The arrival of the seafaring Norse warriors in the 9th c. at the River Seine was bittersweet and enduring.
A Brief History
France is divided into 13 regions, similar to the 50 US states and the 10 Canadian provinces. Rouen, in northern France, is the capital city of Normandy Region. Normandy was named after the Norse people, the Vikings, who arrived from the areas of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
The Viking civilization has been reported as being more culturally, technologically and militarily advanced in the 9th century than the people and nations they encountered. The Vikings were expert seafarers and navigators and easily able to defeat many of the settlements that thrived along the coasts and rivers of the early European continent.
Traveling in their long-ships, one Viking fleet sailed up the River Seine in 841 CE taking the settlement of Rouen by surprise. They razed the city, spared no lives and helped themselves to Rouen’s abundant treasures. Raids and assaults would continue through the 11th century wherever and whenever the Vikings landed.
Vikings would however, often stay and settle down in towns they raided. The Viking warrior Rolf was one who stayed and in 887 he appointed himself chief of the small settlement of Rouen. Rolf continued to pillage northern France with other Viking raiders. To bring peace to the area, in 911, the King of the Franks offered Rolf territory along the Seine and in exchange Rolf was expected to convert to Christianity, stop plundering the territories around him and provide protection for Paris, upriver, from further Viking attacks. Rolf accepted the King’s proposal thus creating the Norse region or Normandy and Rolf the Viking was made Rollon, (Rollo in English) the first Count of Normandy and the first ruler of Normandy. Richard II, Rollon’s great-grandson, would become the first Duke of Normandy.
Rollon’s great-great-great-grandson was William, Duke of Normandy. After conquering England in 1066, the Duke would be for ever after referred to as William the Conqueror. On Christmas Day, 1066 in Westminster Abbey, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy was crowned King William I, the first Norman King of England. He reigned from 1066 until his death in 1087.
Every English monarch after William the Conqueror, including Queen Elizabeth II and her heirs are descended from the Norman-born King William I and his ancestors, the Vikings.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen
The first church on the site of Rouen Cathedral was built around 260 CE by Rouen’s first bishop, Saint Mellonius. The church was enlarged by St. Ouen in 650 and visited by Charlemagne in 769. However, the Viking raids in 841 seriously damaged the entire complex. The Viking and first Duke of Normandy, Rollon was baptised in the cathedral in 915 and he was buried there in 932. His grandson, Richard I of Normandy, continued to enlarge the church in 950. Following additional renovations, the Romanesque cathedral was consecrated in October 1063, in the presence of William the Conqueror, just prior to his conquest of England.
Rouen Cathedral may be famous for its three distinctly different towers, but for many of us we recognize the Cathedral because Claude Monet painted more than 30 impressionist paintings of Rouen Cathedral’s gothic façade between 1892–93. Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings can be found in museums around the world including the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, as well as galleries is Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Great Britain and here in Rouen.
In the summer months, after dark on Friday and Saturday nights there is a lightshow of Rouen’s history projected onto the facade of the large old Cathedral. This year they focused on two stories: the Vikings and Joan of Arc. It was really well done, very colorful and we were able to follow the visual story quite well.
Another Viking warrior that made history in Rouen was Olaf II of Norway. Following his raids he too converted to Christianity and in 1014 was baptised in Rouen. He returned to Norway and in 1016, at the age of 19, seized power in Norway and became King Olaf II of Norway. He was extremely popular and is credited with bringing Christianity to Norway. He was canonized by Pope Alexander III in 1031. A thousand years after his baptism, in 2014, relics of Saint Olaf were gifted to Rouen Cathedral by the King of Norway.
Saint-Ouen Abbey Church was less than two blocks from our apartment and the first site we visited. As you can see below, it is in the midst of a restoration project. The massive interior looks and feels like one small portion of the space is used for services.
The large Gothic church and former Benedictine monastery was built in 1318, finished in the 15th century and named after Audoin (French: Ouen, English: Owen), a 7th-century bishop of Rouen.
Claimed to be one of the most important church organs in France, it too was covered and being renovated. But, there was an organist playing a small organ when we visited and there was lovely music coming from an eclectic collection of organ pipes set out on the floor next to him.The organist was clearly enjoying himself by directing sounds to various sets of pipes and it was amusing to watch him.
The empty walls in one part of the church were being used for a temporary art installation. We liked the exhibition of paintings by Akira Inumaru (1984-) a Japanese artist that moved to France in 2009. The exhibition was called “Treetops and Roots”. Using a magnifying glass, he burns the first layers of paper to reveal what the light of the sun can create and then he paints around the burn. Flower roots and rhizomes were primarily the subjects of his work.
