The Abbey of Saint-Ouen is often confused with the Cathedral due to its notable size, but it does not play second fiddle to Our Lady when it comes to history and legend. Once the richest and most influential monastery in the whole of Normandy and that was often caught up in turbulence and unrest, has some secrets to divulge and stories to tell. The Abbey was named after Audoin or Saint-Ouen who was born from a wealthy aristocratic Frankish family. He was part of a group of young courtiers, a chronicler, the bishop of Rouen in 641 and eventually a Catholic Saint.
A new Romanesque abbey and monastic buildings, that was to become the Abbey of Saint-Ouen, were constructed in the 11th century after the generous donations of the first Dukes of Normandy. Yet these structures were not to last for long, because violent fires in the 12th and 13th centuries severely damage the buildings and during the attempted rebuilding of the cloister and the surrounding abbey wall, the apse of the older abbey collapsed, leaving behind it only ruins. So, in the beginning of the 14th century, the abbey was to be reconstructed once again. The new grandiose project took a long time to be rebuilt, due to the outbreak of the 100 years’ war and the plague that slowed down construction considerably to the middle of the 15th century.
An other remarquable event of this period was on 24 May 1431, when Joan was led to Saint Ouen’s churchyard in front of the “portail des Marmousets”, for the public renunciation of her
The 100 years
Once again left in the hands of man, the religious wars of 1562 broke out in France and Rouen was unfortunately not spared, this led to large scale vandalism and the general decline of the abbey, up to 1660 when it was taken over by the Maurist monks, who restored and preserved their new abbey and thinking they could save it from neglect. After the dissolution of the Congregation of Saint Maur during the French Revolution, the monks were expelled and their abbey was converted into a forge workshop for manufacturing weapons.
In the start of the 19th century the abbey was once again returned to the Catholic clergy, exactly at the same time that the romantic movement evoked a renewed interest for gothic monuments. The monastic buildings were transformed and in 1803 the Town Hall of Rouen installed itself. The reconstruction of the western façade of the abbey was finally completed in 1851.
The stained-glass windows of the abbey are one of the largest collections of 14th century stained glass in France, and is truly inspirational. Especially those who depict the full-length representations of profits, sibyls, saints, and apostles. The south arm rosette depicts the “Tree of Jesse” and the northern rosette depicts the “Hierarchy”. As for the façade’s rosette, it is adorned with a modern and abstract stained-glass window, in beautiful blue hues.
Lastly, the grandstand organ must be its most valuable asset. It has international notoriety due to its perfect notes and it’s to no surprise that it’s one of the most recorded organs in the world. The Cavaillé-Coll organ from 1890 has four keyboards and 64 stops and is noted by famed instrumentalists to be one of the two most beautiful in the world; the other being that of Church Sulpice in Paris. Regular concerts are held here and definitely an event not to be missed.
The gardens and park of the abbey and City Hall is a much-loved green space in the city centre and you will always find locals and visitors being attracted to its green lawns to picnic or to just relax with a book. Do have a lookout for a copy of the carved runestones from the 10th century, found at the town of Jelling. It was offered by Denmark to the City of Rouen, on the occasion of the millennium of Normandy in 1911. Just a few steps away you will see the stone statue of Rollo by Arsène Letellier and a bronze bust of the Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren, who died accidentally in the station of Rouen in 1916.
Today, the abbey is still used for worship, but has become a venue for concerts, expositions and other cultural events.