Remembering the fallen: the demolished cathedrals of France

I promised in my Spacefleet Ecclesiastica post of the French cathedral fleet, I would address the sunken vessels. With 134 cathedrals, you might think a few going missing was inevitable and no big deal. However, they managed to knock down some of the best ones.

Cambrai Cathedral, early 18thc engraving. All demolished 1796-1809

Also, even if we have plenty of big churches to enjoy that weren’t trashed, chasing the ghosts of enormous vanished buildings is undeniably enchanting and perhaps it’s kink-shaming to chastise me over spending this unending pandemic purgatory doing it. So, as we all have the time at the moment: let’s have a look at them!

Thérouanne Cathedral

Pas-de-Calais / medieval archdiocese of Reims

Thérouanne Cathedral is generally forgotten in art-historical surveys as it was demolished not in the Revolution, but at the surprisingly early date of 1553, along with… its entire city. However, there is a remarkable amount of visual material for it from its final few decades, and some archaeological evidence too.

“The Battle of The Spurs”, oil on canvas, probably made shortly after 1513 by a Flemish painter for the decoration of Whitehall Palace. British Royal Collection, RCIN 406784
1879 copy of the destroyed 1539 Calais drawing of the city and fortifications of Thérouanne

As a French outlier in imperial territory, Thérouanne was sacked by English and Empire troops in 1513: an early victory for King Henry VIII, who ordered a painting of it from Hans Holbein for his banqueting hall at Greenwich Palace in 1527/8, probably sharing a common prototype of the above image. The city rebuilt itself, only to be besieged again in 1537, and ultimately captured 20 June 1553 after a 7-week siege by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who ordered it completely destroyed. This wasn’t really normal behaviour in medieval warfare, more akin to what conquering empires of Antiquity did (like Rome salting the earth of Carthage). Perhaps there was some conscious flexing of this connotation by the Holy Roman Emperor when he commissioned the city’s final annihilation.

Ironically, because it was surveyed so scrutinously by the Imperial army to ensure its eventual defeat, we actually know more about the layout of Thérouanne than most medieval cities. Today it is only a rather bland, brick-built conurbation on the site of the city’s south gate by the River Lys, but the outline of the fortifications – as recorded on maps of the town made in the interim between its first sack and destruction as military surveys, are still clearly visible from the air, and the majority of the medieval city is unbuilt on.

New swipey thing! Have fun!

1894 copy of the Calais drawing showing Thérouanne’s city centre in detail

The bird’s-eye map made in 1539 in-between sieges (the original drawing was destroyed in Calais in 1915 but is preserved through accurate copies) has this view of Thérouanne Cathedral from the south, which is not terribly accurate: the nave is surely too short and there is no visible apsidal chevet. However it does show the tower on the north side of the chevet which has archaeological proof, and very flashy south transept with a big portal.

More accurate is the detail of the painting made for Henry VIII, which shows the cathedral from the other side. We can see the chevet with its flanking tower, and a north transept with a large Rayonnant rose window, with a more sensibly-proportioned nave. This view (or others from a common prototype) was also clearly used as a reference for engravings of the sieges of 1537 and 1553, and 17th-century conjectural portraits of the vanished cathedral.

Detail from the Royal Collection Battle of the Spurs canvas
The Thérouanne Deisis, Cathedral of Saint-Omer

Thérouanne’s bishopric was moved in 1559 to nearby Saint-Omer, to the great collegiate church of Notre-Dame which certainly looked the part as a new cathedral. Charles V gave the new cathedral chapter there the sculpture of a Judgement group from Thérouanne that probably dates to the 1270s and was quite possibly taken off the demolished Cathedral’s south portal. It was meant to go on St Omer’s porch but it was too big and has been sitting at the west end of the south aisle now for a very long time like that awkward ornament from your big work leaving do you don’t know where to put.

Excavations of 1988 (cathedral) and 1985 (canons’ quarters)

Meanwhile, Thérouanne Cathedral has only been partly excavated – and only relatively recently in the 1980s – but the east end shows a classic round chevet like Noyon, typical of the mid-12thc, but consequently would be a pioneering Gothic build in the northern part of France. I do not know why the nave hasn’t been excavated: it may be that the land has been ploughed past that point but that shouldn’t necessarily destroy all traces of the building. I can’t say I understand the politics of French archaeology. Maybe they think they have enough Gothic buildings to deal with above ground? If this was England there’d be an EH site here selling guide books, weird bits of jam and plastic viking helmets with horns on them.

