A Church at Sword Beach (Dennis Aubrey)


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.

Domaine du Manoir de Montreuil Calvados Pays d'Auge

Domaine du Manoir de Montreuil Calvados Pays d’Auge

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.

North side aisle,  Église Saint-Samson de Ouistreham, Ouistreham (Calvados)  Photo by PJ McKey

North side aisle, Église Saint-Samson de Ouistreham, Ouistreham (Calvados) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

West facade, Église Saint-Samson de Ouistreham, Ouistreham (Calvados)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

West facade, Église Saint-Samson de Ouistreham, Ouistreham (Calvados) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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)

Nave arcade,  Église Saint-Samson de Ouistreham, Ouistreham (Calvados)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave arcade, Église Saint-Samson de Ouistreham, Ouistreham (Calvados) Photo by PJ McKey

In what amounts almost to understatement, Nebolsine continues, “The cylinder columns of the nave, which alternate with compound piers, are particularly massive.”

Nave columns, Église Saint-Samson de Ouistreham, Ouistreham (Calvados)  Photo by PJ McKey

Nave columns, Église Saint-Samson de Ouistreham, Ouistreham (Calvados) Photo by PJ McKey

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.

Chancel, Église Saint-Samson de Ouistreham, Ouistreham (Calvados)  Photo by PJ McKey

Chancel, Église Saint-Samson de Ouistreham, Ouistreham (Calvados) Photo by PJ McKey

I particularly love the detailing in the chancel, with the single row of arches and the two levels of windows above.

13th century chancel wall, Église Saint-Samson de Ouistreham, Ouistreham (Calvados)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey

13th century chancel wall, Église Saint-Samson de Ouistreham, Ouistreham (Calvados) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

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.

14 responses to “A Church at Sword Beach (Dennis Aubrey)

    • Fortunately the British landing at Sword was not contested as badly as some of the other beaches and they swept right through. And the Calvados, ain’t it great? Thanks for your visit, Arnel.

    • Trish, there was nobody around to talk to about the passageway except for an elderly parishioner. I’m sure it is possible to get up there, though. In PJ’s shot of the chancel, there is a door that leads to the sacristy. Am fairly sure that the gallery is accessed from there. What we don’t get a sense of from the photograph is how small the passages were.

  1. Um! Your usual lovely photographs apart, this post made my hackles rise! Some of the Normandy landings, it’s true, were in Calvados, but you missed Utah beach in my home département of Manche.

    Calvados: Some Calvados is gorgeous, but your average industrial bottle bought in a shop is mostly undrinkable, though fine for cooking. Young Calvados is equally throat-burning. But go to a farm where the cider is distilled by a travelling still – licenced for up to 15 litres – where the farmer keeps it in proper conditions for, say, 20 years, and the result is nectar! All too rare these days. As much Appellation Controlée Calvados is produced in Manche as in Calvados!

    • PJ and I visited Utah Beach this year, Viv, and marveled at the difficulty of moving over some of the marshy terrain there. And as far as Calvados is concerned, it is very difficult to get the fermier over here, but we do buy up when we are in Normandy. In the US we mostly buy the Calvas from good houses. Once we bought some of the raw stuff and my brother John-Paul used it for making a Calva syrup for pancakes. Nice to hear from you.

  2. In response to trishworth’s query about the wall passage at clerestory level. Their useful function is really unclear – the Victorians rarely bothered with them when they designed gothic-revival and romanesque-revival churches. They are found in most larger churches of the period – including at St. Mary’s Cathedral (mid-12th century) here in Limerick, Ireland. Sometimes called ‘monks walks’ they were really installed to reduce the weight of the wall above the lower arcade, and to provide access to the clerestory windows for maintenance (remember window technology was still in its infancy at the time and high winds could damage windows high up in the church. One other thing, remember that the church in Ouistreham looks quite bare now, but that pale grey stone was originally painted – the details of carvings being picked out in colour and the ashlar outlined in paint (the mortar was painted to protect it and to introduce colour). Such wall passages allowed hangings to be suspended from the wall for high feast days during the liturgical year (think Bayeux Tapestry for example). And I agree with the other posters – it’s a lovely church!

  3. Dennis, just to follow up on the comments I posted earlier. Ashlar (cut stone) was certainly used in building at the period, but primarily for surface effect – it looked good and neat. What actually filled these walls was often mortared rubble – much cheaper than cut stone. Hence the need for wall passages to lighten the load in the higher reaches of the structure. Over centuries or mere decades, mortared rubble can settle within the wall creating structural difficulties elsewhere. A lightening of the load in the wall would help it structurally. In Ireland, unlike France or the larger churches in England, the usual construction technique was mortared rubble – mainly because the limestone here was so hard to cut. Irish masons even imported stone from England for the sculpted parts of churches (Christchurch in Dublin is an example). After 1200 Irish masons developed techniques for cutting the hard grey limestone and they stopped using sandstone for doors and windows. The rubble stone walls were coated with a thick lime plaster inside and out, and were probably scored to look like cut ashlar with similar decorative effects as outlined in my earlier post. This explains why you have to go to England and France to find churches as fine as Ouistreham.

    • Tony, we have seen much evidence of the mortared rubble with cut stone on the surface. I remember seeing the exposed walls at Cluny for the first time and marveled at how thick the rubble layer was.

  4. Pingback: How I Ended Up On A Farm In Normandy For 5 Weeks | Life is a Camino

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