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The vanity bell of the Tour de Beurre, at Rouen Cathedral

Match! Adam and Eve on the Tour de Beurre, Rouen cathedral

Match! Sculptures of Adam and Eve on the Tour de Beurre, Rouen cathedral

The history of Rouen cathedral is one of stubbornness in the face of Vikings, fire, lightning strikes, falling spires and destructive wars. First an unremarkable riverside church in the 4th century, a determined clergy and Rouennaise people have created one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world.

The cathedral is not a single building, sections and towers have been added at different times, carvings and stonework renovated and slightly altered with each restoration.

Our postcard match shows the statues of Adam and Eve standing shyly high up on the Tour de Beurre, the Butter Tower, their nakedness now exposed to all through the powerful zoom lenses of digital cameras.

These statues, staring down at tourists and churchgoers milling around Place de la Cathedrale, have seen many incarnations but their pose and message remains the same; Rouen is lovely but it is no garden of Eden, pray for us!

Earlier incarnations of the tower's Adam and Eve
Hello to Eve and Adam’s earlier incarnations from the Tour de Beurre

Inventive medieval fundraising

We can thank 15th century Archbishop Robert de Criosmare for the Tour de Beurre.  From a family of merchants and lawyers he conceived a novel way to raise funds for its construction. During the strict Lent fast the faithful could pay alms (set at six deniers Tournois) to eat butter.

The people of Rouen considered six weeks without rich Normandy butter thickening their sauces and every Lent were enthusiastic supporters of the Archbishop’s fundraising.

Work on the Tour de Beurre started on 10 November 1485.  While the cathedral is built of pale local stone from the Caumont quarries, this tower is mostly constructed using warm yellow limestone of Saint-Maximin in the Oise valley.

Sadly Archbishop de Criosmare did not live to see his tower’s completion. He fell ill early in 1493 and was taken south to the priory of Grandmont, where he died on 18 July.  He is buried in the cathedral’s Chapel of the Virgin.

Tour de Beurre reflected in the windows of the Tourist info office
Tour de Beurre reflected in the windows of the tourist info office

Bring me my bell makers!

In 1501 the bell makers arrived.  During the Middle Ages, church and cathedral bells were cast next to their bell tower. Proud Cardinal Amboise donated 4000 livres for a huge bell, the ‘finest in the kingdom’ to be made. Expert bell maker Jean le Machon from Chartres was employed to oversee its tricky, expensive casting.

A bell pit was dug and forge built. The first mould was deemed impossibly large; the bell would be too heavy for the tower to hold.  So it was broken and the design scaled down. The new mould would create a bell with a circumference of 30ft., be 10ft high and weigh 18000kg. It would be named the George d’Amboise.

Casting the bell started on Monday 2 August 1501 at 8pm, after a procession around the Cathedral and Archbishops’ palace. An exact balance of tin and bronze were combined at huge temperatures and poured into the cast.

Rouen cathedral, early evening
Rouen cathedral, early evening, Tour de Beurre on the right

Death by happiness

The George l’Amboise bell was barely cool when twenty six days later Jean le Machon died, reportedly from happiness for creating the wondrous George l’Amboise. He was buried in the cathedral, a bell embellishing his grave and a short dedication inscribed, remembering his achievement:

Dedication to Jean le Machon
Dedication to Jean le Machon

How to finish a masterpiece

As the tower neared completion a heated debate started and carried on for some years between the master builder, who wanted to finish it with a classic gothic stone spire, and the cautious church Cannons who were happy to stop at a decorated crown. A spire was started but funds ran out and it was never completed. An elaborate terrace crown was placed at the top of the Tour de Beurre.

This beautiful tower, decorated with statues telling ancient stories of faith and redemption, was completed and consecrated by Cardinal Amboise in 1507. Standing 230 ft., it was the tallest building in Rouen and had cost 24,750 Livres Tournois.

The crown on the Tour de Beurre, Rouen cathedral
The crown on the Tour de Beurre, Rouen cathedral

Monument to vanity

Sadly we can only imagine the din created by the George l’Amboise bell (reputedly not as loud as expected due to some economies in construction).  When Louis XVI visited Rouen on 28 June 1786 the bell was rung so hard that it cracked. Arrangements were made to have it recast, but then Revolution swept across France.  In 1793 George l’Amboise was melted down for cannons. A few pieces were made into medals that remembered the vanity of Cardinal Amboise. They were inscribed:

Monument de vanité

Détruit pour l’utilité

L’an deux de l’égalité

Monument of vanity, Destroyed for utility, The second year of Egalite

Which is a little harsh as Cardinal Ambrose was also responsible for improving the town’s sanitation, a benefit that cannot be underestimated.

A new iron bell was installed in 1822.

Etching by Félix Benoist from "La Normandie illustrée" 1850
Etching of Rouen cathedral by Félix Benoist from ‘La Normandie illustrée’ 1850, the Tour de Beurre is on the right

Enduring beauty

The Tour de Beurre has survived wars, weather and even the notorious ‘red week’ of 30 May – 5 June 1944 when Allied bombing destroyed swathes of Rouen and the cathedral was severely damaged. The tower crown was badly smashed but has been faithfully restored.

Rouen June 1944 - Allied raids in spring 1944, aimed at bridges and rail installations, caused damage across the city.
Rouen June 1944. Allied bombing raids during occupation and in the spring of 1944 were aimed at bridges and rail installations, but frequently imprecise, wrecking the city and killing thousands.

Now the intricate west facing façade of Rouen Cathedral with its two bell towers; St. Romain and Beurre, is complete again.

Always a wonderful sight, on sunny evenings a particularly large crowd gathers. They come to see this enduring gothic masterpiece glow gold against a brilliant blue sky, its parade of statues warmed to life for precious moments by the setting sun. Telling the ancient stories, one more time.

Statues on the Tour de Beurre, Rouen Cathedral
Statues on the Tour de Beurre

Some sources

Butter and crown, by Francois Verdier (includes plans and elevations of the tower).

Dictionnaire géographique, published 1770

Rouen, Its History and Monuments by Théodore Licquet published 1840

Tour de Beurre, Rouen
Tour de Beurre, Rouen at Christmastime

2 thoughts on “The vanity bell of the Tour de Beurre, at Rouen Cathedral

  1. Ah, but Rouen also has a wonderful sound and light show on the face of the cathedral in the summer. We were luckily there on the right night and got to see it. There is a video on the Rouen web site. You probably know this but if not, you need to see it. It is amazing.

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