When I was a boy living in France, my favorite book was the “Song of Roland”. I thrilled to the stirring battles and the chivalry, bridled at the betrayals of Ganelon, and wept at the death of Oliver and Roland. I loved Count Roland, Lord of the Breton March. I had no idea what the Breton March was but that didn’t matter. Later in life, I investigated and discovered that the March was a border zone created to defend a kingdom against an enemy. Roland, therefore, was the lord of the area that kept the Bretons from France, a most important post for the security of the Carolingian kingdom.
Later I found that my own ancestors accompanied lords of another march, in this particular case, the Welsh march. Bernard de Neufmarché (also known as Bernard of Newmarche) was granted territories in Brecon and my ancestor, Reginald de Sancto Alberico, or Reginald Awbray, was granted estates in Abercynrig. This march protected the borderlands of Norman England from the Welsh.
There was a march in France that protected the French crown from the Normans, the Norman march. The Norse nobleman Rollo carried on extensive raids throughout France and besieged Paris and Chartres. He was defeated in the Battle of Chartres and signed the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte in 911. The treaty established the Ducy of Normandy. The great grandson of Rollo was William the Conqueror and he continued to dispute the Norman March with the King of England. In 1087 he besieged and pillaged the town of Mantes, a short 15 miles south of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte, and burned the cathedral to the ground. During this campaign, he suffered a fatal injury in a fall from his horse and died in Rouen.
In the following century, the Capetian crown paid to rebuild the church at Mantes; that church is the Collégiale Notre-Dame de Mantes-la-Jolie. Although it is not a cathedral, it is built on a scale fit for a great bishop. And just as important, it has never been reconstructed and is an authentic contemporary of that other early Gothic masterpiece, Notre Dame de Paris thirty-five miles to the east. Like the Paris cathedral, we can see the two short towers connected by an open colonnade. Because of the strong similarities between the two buildings, some scholars believe that they were built by the same architect.
The Collégiale Notre-Dame is a beautiful early Gothic construction and features some of the first flying buttresses ever attempted. And like the original Notre Dame de Paris, the church has no transepts.
The narrow nave features a wonderful tribune with three arches in each bay that opens onto the inner church. The nave pillars alternate between compound piers and columns.
The nave is topped by a typical early-Gothic sexpartite vault. Each section of this vault spans two nave bays with an rib from the two center piers intersecting the diagonal ribs.
Because the tribunes are so wide, the side aisles are also quite wide in comparision to the width of the nave. In this shot we can see the compound piers that support the springing to all the different vaults and arches.
There is a wonderfully distinctive feature in the gallery vaulting. The exterior walls at this level are massively thick, so a very creative solution was found to let light into the church. It is a bit difficult to see in the following photograph, but on the left side we can see that each bay features a pointed transverse barrel vault. This leaves a space at the end of the vault where the builders could place a large round window, or oculus, in the outside wall, which can be seen in the bays at the right. This vaulting is unique in France.
Eventually eight of the arcade bays were remodeled with quadripartite vaults and the oculi were replaced with pointed-arch windows, but the original construction makes it clear that much experimentation was going on in the development of early Gothic architecture. We are lucky that this wonderful church has survived so well in the past, especially since much of Mantes-la-Jolie was flattened in World War II preparatory to Patton crossing the Seine at this point. Perhaps the gods of war had decided that William’s destruction was enough for awhile and the Collégiale Notre-Dame would stand, hopefully for another eight hundred years.
Location: 48°59’25.45″N 1°43’12.52″E