Caen – France And The Netherlands

Let us begin, therefore, with the Abbey of St. Stephen; for it is the noblest and most interesting on many accounts. It is called by the name of that saint, inasmuch as there stood formerly a chapel, on the same site, dedicated to him. The present building was completed and solemnly dedicated by William the Conqueror, in the presence of his wife, his two sons Robert and William, his favorite, Archbishop Lanfranc; John, Archbishop of Rouen, and Thomas, Archbishop of York toward the year 1080; but I strongly suspect, from the present prevailing character of the architecture, that nothing more than the west front and the towers upon which the spires rest remain of its ancient structure. The spires, as the Abbe De La Rue conjectures, and as I should also have thought, are about two centuries later than the towers.

The outsides of the side aisles appear to be of the thirteenth, rather than of the end of the eleventh, century. The first exterior view of the west front, and of the towers, is extremely interesting from the gray and clear tint, as well as excellent quality, of the stone, which, according to Huet, was brought partly from Vaucelle and partly from Allemagne. One of the corner abutments of one of the towers has fallen down and a great portion of what remains seem to indicate rapid decay. The whole stands indeed greatly in need of reparation.

Ducarel, if I remember rightly, has made, of this whole front, a sort of elevation as if it were intended for a wooden model to work by, having all the stiffness and precision of an erection of forty-eight hours’ standing only. The central tower is of very stunted dimensions, and overwhelmed by a roof in the form of an extinguisher. This, in fact, was the consequence of the devastations of the Calvinists; who absolutely sapped the foundation of the tower, with the hope of overwhelming the whole choir in ruin—but a part only of their malignant object was accomplished. The component parts of the eastern extremity are strangely and barbarously miscellaneous. How-ever, no good commanding exterior view can be obtained from the place, or confined square, opposite the towers.

But let us return to the west front; and, opening the unfastened green baize covered door, enter softly and silently into the venerable interior—sacred even to the feelings of Englishmen. Of this interior, very much is changed from its original character. The side aisles retain their flattened arched roofs and pillars; and in the nave you observe those rounded pilasters—or altorilievo-like pillars—running from bottom to top, which are to be seen in the Abbey of Jumieges. The capitals of these long pillars are comparatively of modern date.

To the left on entrance, within a side chapel, is the burial place of Matilda, the wife of the Conqueror. The tombstone attesting her interment is undoubtedly of the time. Generally speaking, the interior is cold, and dull of effect. The side chapels, of which not fewer than sixteen encircle the choir, have the discordant accompaniments of Grecian balustrades to separate them from the choir and nave.

To the right of the choir, in the sacristy, I think, is hung the huge portrait, in oil, within a black and gilt frame, of which Ducarel has published an engraving, on the supposition of its being the portrait of William the Conqueror. But nothing can be more ridiculous than such a conclusion. In the first place, the picture itself, which is a palpable copy, can not be older than a century; and in the second place, were it an original performance, it could not be older than the time of Francis I. In fact, it purports to have been executed as a faithful copy of the figure of King William, seen by the Cardinals in 1522, who were seized with a sacred frenzy to take a peep at the body as it might exist at that time. The costume of the oil painting is evidently that of the period of our Henry VIII.; and to suppose that the body of William–even had it remained in so surprisingly perfect a state as Ducarel intimates, after an interment of upward of four hundred years-could have presented such a costume, when, from Ducarel’s own statement, another whole-length representation of the same person is totally different—and more decidedly of the character of William’s time—is really quite a reproach to any antiquary who plumes himself upon the possession even of common sense.

In the middle of the choir, and just before the high altar, the body of the Conqueror was entombed with great pomp; and a monument erected to his memory of the most elaborate and costly description. Nothing now remains but a fiat, black marble slab, with a short inscription, of quite a recent date.

