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The Cotentin Peninsula, also known as the Cherbourg Peninsula, is a peninsula in Normandy that forms part of the northwest coast of France. It extends north-westward into the English Channel, towards Great Britain. To its west lie the Channel Islands and to the southwest lies the Brittany Peninsula.
It is part of the Armorican Massif and lies between the estuary of the Vire river and Mont Saint-Michel Bay. It is divided into three areas: the headland of La Hague, the Cotentin Pass (Le Plain), and the valley of the Saire River (Val-de-Saire). It forms the bulk of the Manche département. Its southern part called "le Marais"(Marshlands) crosses from east to west just to the north of Carentan and Lessay and marks a natural border with the rest of the Manche.
The largest town in the peninsula is Cherbourg on the north coast, a major cross-channel port. Other towns of note: Valognes, Barfleur, Bricquebec, Barneville-Carteret, Beaumont Hague, Les Pieux, La Haye du Puits, Montebourg.
The western coast of the peninsula, known as the Côte des Îles ("Islands Coast") faces the Channel Islands. Ferry links serve Carteret, and the islands of Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney from Dielette. Off the east coast of the peninsula lie the island of Tatihou and the Îles Saint-Marcouf.
The peninsula formed part of the Roman geographical area of Armorica. The town known today as Coutances, capital of the Unelli, a Gaulish tribe, acquired the name of Constantia in 298 during the reign of Roman emperor Constantius Chlorus. The base of the peninsula, called in Latin the pagus Constantinus, joined together with the pagus Coriovallensis centred upon Cherbourg to the north, subsequently became known as the Cotentin. Under the Carolingians it was administered by viscounts drawn successively from members of the Saint-Sauveur family, at their seat Saint-Sauveur on the Douve.
King Alan the Great of Brittany waged war successfully on the Norsemen. As the result of his conquests, the Cotentin Peninsula was included theoretically in the territory of the Duchy of Brittany, after the Treaty of Compiègne (867) with the king of the Franks. The Dukes of Brittany suffered continuing Norse invasions and Norman raids. Eventually the Cotentin Peninsula (and Avranchin nearby) was lost to Brittany after only 70 years of political domination. It became part of Normandy.
Meanwhile Vikings settled the Cotentin in the ninth and tenth century. They were followed by Anglo-Norse and Anglo-Danish people, who established as farmers. It became part of Normandy in the early tenth century. Many placenames there are derived from the Norse language. Examples include La Hague from hagi "meadow" or "enclosure" and La Hougue from haugr meaning a "hill" or "mound". Other names are typical: all those ending with -tot (Quettetot..) from topt "site of a house" (modern -toft), -bec (Bricquebec, Houlbec..) from bekkr "brook", "stream", etc. Until the construction of modern roads, the peninsula was almost inaccessible in winter due to the band of marshland cutting off the higher ground of the promontory itself. This explains occasional historical references to the Cotentin as an island.
In 1088 Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, enfeoffed the Cotentin to his brother Henry, later King Henry I of England. Henry, as count of the Cotentin, established his first power base there and in the adjoining Avranchin, which lay to the south, beyond the River Thar.
During the Hundred Years War, King Edward III of England landed in the bay of La Hogue, and then came to the Church of Quettehou in Val de Saire. It was there that Edward III knighted his son Edward, the Black Prince. A remembrance plaque can be seen next to the altar.
The town of Valognes was, until the French Revolution, a provincial social resort for the aristocracy, nicknamed the Versailles of Normandy. The social scene was described in the novels of Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly (himself from the Cotentin). Little now remains of the grand houses and châteaux; they were destroyed by combat there during the Battle of Normandy in World War II.
During World War II, part of the 1944 Battle of Normandy was fought in the Cotentin. The westernmost part of the D-Day landings was at Utah Beach, on the southeastern coast of the peninsula, and was followed by a campaign to occupy the peninsula and take Cherbourg.
The main economical resource is agriculture. Dairy farming is a prominent activity. Along the west coast, renowned vegetables are grown, such as the carrots of Créances. The renowned trademark "Florette" was created in Lessay.
The region is also famous for its shellfish culture, notably oysters from Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue and Pirou, and the production of alcoholic beverages like cider and calvados, made from locally grown apples and pears.
The region hosts two important nuclear power facilities. At Flamanville there is a nuclear power plant, where the second European Pressurized Reactor in the world is being constructed, with commissioning delayed to 2016 or later. COGEMA La Hague site, a large nuclear waste reprocessing and storage complex operated by Areva NC, is located a few miles to the north, at Beaumont-Hague. The facility stores all high level waste from the French nuclear power program in one large vault. Nuclear industry provides a substantial portion of jobs in the region. The roads used for transport of nuclear waste have been blocked many times in the past by environmental action group Greenpeace. Local environmental groups have voiced concerns about the radioactivity levels of the cooling water of both these nuclear sites, which is being flushed into the bay of Vauville; however, the emitted radioactivity is several orders of magnitude below natural background levels and does not pose any hazard.
There are two important naval shipyards in Cherbourg. The state-owned shipyard DCNS has built French nuclear submarines since the 1960s. Privately owned CMN builds frigates and patrol vessels for various states, mostly from the Middle East.
Tourism is also an important economic activity in this region. Many tourists visit the D-Day invasion beaches, including Utah Beach in the Cotentin. At Sainte-Mère-Église a few miles away from the beach, there is a museum commemorating the action of the 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division. The Cité de la Mer in Cherbourg is a museum of oceanic and underseas subjects. The main attraction is Redoutable, the first French nuclear submarine, launched in 1967.
Due to its comparative isolation, the peninsula is one of the remaining strongholds of the Norman language, and the local dialect is known as Cotentinais. The Norman language poet Côtis-Capel described the environment of the peninsula, while French language poet Jacques Prévert made his home at Omonville-la-Petite. The painter Jean-François Millet was born in the peninsula, as well as Allain Leprest, a modern French poet and songwriter. Guillaume Fouace, from Reville, a painter.
The Norman language writer Alfred Rossel, native of Cherbourg, composed many songs which form part of the heritage of the region. Rossel's song Sus la mé ("on the sea") is often sung as a regional patriotic song.
- P. Chesnel, Le Cotentin et l'Avranchin sous les ducs de Normandie, 911-1204, 1912, noted in C. Warren Hollister, Henry I (Yale English Monarchs), 2001:51ff and map, xviii; there were two brief interludes when it was declared a countship.
- Twelve essential old Scandinavian words (old Norse) in placenames of Normandy (R. Lepelley. Caen University)
- Hollister 2001: ff.
- Renaud, Jean Les Vikings et la Normandie (Ouest-France. 2002) ISBN/ISSN : 2-7373-0258-7
- Renaud, Jean Les dieux des Vikings (Ouest-France. 2002) ISBN/ISSN : 2-7373-1468-2
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