The excavation plan is scaled correctly, but, because it only had a vertical reference with the road that cuts through the site, getting in the right horizontal position took a bit of detective work to see it was partly marked by that concreted-over bit. 1980s excavation plan taken from here

Google Maps link

Cambrai Cathedral

Pas-de-Calais / medieval archdiocese of Reims (archiepiscopal from 1559)

The most detailed view of Cambrai Cathedral before its demolition. Graphite and watercolour highlights on paper, made by A.F. Van Der Meulen, late 17thc. Mobilier national, NO-44-000.
Conjectural image of the four-storey nave elevation of Cambrai, from this video featuring 3D renders of the building

Shortly after the destruction of Thérouanne, this part of the archdiocese of Reims was split off into the new province of Cambrai, with a now-vanished cathedral church as the seat of the archbishop. And Cambrai lived up to the new role as an archiepiscopal cathedral: it was a particularly famed Early Gothic church rebuilt following a fire in 1148, with ambitious and novel features even for 12th-century France. It had not only a full ambulatory in the E arm but in both transepts. The Early Gothic flying buttresses can be seen in the above drawing still supporting the apisdal transept clerestory and would have been a rather early example of this famed Gothic system. The nave flyers are hidden inside the aisle roofs, advising a four-storey elevation inside (like, for instance Noyon choir).

Detail from the Villard Sketchbook showing the plan of Cambrai’s chevet, BNF Français 19093, 14v

A number of elements of Cambrai Cathedral’s plan were decidedly un-French, such as the use of internal architectural polychromy by making the capitals out of darker, polished limestone (Tournai, rather than Purbeck marble) and a crossing open to a lantern tower rather than a continuous vault from nave to choir. The single tall west tower with a tall openwork spire is also more like a late medieval German parish church than a major French cathedral. It was highly regarded in its time, the plan of its chevet famously appearing in the 13th-century “Sketchbook” of Villard de Honnecourt.

The most remarkable thing about Cambrai was those fully-aisled apsidal transepts. Apsidal transepts were an odd experiment in Reims archdiocese that never took off in the wider Gothic style, unaisled at Noyon (c.1260), the great aisled example that is the oldest standing part of Soissons Cathedral (from 1176), the destroyed Cistercian Abbey church of Chaalis and also at Cambrai’s nearest analogue: the extant Tournai Cathedral (now in Belgium).

Tournai’s apsidal transepts are probably slightly earlier than Cambrai’s were, and are somewhat isolated from the crossing and encumbered by the great towers on the transept corners. At Cambrai, built as one scheme from 1148, the setpiece would have been spectacular in that it would essentially have had three chevets radiating unbroken from the crossing like no other building before, or, indeed, since.

Groundplans of extant Tournai (L) and destroyed Cambrai (R) compared. Note the greater unity of the transept arms with the crossing in destroyed Cambrai. Tournai nave also does not have a masonry high vault (the flat ceiling was replaced with a plaster sham vault in the 18thc)
Engraving of Cambrai’s western steeple by A. Boileux, c.1800

In 1791, like all French ecclesiastical property, Cambrai Cathedral was confiscated by the state, and in 1796 it was sold to private ownership for demolition and quarrying. Despite plans to keep the western steeple as a memorial to Archbishop Fénelon (1651-1715) for which purposes this engraving was made, after heavy damage in a storm in 1809 the entire cathedral ended up being totally demolished. There is nothing to see of the building now: its crossing is under a garden square and the chevet under a level car park. As is so often the case for a site no one is allowed to build over.

Google Maps link

Arras Cathedral

Pas-de-Calais / medieval archdiocese of Reims (Cambrai from 1559)

Print of old Arras Cathedral, after L. Posteau, 1799
18thc drawing of Arras Cathedral’s chevet. I have found separate sources for this image but I don’t know where it’s ultimately from. cleaned it up as best I could

The third cathedral of the medieval Archdiocese of Reims lost was yet another significant building. In fact, let’s just be straight right off the bat: it was MASSIVE. At 122 metres long, it was easily the largest cathedral in France after Paris when it was built, and was still around the tenth-longest by the end of the Middle Ages.

