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Honfleur (Municipality, Calvados, France)

Last modified: 2021-03-18 by ivan sache
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Flag of Honfleur - Image by Arnaud Leroy, 24 October 2003

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Presentation of Honfleur

The municipality of Honfleur (8,163 inhabitants in 2008; 1,367 h) is located on the estuary of the Seine (left, southern bank)

The origin of the name of Honfleur, originally known by the Norse name of Honnefleu, is obscure. Hon/Honn is often considered as a family name, whereas flow/fleu/fleur means "an inlet". The suffix -fleur is also found in the names of Barfleur and Harfleur.
The name of Honfleur is also interpreted as "the upstream port", as opposed to Harfleur, "the downstream port". Both places are indeed of Viking origin and were important commerce ports before the silting of Harfleur and the foundation of Le Havre in the 16th century.
The port of Honfleur was deliberately built as both a river (estuary) and sea port, with three aims: defending the estuary of the Seine, the Royal river; being an important port of commerce; and being the base for maritime exploration.

Honfleur was mentioned for the first time in 1027 by Richard III, Duke of Normandy. A document from the end of the 12th century gives evidence that Honfleur was already an important port of commerce with England. The town was then divided in three parishes, which meant it was fairly wealthy.
During the Hundred Years' War, Honfleur was fortified by King of France Charles V (1364-1380). Under Charles V and Charles VI (1380-1422), the fortresses of Honfleur and Harfleur protected the entrance of the Seine, Honfleur being used as a basis for raids to England. Honfleur was seized in 1419 by the English, who annexed most of the French territory by the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. Charles VII (1422-1461) progressively reconquered the Kingdom; the English were expelled from Honfleur in 1450.
In the 15th-16th centuries , the kings of France rebuilt Honfleur, which was an important maritime town until the 19th century, the local seamen being highly estimated all over France. Charles VIII (1483-1498) wrote that "Honfleur has the largest and biggest supply of ships in Normandy". Binot Paulmier de Gonneville reached the coasts of Brazil in 1503, whereas Jean Denis visited Newfoundland and the estuary of St. Laurent in 1506. The port of Honfleur was so famous that the departure of the giant Pantagruel for the Kingdom of Utopia was located there by Rabelais.
The Wars of Religion caused damage to Honfleur, especially during the siege set up by Henri IV in 1564, but did not stop maritime activity. The seamen of Honfleur fished cod on the Newfoundland banks and established commercial relationships with the natives. Rich ship-owners such as Pierre de Chauvin and Dupont-Grave sent expeditions to Canada. The most famous of these ship-owners is Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635), who launched several expeditions from Honfleur, including the 1608 travel during which he founded the town of Quebec.
In the 18th century, Colbert, Louis XIV's most influent councillor, ordered the suppression of the town walls. The port, increased by Duquesne, is today the most picturesque part of Honfleur, known as the Old Basin. Three big salt barns were built to store the salt necessary for the transoceanic expeditions, two of them being still there. The shipowners developed commerce with Canada, the Azores, the West Indies and Africa. The port was ruled by a Lieutenant appointed by the king, whose house (Lieutenance) was built at the entrance of the Old Basin.
At the time, the most famous seamen of Honfleur were Pierre Berthelot (1600-1638), appointed First Pilot and Cosmographer of the King of Portugal, later known as Blessed Denis of the Nativity, martyred in Sumatra and beatified in 1900; and Jean-Francois Doublet (1655-1728), officer of the Royal Navy and corsair, a fellow of the famous Jean Bart.
When France lost Canada by the Treaty of Paris (10 February 1763), the activity of Honfleur was reoriented towards the West Indies. Honfleur was then the 5th slave port in France. The Revolution and the Napoleonic wars completely ruined Honfleur, whose activity slowly resumed with the importation of tropical and nordic wood.
In the 19th century, steamboats linked Le Havre and Honfleur. A small sea resort was built, ruined by the competition from Sainte-Adresse, Trouville and Deauville. The fishers remained poor compared with the seamen involved in commerce and expeditions. Honfleur was fairly isolated and fishers had to sell their products to four wholesale fish merchants who could impose very low prices. Today, the main production of Honfleur is shrimp, celebrated the first week-end of October during the Shrimp Festival.