You must now attend me to the most interesting public building, perhaps all things considered, which is to be seen at Caen. I mean the Abbey of the Holy Trinity, or L’Abbaye aux Dames. This abbey was founded by the wife of the Conqueror, about the same time that William erected that of St. Stephen. Ducarel’s description of it, which I have just seen in a copy of the “Anglo-Norman Antiquities,” in a bookseller’s shop, is sufficiently meager. His plates are also sufficiently miserable : but things are strangely altered since his time. The nave of the church is occupied by a manufactory for making cordage, or twine : and upward of a hundred lads are now busied in their flaxen occupations, where formerly the nun knelt before the cross, or was occupied in auricular confession.

The entrance at the western extremity is entirely stopt up; but the exterior gives manifest proof of an antiquity equal to that of the Abbey of St. Stephen. The upper part of the towers are palpably of the fifteenth or, rather, of the early part of the sixteenth century. I had no opportunity of judging of the neat pavement of the floor of the nave, in white and black marble, as noticed by Ducarel, on account of the occupation of this part of the building by the manufacturing children; but I saw some very ancient tombstones, one, I think, of the twelfth century, which had been removed from the nave or side aisles, and were placed against the sides of the north transept.

The nave is entirely walled up from the transepts, but the choir is fortunately preserved; and a more perfect and interesting specimen of its kind, of the same antiquity, is perhaps nowhere to be seen in Normandy. All the monuments as well as the altars, described by Ducarel, are now taken away. Having ascended a stone staircase, we got into the upper part of the choir, above the !first row of pillars—and walked along the wall. This was rather adventurous, you will say; but a more adventurous spirit of curiosity had nearly proved fatal to me; for, on quitting daylight, we pursued a winding stone staircase, in our way to the central tower—to enjoy from hence a view of the town. I almost tremble as I relate it.

There had been put up a sort of temporary wooden staircase, leading absolutely to nothing; or, rather, to a dark void space. I happened to be foremost in ascending, yet groping in the dark—with the guide luckily close behind me. Having reached the topmost step, I was raising my foot to a supposed higher or succeeding step—but there was none. A depth of eighteen feet at least was below me. The guide caught my coat, as I was about to lose my balance, and roared out, “Wait—Stop!” The least balance or inclination, one way or the other, is sufficient, upon these critical occasions; when luckily, from his catching my coat, and pulling me, in consequence, slightly backward, my fall and my life, were equally saved! I have reason from henceforth to remember the Abbey aux Dames at Caen.

I gained the top of the central tower, which is not of equal altitude with those of the western extremity, and from hence surveyed the town, as well as the drizzling rain would permit. I saw enough, however, to convince me that the site of this abbey is fine and commanding. Indeed, it stands nearly upon the highest ground in the town. Ducarel had not the glorious ambition to mount to the top of the tower; nor did he even possess that most commendable of all species of architectural, curiosity, a wish to visit the crypt. Thus, in either extremity, I evinced a more laud-able spirit of enterprise than did my old-fashioned predecessor. Accordingly, from the summit, you must accompany me to the lowest depth of the building. I descended by the same somewhat intricate route, and I took especial care to avoid all “temporary wooden staircase.” The crypt, beneath the choir, is perhaps of yet greater interest and beauty than the choir itself. Within an old, very old, stone coffin—at the further circular end are the pulverized remains of one of the earliest abbesses. I gazed around with mixed sensations of veneration and awe, and threw myself back into centuries past, fancying that the shrouded figure of Maltida herself glided by, with a look as if to approve of my antiquarian enthusiasm !

Having gratified my curiosity by a careful survey of the subterranean abode, I revisited the regions of daylight, and made toward the large building, now a manufactory, which in Ducarel’s time had been a nunnery. The revolution has swept away every human being in the character of a nun; but the director of the manufactory showed me, with great civility, some relics of old crosses, rings, veils, lacrimatories, etc., which had been taken from the crypt I had recently visited. These relics savored of considerable antiquity. Tom Hearne would have set about proving that they must have belonged to Matilda herself; but I will have neither the presumption nor the merit of attempting this proof. They seemed, indeed, to have undergone half a dozen decompositions. Upon the whole, if our Antiquarian Society, after having exhausted the cathedrals of their own country, should ever think of perpetuating the principal ecclesiastical edifices of Normandy, by means of the art of engraving, let them begin their labors with the Abbey aux Dames at Caen.