The fascination of this ancient city of Normandy consists not only in
its historical associations and its splendid cathedral, but in the fine
setting, colour, and aspect of the place. Rouen should be approached, if
possible, by boat on the Seine. The steamboat journey from the mouth of
the river is very delightful, and there is no better way of gaining an
impression of one of the most beautiful of the provinces of France.
Hills, with frowning rocks, begirt the Seine in its tortuous course.
Woods and tilled fields alternate with primitive, untamed ravines,
watered by rivulets, and old sombre-hued houses and churches peer among
woods. Parts of the valley recall Wales or Scotland in their ruggedness;
while here and there we are reminded of the softer scenes of southern
The Rouen of obscure days of antiquity was probably a colony of the
tribe of the Roths-magi. Many place-names in Normandy suggest that the
Danes held this district, and they, rather than Norwegians, were the
early conquerors. From Rouen we derive our word “roan” for a horse of a
reddish colour, for the first imported Norman horses were known as
In the eighth century this was a city of ecclesiastics, who erected many
churches and convents. A long line of celebrated bishops ruled here, and
the first church of St Ouen was probably built at this period. The
Normans harried the country in 912, under the valiant Rollo, and Rouen
was then made the capital of Normandy.
In the days of Duke William of Normandy, our gallant conqueror, Caen was
of greater importance than Rouen, and at the first city the sovereigns
built their palaces. William the Conqueror died in Rouen, but his body
was taken to Caen for burial. Rufus invaded the territory in 1091, and
obtained possession of all the chief forts on the Seine, up to Rouen.
The attempt to recover Normandy, under Henry of England, is a stirring
chronicle of battle. The city of Rouen was at this time stoutly
fortified, while it was famed for its wealth and power. Led by the brave
Alan Blanchard, the people of Rouen made a fierce defence. But Henry
had cut off approach from the sea; he held, too, the roads to Paris. He
encompassed the walls of Rouen with his army; he brought boats up the
river, constructed a floating bridge, and dug trenches for his troops.
The soldiers and citizens within the city resisted for six terrible
months. Many were the victims of famine, and those who strove to escape
were at once struck down by the besiegers. “Fire, blood and famine” were
Henry’s handmaids of war, and he declared that he had chosen “the
meekest maid of the three” to subdue Rouen.
At length the starving and desperate citizens resolved to burn the city,
and to fling themselves on the English. This threat caused Henry to
offer terms of pacification. Blanchard, the valorous defender of Rouen,
was, however, killed by order of the English monarch.
The immortal Joan of Arc appears later on the scene. We cannot follow
the strange and inspiring page of her career. Betrayed at length, and
given into the hands of the English, she was imprisoned in Rouen, where
a charge of heresy was made against her. To escape from the military to
the ecclesiastic prison Joan pleaded guilty to the accusation of heresy.
The story of her martyrdom is not a theme upon which one cares to dwell.
The English cause was lost, though Joan of Arc was burned. “Oh, Rouen,
Rouen, I have great fear lest you suffer for my death. Yes! my voices
were of God; they have never deceived me.” And as the maid dropped in
the writhing flames, the soldiers cried: “We are lost! We have burned a
“No longer on St Denis will we cry,
But Joan la Pucelle shall be France’s saint.”
The French recaptured Rouen in 1499. There is now no trace of the proud
castle built by Henry V. of England. The prophetic cry of the soldiers
had been fulfilled.
Before the end of the thirteenth century a cathedral was built in the
city, and by the sixteenth century the stupendous edifice was finished.
Notre Dame has a splendid west front, and very ornamental entrances to
the transepts. The decorated rose windows are exceedingly fine. The
choir has thirteenth-century stained windows, which must be seen in the
sunlight. Here, too, are the monuments of Henry II. and Richard I.
Unfortunately, much of the external decoration of Notre Dame has been
disfigured by weathering, and some of the images have disappeared. But
the rose windows are very celebrated, and the tower of the sixteenth
century is richly ornamented.
The Lady Chapel contains the tomb of two cardinals, with beautifully
sculptured figures, and carvings of exquisite craftsmanship. The tomb of
the Duke of Brézé is attributed to Jean Goujon, and the images are true
works of genius.
Saint-Owen is perhaps more interesting than the cathedral. It is an
immense building, and though so huge, finely proportioned. The south
portal is rich and exquisite in its decoration.
