The Cotentin Peninsula, also known as the Cherbourg Peninsula, is a peninsula in Normandy, forming part of the north-western coast of France. It juts out north-westwards into the English Channel, towards Great Britain. To its west lie the Channel Islands and to the southwest lies the Brittany Peninsula.
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.
The migration of Vikings in the ninth century led to the area becoming part of the territory of the Northmen, or Normans, creating Normandy, in the early tenth century. This resulted in a number of placenames which were derived from the Norse. Examples include La Hague, and La-Hougue both derived from the Old Norse word haugr meaning a hill or mound. Other names are typicals: Bricquebec, Etreham, Quettetot, Quettehou (Ketil ham). 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 This explains occasional historical references to the Cotentin as an island.
Alan the Great, King of Brittany, waged war successfully on the Vikings. As the result of his conquests, the Contentin Peninsula was included in the territory of Brittany. After his death, the Vikings launched another invasion and occupied Brittany from 907 to 939. While they were eventually expelled by Alan's son, Alan II, Duke of Brittany, the subsequent rulers of Brittany were weaker than Alan the Great. The succeeding Dukes of Brittany suffered continuing Viking invasions and Norman raids. Eventually the Contentin Peninsula was lost to the Duchy of Brittany, and became part of Normandy.
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, among the region's lords, abbots and bishops.
During the hundred years war, after a landing in the bay of la Hougue, in the Church of Quettehou (Val de Saire) the King Edward III knighted his son Edward, Prince of Wales, better known as 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. Little remains of the grand houses and châteaux as a result of the destruction of the Battle of Normandy. The social scene was described in the novels of Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly (himself from the Cotentin).
In the Second World War, a significant portion of the Battle of Normandy, through the summer of 1944, was fought in the area, which was the site of Operation Overlord, known as the "Normandy landings", from which the Allies launched the liberation of Western Europe. Utah Beach, one of the invasion landing beaches, was on the eastern coast of the peninsula. The peninsula's river- and canal-crossed agricultural terrain suffered during the next months fighting as the allies sought to break out of their lodgement.