Detail of the Gros Horloge copyright French Moments

Last Updated: 4 March 2020

Rouen is the historic capital of the ancient Duchy of Normandy and remains the chief city of the new region of Normandy (Normandie). In the Middle-Ages, Rouen was one of France’s largest and most prosperous towns and the seat of the Exchequer of Normandy. Here’s the main stages of Rouen History from the Roman to the modern eras.

Rouen History

Rouen is indeed a very ancient city which was called Rotomagus during the Roman era. At that time, Rotomagus was already an important trading town with an amphitheatre and thermae.

When the Vikings first made their incursion up the Seine River in 841, Rouen was overrun and consequently became the Normans’ capital from 912 until the time of William the Conqueror, who decided to establish his castle at Caen.

Engraved birdeye view of Rouen at the River Seine 1657
Engraved birdeye view of Rouen at the River Seine 1657

In 1150, Rouen was established as a self-governing city and its founding charter granted the town a large degree of autonomy.

Throughout the Middle-Ages, the Normand city went through several Great Fires and in 1200 fire destroyed part of the former cathedral. In 1204, Philip II Augustus of France took Rouen and annexed Normandy to the Kingdom of France. He dismantled the Norman castle, which had been built upon the site of the Roman amphitheatre and built the Chateau Bouvreuil.

Joan of Arc Tower in Rouen copyright French Moments
Joan of Arc Tower, Rouen © French Moments

With easy access to the sea through the Seine corridor, Rouen became a prosperous trading city and port, exporting wine and wheat to England and importing tin and wool in return. As for wool imports, Rouen specialised in the production of textiles that were marketed at the Champagne fairs, in direct competition with the other prosperous cities of Flanders and Brabant.

When the city went through urban turmoil in the 14th century with the assassination of the mayor and the pillage of noble mansions, King Philip IV of France responded by temporarily suspending the city’s charter and its prosperous monopoly over river traffic.

During the Hundred Years’ War in the 15th century, Rouen played an important part in the history of France, which is still remembered today and taught in school. In 1419, Rouen, Normandy and the surrounding regions were conquered by Henry V of England, of the House of the Plantagenets. The major character to be remember vividly until today is certainly Joan of Arc (in French “Jeanne d’Arc“), who was burned at the stake on the 30th May 1431. Some 20 years later, in 1449, King Charles VII seized Rouen back for France.

Joan of Arc's Death at the Stake, painting by Hermann Anton Stilke (1843)
Joan of Arc’s Death at the Stake, painting by Hermann Anton Stilke (1843)

Much later, in the 20th century, during the Second World War, Rouen was damaged again, this time by Allied bombs and the cathedral narrowly escaped total destruction.

Tour St Romain after the 1944 Allied bombs © crédit photo Deutsches Bundesarchiv 1944
Tour St Romain after the 1944 Allied bombs © crédit photo Deutsches Bundesarchiv 1944

In the 21st century, Rouen is still thriving as a busy and thrilling city, offering its visitors a superbly restored town centre and a range of fascinating events such as the Armada de Rouen, a gathering of some of the world’s largest sailing boats.

Rouen Armada festival © crédit photo B. Voisin
Rouen Armada festival © crédit photo B. Voisin


Gems of Paris by French Moments
About the author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. He has a background teaching French, Economics and Current Affairs, and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations, and a degree of Economics and Management. Pierre is the author of the Discovery Course on the Secrets of the Eiffel Tower and the Christmas book "Voyage au Pays de Noël".

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