For an example of Goujon’s work, you must inspect the remarkably
decorated door of the Church of St Madou. There are other notable
churches in Rouen; and the fine stained-glass windows of St Godard must
not be overlooked.
Among other buildings of interest is the Palace of Justice, with a
In Rouen was born Corneille, and upon a bridge over the Seine you will
find his statue. Fontenelle was also one of the illustrious natives of
Readers of Gustave Flaubert will remember his pictures of the country
around Rouen, in “Madame Bovary.” Charles Bovary was sent to school in
the city. “His mother selected a room for him, on a fourth floor,
overlooking the Eau-de-Robec, in the house of a dyer she was acquainted
with.” It was in Yonville-L’Abbage, “a large village about twenty miles
from Rouen,” that Charles and Emma Bovary settled after their marriage.
“The river which runs through it,” writes Flaubert, “seems to have
imparted to it two distinct characters. On the right bank it is all
grass-land, whilst on the left it is all arable. The meadow-land spreads
at the foot of some high-lying ground until it meets the pastures of
Bray on the other side; on the east the gently rising ground loses
itself in the distance in fields of golden wheat. The water running
through the grass-land divides the colours of the meadows and of the
furrows by a white streak, and so the landscape looks like a great
unfolded cloak, with a green velvet collar bordered with silver.”
Such is the country that the genius of Flaubert has peopled with his
types of provincial character.
Municipal enterprise has “improved and beautified” Rouen in modern
times. The new, broad thoroughfares are undoubtedly admirable, according
to the standard of to-day; but the reconstruction of many streets has
meant the destruction of a large number of those old gabled houses that
delighted the travellers of sixty years ago. Fortunately, a few charming
ancient corners remain, and the authorities of the city have preserved
some of these weather-worn buildings as monuments of mediæval Rouen.
Jean Goujon, the most notable sculptor of his period, is associated with
Rouen, but it has not been proved that he was a native of the city.
Mystery surrounds the life of this genius. We do not even know the date
of his birth. His sculpture is imaginative and powerful art, and he is
very successful in presenting nude figures. It is supposed that Goujon
was one of the victims of the Massacre of St Bartholomew.
A picture of the monastic life of Normandy, in the thirteenth century,
has been drawn in the remarkable _Regestrum Visitationum_ of Eude
Rigaud, Archbishop of Rouen. This wonderful diary has over five hundred
pages, and covers a period of about twenty years. In 1248, Rigaud was
appointed Archbishop of Rouen by Innocent IV. He proved a zealot for
reforms in the Church; he undertook periodic inspection of the
monasteries and nunneries, and his journals contain much “sensational”
reading. The archbishop records that the rule in many of the convents
was exceedingly lax, and that fasts and penances were not duly observed.
He found that a number of the clergy were addicted to tippling, and he
made clerical drunkenness an offence punishable by the deprivation of a
living. Incontinence was very common among the monks. In the convents,
Rigaud discovered “great disorders.” But the archbishop relates that the
offenders were so numerous that had he expelled them all, no priests
would have been left in the diocese.
When wandering in the streets of Rouen, we remember that Saint-Amant was
born here in 1594. The life of this wine-loving poet is full of rare
adventure and colour. He was a scholar, wit, soldier, statesman, and man
of business by turn. Saint-Amant visited England, went to Rome with the
fleet, and afterwards to Spain. He also started a glass factory, and
was for a period a diplomat in Poland. His career is a long romance.
Saint-Amant’s name in full was Marc Antoine de Gérard, Sieur de Saint
Amant. The name by which he is best known was taken from the abbey of
Saint-Amant. He was one of the greatest of good livers, with an
unquenchable thirst, and an infinite capacity for absorbing liquor. It
is said that he and his boon companions often sat for twenty-four hours
over their bottles. In those days of tavern revelry, the poet was
respected as a master of deep-drinking and a model for the bibulous.
Théophile Gautier wrote of the poet of Rouen: “Saint-Amant is assuredly
a very great and very original poet, worthy to be named among the best
of whom France can boast.” This exquisite singer and devoted worshipper
of Bacchus died in Paris in 1661.
- The Project Gutenberg EBook of Old Continental Towns, by Walter M. Gallichan