Norman churches were violently treated in the great Battle of Normandy in 1944, but few more so than the 11th century Abbaye Sainte Trinité de Lessay. The town of Lessay was bombed by the Americans on June 7 and 8th but the church was not seriously damaged. During the subsequent fierce battle, Lessay was the western anchor of the German line of resistance in the Contentin and was subject to three weeks of desperate fighting. On July 11, the retreating German army mined the structure, placing 25 anti-tank mines around the abbey church. These explosives were set off by American shells during the battle and the building was grievously damaged.
The people of Lessay were determined to repair the structure and preserved everything that they could. Later, the abbey was restored by the chief architect of historical monuments, Yves-Marie Froidevaux, in an exacting reconstruction of the original. The restoration was completed in 1958. This was the second restoration; the first followed the destruction by the forces of Charles le Mauvais in the 14th century, restored by Pierre le Roy, future abbot of Mont-Saint-Michel.
The Benedictine abbey was founded in 1056 by Richard Turstin Haldup the baron of La Haye-du-Puits and his son Eudes de Capel, Seneschal of William the Conqueror. Construction began in 1064. The choir, transept and the first two bays of the nave were completed in the 11th century while the apse, crossing tower, and the last four bays of the nave are early 12th century.
The original abbey was built of local materials; limestone was obtained from nearby Valognes and was used in certain visible parts of the abbey, while granite and shale made up the bulk of masonry and roofing. The abbey was constructed on a massive scale for its time and is one of the masterpieces of Norman Romanesque architecture.
I have often wondered at the formal perfection demonstrated by these Norman builders. The churches eschewed decoration for proportion and symmetry while creating spaces that were severe, elegant and formal. This is a far cry from the image of blood-thirsty Viking adventurers who terrorized Christians in the 9th and 10th centuries, burning innumerable churches and monasteries. Just a century and a half later, these new Christians were building such sophisticated and beautiful structures.
At Lessay, the nave elevation shows a typical Norman configuration – high arcades, a doubled triforium, and a clerestory level with a narrow walkway. This pattern is on the same order as the Benedictine churches of Jumieges and Bernay.
The nave developed an interesting variation during construction. Notice in this shot how the triforium has three arches in the first two bays and two arches in the last five. This is because of the different time spans in which the sections of the church were built, as noted earlier.
The vaulting in the choir and crossing is perhaps the earliest use of groin vaulting anywhere, likely pre-dating even that in Durham, often considered the first. This was about the same time that the Abbaye aux Dames and the Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen were using sexpartite vaulting, so it was clear that Normandy at time was engaged in great architectural experimentation in rib vaulting.
The side aisles are topped with groin vaults separated by lovely transverse arches. In the distance on the back wall we can see a Gothic sculptural fragment that was recovered from the 1944 ruins and embedded in the wall.
In September last year, we planned to visit Lessay on our way to Valonges to our next hotel. But we received a piece of advice from our new friend Viv Blake who we met for “a cuppa” in Coutances. She said that the large local fair would be crowded and we would not be able to get to the church. We thought we would give it a try but we completely underestimated the «millénaire de la Sainte-Croix» created in the 11th century by the Benedictine monks and confirmed by King Louis XIV in 1671. The fair takes place the second weekend of every September, bringing 400,000 visitors to this town of 2,000.
When PJ and I finally returned southward to photograph the church the next day, we had no idea of the damage done to the structure in World War II. In the course of my researches for this article, especially Yves-Marie Froidevaux’s account of the restoration, my blood ran cold realizing how the abbey had suffered. But nothing prepared me for the photograph at the beginning of this article. My admiration for the Abbaye Sainte Trinité de Lessay is even greater for the suffering endured, and the resurrection at the hands of a great architect.
Location: 49.220042° -1.532801°