A Brief History of Rouen and Joan of Arc

Earlier this week, I posted about the glorious cathedrals around Northern France. The last one on our tour was in the city of Rouen where Saint Joan of Arc was burned as a martyr. When we arrived in Rouen, our first stop was definitely the cathedral. Parking garages are dotted around the city, but we were able to find luck on the north side of the river, close to the cathedral and near the Opera de Rouen Haute Normandie. [Like in Amiens, make sure to bring your parking garage ticket with you to pay on your way back.]

We walked through squares of market stalls selling fresh flowers and continued on cobblestone pathways toward the cathedral and were floored by its beauty and architecture. But, if you turn around directly from in front of the massive church, about two blocks down a straight alleyway is a gorgeous clock mounted on an archway. This gorgeous monument is called the Gros Horloge and is one of the oldest clocks in France.

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The Gros Horloge directly opposite of the Cathedral.

It was made in 1389, but it has been in its current place since 1529. The Renaissance style facade is a representation of a golden sun with 24 rays; one for each hour. The phases of the moon are also shown on the upper part of the dial, and it completes a full rotation every 29 days.

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A monument memorializing where Joan of Arc was burned.

Further north west from the clock and across the main Rue Jeanne d’Arc is a large modern-looking cross and monument dedicated to Joan of Arc. According to history, this is the place where she was burned in 1431. Now, you may have noticed that even the streets are named after the famous saint. Joan of Arc was an incredible figure in French history during the Hundred Years’ War and was inspired by the word of God to rid France of the English invaders led by King Henry V. She did God’s work by freeing fortresses and then entire cities. However, in 1430, she was captured and sold to the English to be burned in May of the following year.

It took another 18 years before King Charles VII recaptured his town. The English had occupied it for 30 years at that point, and King Henry VI was just about to be crowned King of England and France. I am no history scholar, but this confused me. How can there be two kings of France? Well, according to history, King Charles VI gave his succession of the throne to King Henry V of England. This was the beginning of civil war and major elements of the Hundred Years’ War. But that bit of history is for another time.

This memorial cross sits just outside the Joan of Arc Church and does mark the exact spot where the saint was burned. It was said her remains were then cast into the Seine River, not far from this memorial cross.

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This historical sign mounted on the Tower of Joan of Arc gave us a little giggle.

Of course, being in France, all of the signs are in French. When we came to the prison tower that held Joan, we saw a memorial plaque. What caught our eye, besides the ancient dates was the phrase: “Jeanne d’Arc fut brulee vive 30 Mai 1431.” The traditional dessert, creme brulee, is custard with burned sugar on top, so this phrase made us giggle until we realized how disrespectful it was. But it did certainly become a favorite moment in our travels.

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A creme brulee dessert enjoyed in Paris at the beginning of our holiday.

The Tower of Joan of Arc was about a quarter mile straight north east from the cross monument and the Rouen Cathedral. This was a must on our tour of the town, so we made our way down the bustling and busy main street and through some back alleyways to the last remaining building from the Rouen Castle.

Built by King Phillip II in 1210, this tower became a military post during the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion (mentioned in my post on country living in northern France). And while this castle slowly replaced the ducal palace that was in the city already, its notoriety comes from its most famous prisoner: Joan of Arc.

When we arrived, it was close to closing time, but the French man behind the counter, very animatedly, allowed us in at no charge. Whether it was no charge for everyone who didn’t understand French that day, or just us (seems unlikely), was not clear. The small tower is four floors of small exhibition rooms. With every flight of stairs, you walk into a tiny room that has paintings, manuscripts, and models of village life in the 1400s.

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Narrow stairs up and up the tower.

One thing that caught my eye was the original, handwritten manuscript of Saint Joan of Arc by Mark Twain. It was a short story that appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1904. Earlier in his career, he had written a full book called Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc under a pseudonym because the life of the martyred woman captured his imagination as a child. Throughout his life, he considered this work to be his masterpiece.

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Mark Twain’s handwriting and original publication of his short story on Saint Joan of Arc, 1904.

The other thing this historical tower brought us was incredible views of the city. All the windows were blurred and dirty, so the pictures did not come out very well. But the skyline was too pretty not to post a single image, so please pardon the blurry image.

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A blurry but beautiful image of the Rouen skyline.

The tower changed hands many times throughout history. In 1590, the castle was ordered to be demolished in order to make room for a mansion, and then another mansion. It seemed urban expansion began early in Rouen and never stopped. But it was in 1896 that a small museum had opened in the remaining tower for Joan of Arc before being converted into a German stronghold during WWII. There is still camouflage paint on the exterior of the building from the war.

 

Joan of Arc is an incredibly respected and revered figure in French history for her devotion to her country and her fearlessness during the war. I do find it interesting that today women are still fighting to equal pay and equal opportunities and in a time of intense war, the uncrowned Charles VII had faith in this young woman and sent her personally to the siege of Orleans, which eventually led the country to freedom. After her death, Pope Callixtus III found her innocent of the charges brought against her, but it wasn’t until 1920 that she was canonized and renamed Saint Joan of Arc.

Throughout France, in most churches we walked into, she was there in saint form or immortalized in stained glass. She was a courageous woman who fought and died for her country and is thanked continuously to this day.

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Stained glass telling the story of St. Joan of Arc inside the Rouen Cathedral.

We left the Tower and made our way back to the car. The sun was beginning to fall, and we had a two hour drive ahead of us back to Villers-sur-Mer. But as we walked along Saint Joan’s Street, one more thing caught my eye. This massive and ancient-looking tower seemed so out of place among the office buildings and honking traffic horns. We stared at it but couldn’t find any signage saying what this was. It just seemed like a relic from the past, untouched by modernization.

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St. Andrew’s Church, a medieval tower left as a monument and surrounded by modernity.

After scouring Google Earth and wading through French translations of city landmarks, I found that it was St. Andrew’s Church, which was abolished in 1791, but the tower still stands as a monument. It started construction in 1486 to be completed in 1556 to undergo serious damage done by Huguenots in 1562 and a hurricane in 1683 before closing its doors in 1791. The full church was finally destroyed in 1861 to make room for urban expansion, but the tower was left as a monument and continues to be protected.

It did not look like we could have gone inside. Fencing was all around, and it certainly did not look inviting, but the tall, Gothic tower was nevertheless intriguing and curious to see on a busy street nearing French rush hour.

Our day trip to Rouen was quick, but completely worth it for the historical significance and beauty the small town had to offer. I know there are probably dozens more things to see, but as you walk through the streets, make sure these monuments are at the top of your list.

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Rouen Cathedral poking above the skyline from the bridge over the Seine.

Stay tuned for Giverny, Villers-sur-Mer and the spectacular Normandy Beaches. Our northern France adventure is far from over.

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