In the early 19th century, painters inspired by the English landscape painters gathered in Honfleur. A small artistic community was set up by Alexandre Dubourg and Eugène Boudin (1821-1898). Corot, Isabey and Huet were among the first ones to join the community, whose headquarters was an inn called St. Simeon's Farm.
Boudin, an obscure clark in a stationer's shop where the painters bought material, was too shy to show them his own works. The poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), who was on vacation in Honfleur with his mother and her stubborn second husband, general Aupick, swa some paintings by Boudin and was so enthusiastic that he encouraged him to unveil his paintings, writing laudatory articles on him in Parisian gazettes. Boudin later invited Courbet, Jongkind and Monet to Honfleur; he is said to have been the first one to encourage Monet to paint outdoors, being therefore considered as the precursor of Impressionism.
Boudin spent most of his life in Le Havre and then in Paris. When about to die, he asked to be brought back to the Norman coast he had cherished so much and died in Deauville, facing the sea. His paintings were shared between the municipal museum (now Eugène Boudin Museum) of Honfleur and the Art Museum of Le Havre.
Boudin is one of the models of the painter Elstir, a main character of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. Elstir is presented as excellent in painting the Norman sea and sky, as Boudin was. Elstir's death, in front of a painting by Vermeer, is a possible double transposition of a real event of Proust's life, who had a stroke when visiting the Vermeer exhibition in Paris, and Boudin's death in Deauville. In the novel, Elstir initiated the narrator and the "blossoming young girls" to aesthetics by showing them an old Norman church draped in ivy, whose model is, obviously, the village church of Criqueboeuf, located a few kilometers west of Honfleur.

Alphonse Allais (1855-1905) left his father's pharmacy in Honfleur for the fun of Paris. He joined several clubs such as the Hydropathes, founded in 1878 by the poet Goudaut [Goudaut can be read goût d'eau, "taste of water", whearas an "Hydropath" has no taste at all for water], the Hirsutes, who succeded the Hydropathes in 1880-1882, and the Fumistes. Allais founded the cabaret Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat) and directed its revue from 1885 to 1891, and then moved to another cabaret called Le Sourire (The Smile).
Alphonse Allias published weekly several short stories compiled in annual issues (such as Amours, Délices et Orgues, 1898, and Le Capitaine Cap, 1902). Several other stories were added to the complete edition of his works (1965-1970).
Allais was also a brilliant logician and linguist, using his skills in stories played againt logic and denouncing egoism, patriotism, clericalism and conformism, then the main moral values of the bourgeoisie. Some of his weird ideas found an application decades later; for instance, Allais proposed to solve social problems by moving the towns to the countryside and the countryside into the town, which is now known as "decentralization". He suggested the generals declare infectious disease to their enemies, which is now known as "bacteriological war". He related an expedition sent to refresh the top of the Mont-Blanc with white paintings because the Mont-Blanc had turned grey after a long warm period. Geographers said recently that due to the extremely warm weather in August 2003, the Mont-Blanc had lost a few meters of its snow and ice coverage. Finally, Allais had very good ideas to establish good links with England. Not understanding that the English gave names of defeats (Waterloo, Trafalgar) to their streets and squares, Allais believed that so many coal had been dig out of the English soil that England was floating like an iceberg and could represent a hazard for navigation. He suggested to link England with a big rope and to draw it to the continent, so that the problem of trans-Channel traffic would be suppressed.

