My family has a long history in France – our father Don was a U.S. Army soldier stationed in France for seven years. My own first memories are of the village of Herbilly near Orléans in the Loire Valley and my early teen years were spent in Poitiers and Verdun. In the last dozen years, we have been lucky enough to travel to France with my parents five times – each time it is their “last trip to France”. In a blatant attempt to curry favor with my mother Lucille and to stay in the will (a difficult thing, since I am bounced out of that precious document at least six or eight times a year!) I keep her supplied with her beloved calvados.
For those who don’t know, calvados is an extraordinary brandy made from the small sour apples of the Basse-Normandie region in the department called – appropriately – Calvados. The brandy is the basis of what the locals call the “trou normand” or “Norman hole” – in the course of a large filling meal, one takes a fiery shot of Calvados to create a “hole” in the stomach so that one can continue eating. It is a glorious digestif and my mother’s favorite.
Calvados has something other than the brandy to offer, however. It is the site of the World War II Normandy invasions for one thing, and is filled with Norman Romanesque churches for another. On our trip last fall we found an interesting example less than a mile inland from Sword Beach in Ouistreham where 28,845 British soldiers landed on June 6, 1944 – the Église Saint-Samson de Ouistreham.
Half church and half fortress, the Église Saint-Samson was built in the second quarter of the 12th century by the Normans to replace the wooden church that had been destroyed by their Viking grandfathers. It was a dependency of the Église Abbatiale Sainte Trinité, the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen. It was probably because of the patronage of Queen Mathilda, wife of William the Conqueror, that Saint-Samson has the rich exterior decor featuring three rows of blind arches above the carved porch with its four orders of archivolts. Notice the tower – it was built to serve as an observation post to the ocean just to the north. The Normans themselves were well aware of the danger that came from the sea.
George Nebolsine characterized the church as having “… a finely proportioned three-storied facade with thick walls, small windows, and a deeply recessed doorway reminiscent of the churches of central and southern France. It carries geometric ornament. The interior is similar to that of the Norman churches of Caen.” (Journey into Romanesque; a traveller’s guide to Romanesque monuments in Europe, New York 1969)
In what amounts almost to understatement, Nebolsine continues, “The cylinder columns of the nave, which alternate with compound piers, are particularly massive.”
The chancel is 13th century and has a few more Gothic touches. We can see the rib vaulting and the ogive arches surrounding the upper windows. The lower windows are more conventionally Romanesque, probably from the earlier version of the chancel. I also particularly admire the passageway through the arch walls on the third window level.
I particularly love the detailing in the chancel, with the single row of arches and the two levels of windows above.
Given the proximity to the beaches of the Normandy invasion, we should be thankful that the Église Saint-Samson de Ouistreham still stands in such wonderful condition. I like to think that the English descendents of William’s kingdom did their best to protect Mathilda’s church when they came back to invade Normandy.