Arras remains a bishopric to this day, however the current cathedral was moved to the site of the medieval abbey of Saint-Vaast in 1804. Saint-Vaast had been rebuilt as a severe classical building from 1755, perhaps with a view that it would always eventually replace the over-sized and awkwardly-sited Gothic cathedral, which was in a borough outside the core town centre called La Cité and essentially independent of it.

The site of the original (left) and current (right) cathedrals of Arras
Elevation of Arras choir, made from a number of pre-demolition illustrations. Note the four storied elevation with vaulted gallery like Noyon, Laon and the original build of Paris.

Arras Cathedral itself as it survived till the end of the 18th century was begun in the 1160s, a significant time for French Gothic architecture, as our prime monument for this era is the towering elevation of Notre-Dame-de-Paris. It seems that Arras was a similarly ambitious monument for pushing the technology of 12th-century Early Gothic as high as it could go: around 30 metres high-vault height.

In 1799 the derelict building was sold by the city with the approval of the state government to a private individual to be demolished and the stone sold off. The abbey church of Saint-Vaast, still under construction, became the cathedral in 1804, and work continued on this building until 1848.

The church of Saint-Nicholas-en-Cité, built from 1834, sits over the site of the massive north transept of the lost Arras cathedral, and marks the date the building must have been completely levelled and cleared. Architectural fragments remain in the city’s museums, but nothing on site.

If these three cathedrals had survived their misfortunes, they probably would’ve absolutely wrecked with France’s tussle with the German Empire in a little thing called: The Great War. The succeeding Saint-Vaast Cathedral had its high vaulting completely collapsed in 1914 when the German Imperial Army shelled the city in the First Battle of Arras.

Google Maps link

Avranches Cathedral

Normandy / medieval archdiocese of Rouen

18thc English engraving of the W front of Avranches from Nichols, Some Account Of The Alien Priories…, 1779

Avranches Cathedral in Normandy is perhaps best-known as the place where King Henry II was fully absolved of complicity of the murder of a certain Archbishop of Canterbury. When its bishopric was abolished in 1790 it was intended to keep the cathedral as a parish church, but bits of it kept falling down, hastened by the removal of the choir screen from under the crossing in 1794 that probably weakened the whole structure. The church progressively became more ruinous until the site was completely cleared by 1832.

Plan of Avranches Cathedral published 1888, by Émile-Auber Pigeon

Notice that the chevet originally had alternating round and square chapels. This was a way to manage to fit in five chapels, where usually a Romanesque ambulatory of such size would only have three, alternating with blank chunks of wall. This approach for continuous chapel openings off the ambulatory was also tried in Fécamp Abbey in Normandy around the same time, and would eventually feed into the Parisian ideal of uniting the space of the chapels with the main church (for an early example developing this see Abbey Church of Saint-Germer-de-Fly, 1130s). The north-west apsidal chapel of Avranches, incidentally was squared off to take an eastern tower, much like Thérouanne’s.

What’s there now? Not much. There’s a bit of grass called Square Thomas Becket with a war memorial on it. The Google Aerial data isn’t good at all, and I can only scale the plan and have a stab at exactly where it was since I can’t find any reference to position it over.

Google Maps link

Agen Cathedral

Aquitaine / medieval archdiocese of Bordeaux

Engravings of the remains of Agen Cathedral shortly before demolition by H. Brecy c. 1835

The current cathedral in Agen is the collegiate church of Saint-Caprais, on the north side of the town, elevated in 1802. The previous medieval cathedral was a fairly ambitious, but not extraordinary rebuild of a small 10th-century building in the 14th-century Rayonnant Style with a full fancy chevet. It had a rather fraught construction, interrupted by war, earthquakes, and money trouble into the 17th century. At the Revolution, it was in a precarious state, and the city seized it to use the dressed ashlar masonry of its exterior walls in the construction of Agen’s new ports on the River Garonne. In 1836 the remaining standing arcades of the cathedral were cleared for a timber-built wheat market on the site.

Agen Cathedral was hardly a lost masterpiece like the above buildings: there are plenty of similar buildings all over France, but its legacy is particularly ignominious. I initially found a plan of the original cathedral of Saint-Étienne, but I couldn’t work out where it was until I found a map of the entire ancient town, which allowed me to pinpoint its precise location. Which was a little bit of a surprise.

