of the first towns liberated by the Allies. Allied troops took the town on 7th June 1944. De Gaulle and Churchill both visited in the following weeks, making historical speeches. Despite heavy bombardment during the campaigns, old buildings suffered only light damage.
Royal Navy man Bill Morris stayed at a camp in Arromanches after liberation. On BBC WW2 People’s War, he recalled his journey to Bayeux for drinking water and supplies. Bill paid a visit to the spectacular Bayeux Cathedral after collecting his jerrycans.
The Cathedral entrance was through a small door, large enough for one person at a time to enter or leave. This door was cut out of a great oak door. It was a brilliantly clear June day and once through that door, it seemed like another world.
Other stories exist where servicemen sought the peace and quiet of the cathedral. It became a place to go to contemplate and to mourn those lost at home and in the field.
A cathedral for all to gather
In 1944, Bayeux was a dark and gloomy place. Within the cathedral, at regular intervals, candles glowed illuminating the darkness. Servicemen would gather there to enjoy the stillness and spirituality. The old gothic-styled building provided a getaway from the war-torn streets.
Inside, the building was almost stripped bare. There was no high altar, pulpit, pews or organ. The golden candlesticks, screens, and pictures were gone too. Boards covered the beautiful stained-glass windows. Beside the entrance stood a crude stone block. The servicemen used this as a makeshift altar and on top was a scattering of lit votive candles.
Local people from the area also came to the cathedral to share in the stillness and offer up prayers. Women, children, the displaced and the orphaned all came to worship at what remained of the cathedral.
Bayeux Cathedral in 2014
Each year, during the week of D-Day commemorations, the Royal British Legion holds remembrance services. Seventy years after the Allied liberation, I visited Bayeux Cathedral for the first time.