The musician Erik Satie (1866-1925), even more bizarre than Allais, was born "so young in so old a world" in Honfleur, "a town full of kind and polite people". Satie joined the Conservatoire at Paris in 1879; upset by conservatism and academism, he prefered Bach, Chopin and Schumann. After a short tenure in the infantry, he moved to Paris, settling in 1887 in Montmartre in a flat he called "the cupboard".
Satie's short pieces for the piano are immediatly recognizable because of their originality and apparently simple harmony. The weird names of the pieces (Ogives, 1886; Gymnopédies, 1888; Gnossiennes, 1890) might have been inspired by Alphonse Allais and his clubs, since Satie was a member of the Black Cat group. Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was so impressed by these pieces that he nicknamed Satie "a medieval and sweet musician", orchestrating two of the Gymnopédies as a token of admiration and friendship.
Affected by a religious crisis, Satie left Montmartre in the 1890s. He settled in Arcueil, a small town in the south of Paris, in a flat whose only furniture were thirteen tables and five pianos ("because the Bible says that you should not smoke twice consecutively the same pipe"). Nobody ever entered the flat before Satie's death. Satie wrote in 1895 a Mass for the Poors and deliberately decided to live in poverty and ascese. He founded the "Leader-Jesus' Metropolitan Church of Art", a sect of Rosicrucian inspiration, with restricted membership to himself only to prevent principle corruption. Satie followed in 1905 counterpoint classes by Vincent d'Indy and Albert Roussel in the famous Schola Cantorum, and his style refined. His further pieces (Cold Pieces, Pear-shaped Pieces, Flaccid Preludes for a Dog, Parched Embryos ...) were completely independent of the schools and fads of the time.
In 1917, Satie met Maurice Ravel and supported the Society for Independent Music, which promoted young, non-academic musicians. Satie wrote the incidental music for Parade, a ballet written by Jean Cocteau and choreographed by Massine for Diaghileff's Russian Ballet, with costumes by Pablo Picasso. Considered as absolutely outrageous, Parade caused a riot in the theater. Using typewriter and fire alarm sounds in his score, Satie was considered as an avant-gardist. He wrote two more incidental music pieces in collaboration with Picasso (1924) and Francis Picabia (Relâche, 1925).
Never acting as a group leader, Satie appreciated young musicians, whose company was required "to avoid ossification, petrification, fossilization". In 1921, the "Arcueil School" was set up by Henri Sauguet, Maxime Jacob, Henri Cliquet-Pleyel and Roger Désormière. Satie also influenced Les Six, a group set up by Arthur Honegger, Francis Poulenc, Germaine Taillefère, Georges Auric, Darius Milhaud and Louis Durey. Most influence by Satie was on perception and understanding of music rather than on aesthetics and technics. Great masters of contemporary musics such as Igor Stravinsky and John Cage have acknowledged Satie's influence.
Satie can be seen in the flesh and bones in the experimental movie Entr'acte by René Clair, for which he wrote the music. In the introducing scene, Satie, wearing a white beard, a derby and a monocle, loads a cannon, helped by Francis Picabia, the movie scenarist.
The house where Satie was born in Honfleur has been transformed into an "anti-museum". The musician is recalled by a succession of weird scenes, such as a winged pear symbolizing his soul ascending to heaven. In a small, white room under the roof, a white Yamaha piano plays the Gnossiennes, the Gymnopédies and Parade for the extreme pleasure of the visitors.

Ivan Sache, 24 October 2003

Flag of Honfleur

The flag of Honfleur is white with the municipal coat of arms in the center.
The flag is flown over the Town Hall, on the balcony of the Town Hall during important events such as the Shrimp Festival, on the main entrances of the town and on cruise barges moored in the port.

Ivan Sache, 24 October 2003

Coat of arms of Honfleur

The coat of arms of Honfleur is "Gules a tower argent between in chief two fleurs de lis or a chief azure three fleurs-de-lis or".
According to Canel, the earliest description of these arms appears on a document dated 1730, but the chief of France indicates that they are of earlier origin, perhaps from the time of Louis XI, in the middle of the 15th century,

Ivan Sache, 28 October 2003

Gonfanon of Honfleur


Gonfanon of Honfleur - Image by Ivan Sache & Arnaud Leroy, 24 October 2003

The gonfanon of Honfleur, forked with the municipal arms and "HONFLEUR" written in gold letters below the arms, is flown on masts around the Old Basin.

Ivan Sache, 24 October 2003

Club Nautique de Honfleur


Burgee of CNH - Image by Ivan Sache, 25 October 2003

The burgee of Club Nautique de Honfleur (CNH) is red with a yellow cross, a ship in canton and the yellow letters CNH in lower hoist.
Red and yellow are both the colours of the town and of Normandy. The ship looks like the flagship of William the Conqueror's expedition, as it is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. The sign of the CNH club house, located in one of the narrow streets of the former fortified town (l'Enclos), shows the ship in details, especially the "cross" allegely granted by the Pope and placed over the main mast.

Ivan Sache, 25 October 2003