Yes, it is indeed underneath an enormous concrete multi-storey concrete supermarket/car park complex! Quite surprising for the site of a Gothic cathedral. Even more shocking though, is that the timber-built wheat market eventually, quite naturally, became the site of a fine covered ironwork market built 1882-4, which was demolished in January 1970 for an undeniably ugly concrete thing has been recently falling apart (look closely at the state of the cladding of the ramps in the old Google Streetviews, it’s a mess). I did as well as I could to get the same view of the market as in this photograph shortly before it was demolished.

If you swipe to the next image, you’ll see that recently it has been reclad with… a big picture of the old market. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Google Maps link

Mâcon Cathedral

Burgundy / medieval archdiocese of Lyon

Mid-18thc engraving of Mâcon Cathedral with a classical front added to the narthex
Surviving W block of Mâcon Cathedral

The medieval cathedral of Mâcon was heavily damaged and looted in the Wars of Religion in 1567, and when the structure started to fail critically in the 1790s (partly due to the soft land near the River Saône it was built on), appeals from the city for départment funding were rejected, and the largely 13th-century building was demolished. The west block, which includes 11th-century work in the tower bases, and a Flamboyant Gothic belfry on the north tower, was retained as a landmark. The church is now generally referred to as Vieux Saint-Vincent, to distinguish it from the new classical-style cathedral of the same dedication built 1808-18.

The cathedral of Mâcon was not particularly large or splendid, but what about it was extremely unusual for France – but normal for England – is that it had a flat east end. Maybe that’s why they demolished it. Or at least why they were too frit in the first place to give it a chevet on the basically sand-based ground underneath.

Overlay of medieval plan of the demolished Mâcon Cathedral over current site

Google Maps link

Postscript: that’s not all, folks

If you’ve looked through all of my Cathedrals of France, you’ll know that the poorer south and particularly the south-eastern part of France had some extremely humble buildings serving as their medieval cathedrals: even before the influx of new dioceses in 1317 due to the French crown’s supremacy in the region coupled with its influence over the Avignon papacy. Damage often by occupying Protestant armies in the 16th-century Wars of Religion meant many cathedrals ended up heavily remodelled (Orange, Grenoble [3D]), entirely rebuilt (Riez), replaced with a new classical/baroque building (Dax, Castres, Moûtiers, Montauban) or left in ruins (Cimiez above modern Nice [3D], Glandèves, Maillezais, Alet-les-Bains).

Nîmes [3D], Uzès and Pamiers all only retain their bell towers and parts of the west fronts from the medieval cathedrals.

Going through all of these would be purgatory for you and for me, as there plenty of similar buildings that weren’t knocked down we can enjoy. And can’t keep everything, after all.

Gap Cathedral, built 1866-1905 to the designs of C. Laisne.

However an exception to this pattern is Gap, the largest town in the Haute-Alpes. With ambition more akin to Victorian Britain, Gap replaced its humble medieval cathedral church in 1866-1905 with a brand-new neo-Gothic build designed by diocesan architect Charles Laisne. Unusually for French 19th-century Gothic, it’s really good (that is, not like the witless pastiche of something like Lille Cathedral). Its striking architectural polychrome is clearly a reference to its current co-cathedral it was formerly suffragan to: the former archdiocesan cathedral of Embrun.

Notice below on the rare image of the old Gap cathedral, the same three-storey house to the left of the modern build, and how the fenestration is still the same.

While the replaced original cathedral of Gap is surprisingly poorly-documented for something that only went in 1866, there are some wonderful photographs from the building of the new church. They show the construction of the initial arcades, to prepping of the roof and high vault of the chevet (the latter dated 9 July 1885), where you can see the transverse ribs built before the cross ribs and webs.

Just thought it would be nice to end on a positive note for modern France actually building a nice thing, rather than paving paradise for a literal parking lot.

So that’s this little diversion into Ruinenlust porn for this project. Speaking of German, I am currently working on the battlefleet of the Holy Roman Empire (essentially the forerunners of the state that shelled Arras) and will try to “drop” that next week. Sensible wall-chart of the English cathedrals and their cloisters also coming soon!!


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s