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  • Writer's pictureAhmed

Rebuilding Rouen

Updated: May 6

Followers of our Instagram will know we were lucky enough to spend a day in Rouen recently. Rouen is one of the great Gothic cities of Europe, and has some special examples of what's usually called Flamboyant Gothic, the particularly florid style that emerged in France in the late 14th Century. During this period Rouen was already a major city, having being capital of Normandy until William moved it to Caen and even after then remained a major seat of Anglo-Norman culture. Sitting on the Seine Rouen exported wine and wheat to England, with tin and wool received in return. Only in 1204 was Rouen fully annexed as a part of France.

This didn't last long and Rouen enhanced hands many more times, surrendering to Henry V (yes that Henry V) when he annexed Normandy. Under English rule, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake here in 1431.  Rouen is dominated by it cathedral which has its own history of destruction, rebuilding and destruction again and is dominated by its Butter Tower.

A few hundred meters away the Eglise at St Maclou is a an odd affair at first sight and is characteristically flamboyant, or bonkers if you're less polite. Finished in 1437, It looks fresh, almost without patina. This is because its actually partially new.

Rouen was English when Saint Maclou was built and its deliberately flamboyant style is a conscious rejection of the more austere English Gothic. Its actually quite a small church, yet uses intense monumental forms you can see in places like the cathedral down the road. For example the moldings are pretty much continuous on both the inside and outside. Visually it's complex and gem-like: the closer you look the more complex it gets. The style is more reminiscent of German or Flanders Gothic and this is perhaps deliberate as an anti-English statement. Many of the church patrons would support and fund the return of Charles VII in 1449. Rouen remained a strategically important town for centuries. In 1940 the retreating French army destroyed its bridges. The Wehrmacht used the city as a logistics centre, but during their takeover much of the medieval centre was razed to the ground. The first bombing raids began in 1942 but in the lead up to D-Day the raids became more destructive. The Cathedral was hit by British bombs in 1944 and in May of that year was 'Semaine Rouge' when hundreds of tons of bombs fell killing perhaps as many as 1,500 people, obliterating more of the city’s most historic structures, completely destroying a large part of the left bank, and leaving Rouen with over 40,000 homeless (read more here). It was during this raid when the Eglise Maclou was partially destroyed and only reopened in 1980.

Maclou himself is an interesting character. He has other names:  Mac'h Low, Maclovius or Machutus, In France he's commonly referred to as Malo and the port city of St Malo is named for him. He's actually Welsh, and was born in Gwent probably around 500 AD. It is perhaps surprising that he was very widely travelled. According to legend he was with Brendan on his journey across the Atlantic to find the Garden of Eden.  He then went to sea on a second voyage and visited the Island of Cézembre just north of Brittany, remaining there for some time. Malo stayed at a hermitage founded by Aaron d'Aleth and used it as a base for missionary work on mainland France. He was eventually made first bishop of Aleth, now called Saint Servan. With new authority he established many churches around the area and the bishopric was given his name.

His successor built a church on the island in Malo's honour but this was destroyed by Charlemagne in 811 but rebuilt in 816 but was given the name Saint Vincent of Saragossa (martyr saint of Spain) but the new church was again destroyed by the Norman invasion of the tenth century and was rebuilt in 1152 becoming Cathédrale Saint-Vincent-de-Saragosse de Saint-Malo.

As Breton identity grew, Malo was adopted as one Brittany founding saints. The town of Saint Malo itself was the site of a vicious siege in 1944 which destroyed most of the old city. The island of Cezembre was used as a Wehrmacht artillery station and was itself destroyed. The entire city of St Malo was rebuilt, a massive project which only finished in 1960. It should be pretty clear what the theme is here: reconstruction and renewal is the basis for a lot of history. Cathedrals, cities even are all temporary. After the various shocks of 2020 perhaps there is a lesson in here for the future.

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