Medieval Machinations

Normandy was first invaded by seafaring Scandinavians before the birth of Christ. These fierce fighting peoples gave rise to the region’s name which derived from the term ‘Norse men’ or North men.

For almost 500 years, until the early 700’s, the area was populated by Romans.

1066 saw the Norman invasion of England under William. Following William’s death in 1087, his heirs were divided and much petty squabbling ensued. In 1135, Henri the First Beauclerc restored the Ducal authority.

In 1204 Normandy was reunited with the Crown of France. Between 1417 and 1450 much of Normandy was occupied by the English. In 1431, Joan of Arc was burnt in Rouen. In 1450 Normandy the English were repelled following the French victory at (nearby) Formingy and the recapture of Cherbourg. In 1469, the Ducal circle was broken when Charles of France, the last Duke of Normandy, was stripped of his title. In 1437 La Ducrie was built for the then Dauphin of France. We have the Dauphin’s ‘blazon’ or crest stone in the entrance hall. Being moated and with a variety of defences, La Ducrie is actually a ‘castle’, the word ‘castle’ means fortified house.

In 1514, the Exchequer of Rouen was replaced by the Normandy Parliament. By this time and following the Dauphin’s disposal of the house in the second half of the 15th century the house had become the home of the most senior Tax collector for the St Lo region who used to sleep in one of the rooms on the first floor where there is still a pit in the floor of the passage to the tower for the storage of taxes until moved under escort to the main Normandy Treasury. To this day the room continues to be known as La Salle de Monnaie.

It is believed that the tax collector was also a Duke and thus a royal personage. There are only three levels of royalty, a King, a Prince and a Duke, Below Royalty we have the Nobility and below the Nobility are the Gentry. Below the Gentry inevitably we have the commoners. Thus the house became the home of a long line of French Dukes. It stayed in the aristocratic hands of one family until the mid 1950’s. The house is still called La Ducrie (The Duke’s House) and it is now owned by Joe Helling and his wife Vivienne.

In the grounds of the house is an oak tree called The Black Duke. It is 20 feet circumference at its base and at around 130 feet tall it is one of the mightiest oak trees in France. We cannot establish who the Black Duke was or why he acquired this title but it is the reason the suit of armour in the entrance hall has black plumage as apparently, in heraldic terms, only Royalty fought in black. We also have black swans, this because Joan of Arc seemingly presented her enemies with a black swan to signify their oncoming defeat in battle. Again we cannot confirm this and although it is written in several manuscripts, the presentation of a black swan seems strange as it is a southern hemisphere (Australia and New Zealand) bird and neither had been discovered at that time! Perhaps black swans were globally distributed and eventually restricted themselves to the southern hemisphere. Who knows?

In the thick of the hedgerow battles!

During mid to late July 1944, La Ducrie was literally on the front line of some of the most intense fighting of the entire Normandy campaign.

The Germans fought for every foot of real estate in the American advance to St. Lô, and the hedgerow (bocage) country around here offered them an ideal terrain for a prolonged and bloody defence – in particular at Pont Hébert just up the road.

Saint-Lô itself is of course a famous American battle honour, and closer still is La Madeleine, where Major Sidney Bingham’s ‘lost battalion’ was surrounded by German forces and isolated for a whole day without ammunition and with little food on Martainville Hill.

For a taste of how close the war was, have a read of this fascinating story we learnt from one of our (sadly late) neighbours.

Continuously showered by artillery fire, they were eventually reinforced by the 3rd battalion under Major Thomas D. Howie, who was fatally wounded by a mortar shell explosion. Their position was then heavily attacked, preventing any further movement that day. It remains one of the epics of American arms, and a classic example of what became known as the Battle of the Hedgerows

La Ducrie itself had two lucky escapes in that it was used as a billet for senior German officers (and thus probably a command centre) and therefore at high risk of being obliterated by artillery or from the air – we can only assume that their camouflage discipline was better than normal! Secondly, it is only just outside the zone earmarked for carpet bombing preceding Operation COBRA and the eventual breakout.

Anyone interested in US military history could hardly find themselves in a better place!

The Present Day

BJ or Joe, is a true Highland Laird, born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1948. A chartered engineer by profession, his ancestors were Norman invaders whose family name at that time was ‘Hellouin’. They came from the region of Bec Hellouin, the famous and beautiful abbey south of Le Havre.

Vivienne, Joe’s wife was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1950. The owner of a successful public relations company, Vivienne has an office in one of the outbuildings and still manages her UK based business from France. Together they run a small but select B&B operation at La Ducrie to supplement their income.