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Saving Saint-Arnoult, the oldest Christian building in Calvados

Not a perfect match today; the old columns are gone and the doors often locked.

Up in the hills above the Touques river valley overlooking Trouville, a small broken church leans against up against a priory chapel.

1000 years have stripped Saint Arnoult church of its roof but the crypt remains beneath, tethering these modest buildings to the hillside. The chapel and village church were built around the same time, but the church would have had its own priest to tend to the souls of the villagers.

The priory chapel stands behind the ruins of the parish church.

Watching as William pepares to invade England

The chapel was once part of an abbey for Cluny monks constructed in 1061, just before William, Duke of Normandy built a fleet in the estuary below. The monks would have seen English history being made from their Normandy hilltop.

Before the priory, pilgrims traveled here for centuries visiting two miraculous springs, one named for Saint Arnoult, the other Saint Clair.

Saint Arnoult spring now feeds the old Lavoir, washing pool next to the Clair fountain

How to become a saint

Centuries before, Arnoult was given Scariberge, neice of the Frankish king Clovis, in marriage.  After the wedding they agreed to keep themselves pure and separated.  Arnoult was wildly successful, becoming a Bishop and fighting for this faith in Spain before being assassinated in Reims. He inspired hundreds of years of passionate followers.

Clair was born in Olchestria, now Rochester in Kent England, around 845, to a noble family. Although a brilliant future was mapped out for him, Clair ran away from an arranged marriage and settled in Cherbourg.  For a while he lived quietly as a hermit, before he was forced to hide from the vindictive woman he had spurned.  She eventually hunted him down to a forest (around Saint-Clair-sur-Epte  in Seine Maritime) and had his head cut off.  A miraculous fountain appeared, but not miraculous enough to save him.  However his sainthood was assured.

Peaceful pilgrims

Although both saints made their mark away far away from this hill, pilgrims spreading the saint’s words bought their beliefs and cheerfully laid them on these healing springs. Here the first Clunisienne order settled in Normandy.

Saint Clair’s fountain is famous for curing ocular diseases, water from Saint Arnoult’s spring is said to ‘restore vigour’, particularly in sickly children.

Over the next few centuries pilgrims continued their journeys to this peaceful place above the Touques valley while monks gave their lives to god and local people climbed the hill every Sunday and saint’s day to give thanks.

Sometime during the 18th century the church tower was reshaped with fashionable straight lines and a circular window, all topped off with a delicately pointed roof. The crypt was put into use as an ossuary.

The church crypt as an ossuary

Revolution and eviction

Parish records reveal the priory and church still in use in 1763 but the lives of Saint-Arnoult’s monks and parishioners were about to change. With the French revolution of 1789 came an outpouring of hate across France for religion, that champion of the old order.

On 2 November 1789 all possessions of the Roman Catholic Church were declared national property.  The monks were served notice on their ancient home.  The buildings were put up for sale on 13 February 1790 and Saint Arnoult parish merged with Tourgeville, who closed the church and took its furniture and statues.

The village could only watch in anguish as, without funds, the parish church of Saint Arnoult fell into disrepair. As soon as 1824 it was declared unsafe.

Vintage postcard of the chapel interior. The curved timbers that make this roof are now exposed, link at the end for images.

Ruin avoided

Total ruin was avoided when the artist Colonel Langlois (an ex soldier who made his fortune painting panoramas of victorious French battles) bought it in 1842 for 650 francs.  Moved by the chapel’s history, its simple strength and the passion of the community he vowed to save what could be saved.

By the 20th century the buildings were at risk again. As early as 1913 the local council attempted to add the them to the historic monuments register, in the hope this would bring in much needed restoration funds.  They were finally successful in 1970.

19th century engraving of the church

Securing the past, for the future

Now a friends association Les Amis du Prieuré de Saint Arnoul sur Touque, set up in 2006 protects this ancient monument.  The buildings have been restored sympathetically and although there is more to be done, the future of Saint Arnault chapel and church are assured.  Concerts, some services, heritage day openings and celebrations regularly take place.

Although the Cluny monks left a few hundred years ago, the movement is alive, well and keeping an eye on Saint-Arnoult.  In August 2016 worthies of the village gathered with Cluny representatives to witness the unveiling of a Cluny rosette, symbol of the chapel’s importance and association with the founding Abbey of Cluny.

Signs of restoration, link to work in progress photos below.

Remarkable discovery

This small monument was the subject of an archaeological study in 2010 that revealed just how special it is.  The study discovered the oldest parts of the church are from the tenth century if not earlier, over one hundred years before the chapel was built and making this possibly the oldest religious building in in Calvados.

Our visit

The chapel and church are set in a green field along a residential road with a gorgeous view across the valley. Visitors are welcome to walk around the outside of the buildings (free) and see the old lavoir, Saint Arnoult spring and Saint Clair fountain. The buildings are generally closed, opened for special events.  A free car park is opposite.

Those wishing for help ‘restoring vigour’ or with eye problems are still known take a little of the waters away with them and throw coins in the fountain for luck. We can’t say if this works, but pilgrims have been visiting these springs for a very long time. Saint Arnoult’s special pilgrimage day is 23 June, Saint Clair’s is 18 July.

Have a look inside, online

Determined to go inside? Keep an eye on the calendar of events here on the Friends of Saint Arnoult website.

Lots of photos of the restoration work here.

See inside the beautifully restored chapel with it’s rare curved wooden beam roof and enjoy a bird’s eye view of the buildings on a glorious summer day, in the film below.

Notre monument historique

Visite de la Chapelle, de la crypte et des ruines

Posted by Saint Arnoult 14800 on Friday, 4 December 2015



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