A grand day out

The Library Decoration on the cathedral roof Rue Corbault The former church houses on the parvis Marshal Sir John French's HQ The cathedral organ Ste Jeanne d'Arc
Click on the thumbnails for a larger picture Dusk on the ramparts of Laon Looking down on the lower town The cathedral towers Is this prophetic - one foot in the gutter The Ardon gate The Templars' chapel Page 1


8 March 2010

Monday can be a rubbish day for travelling in France because most of the towns are shut in the morning (If not the whole day). It can make them a little lifeless when visiting.

I had toyed with the idea of heading for the coast for a long day out, but after the wind of yesterday I decided to head inland to two places that I have driven past on my way to the battlefields, but never had the time to stop and visit.

Notre Dame de Noyon

Notre Dame de Noyon from the Roman Via Agrippa

On the far side of Amiens and on the way to Compiègne is the small town of Noyon which has always struck me as being fairly old and if nothing else it would be difficult to miss the cathedral in the middle.

Weren't we in for a surprise.

It was lunchtime by the time we arrived so we parked up in front of the cathedral and eat everything except the buns which we saved for afterwards.

As I said the town of Noyon is small but we soon discovered that it is steeped in history.

The cathedral was closed on leaving the car but we took a dander around it and discovered the half timbered Chapter Library which was constructed in 1506.

We also learnt from information panels that the town was the birthplace of Jean Calvin (1509 - 1564) who is better known to the English speaking world as John Calvin the great protestant reformer. His ideas led to the development of Presbyterianism.

The Scots orator, John Knox was one of his followers and brought his teachings to Scotland and later England.

Noyon was for a few days in August 1914 the Headquarters of Marshal Sir John French commanding the British Expeditionary Force. A panel on the Hôtel Arlette de la Charlonny recalls this event. For the greater part of the war though the town was in the hands of the Germans. The impressive town war memorial is alongside the cathedral which still carries shell holes despite twenty years of repairs.

Having pottered around the town we came back to the cathedral and this time the gates were open. The sign said that it was in theory closed but that didn't stop me from wandering in. One of the staff was working away and he didn't say anything so we all did the tour.

The interior The interior

The interior of the cathedral

St Eloi was bishop of Noyon from 640 until his death in 659 and his cathedral provided the setting for the coronations of Charlemagne the first Holy Roman Emperor in 768 and the first of France's Capetian kings, Hugues Capet in 987.

As you may have read on other pages the history of France is remarkably complicated. One of the offshoots of all the marriages and deaths was the fact that parts of France were claimed by outsiders whilst the French King himself claimed sovereignty over parts of Italy.

By the Treaty of Noyon of 13 August 1516, Francis I of France and Emperor Charles V (Charles Quint to us beer drinkers), agreed that France would abandon its claims to the Kingdom of Naples and received the Duchy of Milan in recompense.

Chapel of Our Lady

Chapel of Our Lady

The bickerings over who owned what of France did not end and in 1552 the Hapsburgs were back in the town and gutted it. They then sold it back to the French in 1559 before re-taking possession once more only to be finally ousted by Henri IV.

You didn't need Eastenders for entertainment in those days !

The old cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1131 but fourteen years later construction of the current cathedral began. The building is one of the very first examples of Gothic architecture in France and took 90 years to complete.

The interior is very plain whilst the new organ is highly impressive as much by its style as by the fact that it adds colour to the overall whiteness of the interior.

There is one exception to this sobriety of form and that is in the Chapel of Our Lady. It was created in 1528 by the Bishop Charles of Hangest and represents his coat of arms and that of the Amboise family.

The chapel was restored in 1928 but sadly the statues that originally stood in the niches of the altar wall have been destroyed. Even so, the effect of so much flamboyance and the workmanship is not lost on the observer.

In one of the other chapels can be seen a representation of Joan of Arc at her trial. Originally commissioned for the cathedral it was refused when it was discovered that the sculptor had used the likeness of his own daughter for that of Joan.



Notre Dame de Laon

Notre Dame de Laon

From Noyon we cut across country to the hill town of Laon - which is pronounced Lon rather than Lay-on.

The town perches a hundred metres above the surrounding flat fields and is a maze of hairpin bends and narrow streets. We loved it. Ooh er ! mind the drop.

There has been a fortress here since Roman times when the town served as a bulwark against everybody from the Burgundians to the Vandals, from the Franks to the Huns.

Not far away on the battlefield of the Chemin de Dames is the birthplace of St Remi, Archbishop of Reims who baptised the French king, Clovis and thus set Christianity as the national religion.

Following the fall of Charlemagne's successors, Hugues Capet (Same chap who was later crowned at Noyon) one of the pretenders to the French throne managed to gain the town by bargaining with the bishop. The town in exchange for second place in the church hierarchy.

The old town is a maze of narrow streets which are never far from the ramparts overlooking the lower suburbs.

I did mention that we had come inland to escape the wind. Doesn't work a hundred metres above the plain. We did however appear to have moved with the better of the weather because we had beautiful blue skies all day.

We parked up, eat our buns (Dad was serving out Lent so we didn't want to leave him in temptation) and set off around part of the walls and then to the cathedral. We knew that we were a bit pressed for time as the day and daylight drew to a close.

Even so we managed a taste of the town and can always go back again now that we know that it is well worth the visit.

Dominating the hill, the history of the cathedral is similar to that of Noyon's. Damaged by fire, the new cathedral was begun in 1150 and served as an inspiration for other cathedrals such as Chartres and Reims. Along with Noyon it is a fine example of early Gothic architecture.

It is completely surrounded by medieval buildings including a 12th century chapel owned by the Knights Templar.

There is a very good Tourist Office adjoining the cathedral buildings which offers a free plan and mini guide to the town. The toilets were well used as a result of too much liquid and too cold an atmosphere.

Notre Dame de Laon

The interior of Laon cathedral

On top of the towers of the cathedral it is possible to make out a number of bulls. The story goes back to the building of the cathedral (1150 - 1235).

A team pulling material up to the site was having difficulty making the steep climb, when suddenly another bull appeared reinforcing the team and allowing it to gain the summit of the hill. No sooner there than the miraculous newcomer was gone again.

Either the day had warmed a little or the heating was on inside the cathedral because it did not seem as cold as at Noyon. Perhaps this was an illusion created by the colour of all the stained glass windows.

It was interesting on entering to notice that the nave was not filled with chairs, there was a large empty space to the rear. It made us think of all the unwashed who would have stood at the back whilst the rich got a seat.

The windows are an excellent example of very early glasswork ranking alongside those of ND de Paris - the western rose window was created in 1210. The whiteness of the stone walls adds to the luminescence of the interior.

Having spent almost an hour in the cathedral we made a quick pause for coffee in the very comfortable café on the parvis and then set off to find the Templars' chapel.

The Knights Templar had set up a Commandery in the city in 1134 and built their chapel in about 1140. Its octagonal shape is supposed to be based upon the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Within, it is obviously pretty sparse but there are a few Templar tombstones, some sculptures and an interesting roof with the episcopal lamb in the centre.

The Order owned a number of houses in the City which they rented out to gain an income (Not that they were short of a bob or two) then following the Friday 13th massacre of 1307 the buildings were passed into the hands of the Knights of St John (The Hospitallers).

All we had to do then was wind our way back down the hill and head for the autoroute - dinner was waiting and the chef was driving the car.

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See also

Winter Snow