Caen was known in Roman times as ‘Catumagos’, from the Gaulish roots magos meaning ‘field’ and catu meaning ‘combat’. It remained a minor settlement throughout the Roman period and began to see major development commence in the 10th century, under the patronage of the Dukes of Normandy. Around 1060, William the Conqueror began construction of the Château de Caen, which became the centre of the ducal court. Duchess Matilda of Flanders also founded the Benedictine Abbey of Sainte-Trinité, Caen around the same time, eventually being buried in the abbey. Caen succeeded Bayeux as the capital of Lower Normandy, complementing the second ducal capital of Rouen.
During the Battle of Normandy in the Second World War, Caen was liberated from the Nazis in early July, a month after the Normandy landings, particularly those by British I Corps on 6 June 1944. British and Canadian troops had intended to capture the town on D-Day. However they were held up north of the city until 9 July, when an intense bombing campaign during Operation Charnwood destroyed 70% of the city and killed 2,000 French civilians. The Allies seized the western quarters, a month later than Field Marshal Montgomery’s original plan. During the battle, many of the town’s inhabitants sought refuge in the Abbaye aux Hommes (“Men’s Abbey”), built by William the Conqueror some 800 years before. The spire of the Church of Saint-Pierre, Caen and the university were destroyed by the British and Canadian bombing.
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Post-Second World War work included the reconstruction of complete districts of the city and the university campus. It took 14 years (1948–1962) and led to the current urbanization of Caen. Having lost many of its historic quarters and its university campus in the war, the city does not have the atmosphere of a traditional Normandy town such as Honfleur, Rouen, Cabourg, Deauville and Bayeux.
The Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit filmed the D-Day offensive and Orne breakout several weeks later, then returned several months later to document the city’s recovery efforts. The resulting film, You Can’t Kill a City, is preserved in the National Archives of Canada.