Église Catholique Saint-Maclou
The construction of the smaller Saint Maclou Catholic Church was from 1437 to 1517. It is considered a masterpiece of the ‘Flamboyant Gothic’ style. The stained glass windows in Saint-Maclou purposely contain more opaque and white glass to allow sunshine to flood in and the interior was noticeably light and bright.
The 272′ tall (83m) tower was built in 1868-1872 and post WWII damage renovations were completed in 2007. The harmonic tones of the five bells of the church named Marie, Adrienne, Adèle, Joséphine and Léontine can be heard once again following a 60-year hiatus.
In the middle ages Rouen was a thriving city, second to Paris in size and status and Saint Maclou Church had the largest congregation in Rouen. However, in a five year period, between 1347 and 1352, it is estimated that half of the inhabitants of Europe died from the pandemic of the Black Death. Waves of the deadly plague decimated Rouen, killing off ¾ of the population in the 14th century.
The number of deaths of members of Saint Maclou completely overwhelmed it’s cemetery and a new space had to be quickly created. A short distance from the church is the second cemetery called Aitre Saint-Maclou. It is a rare example of one of the last buildings with an ossuary of its type still in existence in Europe. The macabre decorations in carved wood certainly drew our attention. Some of the galleries are decorated with people that are said to represent “a macabre dance”.
A parish cemetery was created here during the Black Plague in 1348, but later, buildings went up around it to serve as ossuaries for the large number of bones from the cemetery.
Surrounded by a wall, the cemetery first had simple graves marked with crosses. During the plague and the constant delivery of more bodies, space quickly ran out. It was decided to build simple buildings around the cemetery to be used as ossuaries. In the cemetery when space was needed for a new burial, bones of the previously buried dead would be dug up and moved up to the roof space in the gallery, which was called an ossuary. The drawing in the center of the picture below shows skulls ‘peering down’ from the ossuary gallery.
Musée des Antiquités
The Museum of Antiquities was initially set up in 1831 to house the finds from excavations of the Roman amphitheater in Lillebonne. One we especially loved was a superb Roman hunting mosaic that takes up nearly the entire floor in one room. Located in a former 17th century convent the museum has been open to the public for almost 200 years and now presents collections from the Bronze Age to Ancient Greece and Egypt; from the Roman and Merovingian collections to the Renaissance period.
We admired the stained glass windows with scenes that represent the months of the year. We have visited many similar museums but we always seem to find a few stand-out pieces. There was an intricate buckle plate from the 7th century made from bronze damascened with silver and niello (a black compound of sulphur with silver, lead or copper used for filling in engraved designs) and this tiny 15th century 3″ (7cm) long communion spoon made of gilded silver and rock crystal and decorated with a brilliant green stone and deep blue pearl.
Le Musée Le Secq des Tournelles
Henri Le Secq of Tournelles, Senior (1818-1882) was a pioneer of photography by trade and a passionate collector of old historical wrought iron pieces. He began by salvaging many wrought-iron works that were destined for destruction.
He left his vast collection of ironwork swords and shields, household utensils, merchant’s signs, surgical and dental instruments, decorative objects, architectural features and more to his son Henri Le Secq des Tournelles, Junior (1854-1925). The son continued adding to the collection. In 1920, Henri, Junior donated his entire collection of 16,000 wrought-iron, silver and gold plated objects from the Roman period up to the 20th century collected from all over Europe and Asia, to the city of Rouen. We loved this museum. Check out this impressive 10th century French master combination lock. It is made of wrought iron and engraved with brass and silver.
Rouen has some amazing heritage and our time was well spent. The city has the second largest number of listed historical buildings in France after Paris. There are 2,200 old half-timbered houses, many restored. The ornate gothic Palais de Justice building is an excellent example of medieval civic architecture. Excavations in the 1970’s discovered a yeshiva, known as “La Maison Sublime”, beneath the Palais de Justice. It is now the oldest Jewish building known in France and the only example of a medieval rabbinic school remaining in Europe.
In the 21st century, Rouen is thriving and continues to be the major trading center between Paris and the sea. We found it to be a clean, friendly and welcoming city and so pleased we spent a couple of weeks exploring it.
Bonne santé from these Rouennaises.
Ted + Julia
View our Saint-Ouen Abbey Church photo album here
View our Cathedral of Our Lady of Rouen photo album here
View our St. Maclou Catholic Church photo album here
View our Le Secq des Tournelles Museum photo album here
View our Museum of Antiquities photo album here