When PJ and I showed up to the church at Bassoues, we had little expectation of what we might find. From the description in the Patrimoine de France we knew that it was originally a church but had been enlarged to a basilica in 1520. We knew that there was a sarcophagus containing the remains of a local saint, Fris, for whom the basilica is named. What we didn’t know was the romantic legends surrounding Fris.
The story is that Fris, a nephew of the great Frankish leader Charles Martel, was active in his uncle’s combat against the invading Muslim armies. The Saracens were led by the Emir of Al-Andalus, Abd el Rahman. When Charles “The Hammer” defeated the invaders at the Battle of Tours (also known as the Battle of Poitiers) in 732, the incursion into Christian territory was arrested. Abd El Rahman turned south in retreat and was confronted by Fris in command of a contingent of the Frankish forces. Fris was defeated near the town of Lupiac but rallied his forces by planting his banner near Bassoues at the lieu-dit known today as Moulin de l’Étendard, the Mill of the Standard.
There are two versions of the battle of Bassoues between Fris and the Saracens. The first is that the Christians were victorious but Fris was mortally wounded by an arrow and died. The second is that heavy Saracen reinforcements led to the fatal shooting of Fris, a Muslim victory, and the Christians were forced to retreat. In both versions Fris was hastily buried by his departing forces. I personally give more credence to the defeated version. To leave a commander hastily buried seems to be the actions of a defeated force.
At any rate, a few hundred years later a coffin with the intact body of a Frank warrior in full armor was discovered by a peasant who instantly knew that these were the remains of Saint Fris. The sanctified remains were transported miraculously to a chapel that received his name and became a place of pilgrimage. The peasants moved the a chapel to shelter the remains and almost immediately a spring was discovered at the site of the tomb. The water was believed to have miraculous powers and pilgrims came to fill their bottles with the holy water. It was further believed that profane use of this water was impossible and that when a lady tried to use it to make bread, the water turned to blood. The spring still exists today but pilgrims are advised that it is non-potable.
In the year 1020, the seigneur of the chateau, Bernard de Bassoues, donated the chapel to the Benedictine abbey in neighboring Pessan on the condition that they built a monastery on the site.
The original 11th century church was a simple structure but in 1520 was much enlarged and embellished the Archbishop of Auch, probably to make it worthy of being an important stop on the pilgrimage road. The church was severely damaged and the monastery destroyed by the forces of Montgommery in the Protestant uprising of the late 16th century.
Today’s church is mostly the project of a rebuild in 1857 and has little of the Romanesque original to show. This unusual view of the nave shows the narrow central bay flanked by two large side aisles. Overall it is quite a grand church, befitting of a basilica. Groin vaults cover all of the different spaces of the church including the choir.
The most interesting parts of the church interior are the upper choir – also known as the high altar – and crypt. The interior is thus divided into three separate levels. The nave is the middle level, the open crypt below and the high altar above. The upper choir is reached by staircases from either side of the nave.
The crypt holds the sandstone sarcophagus of Saint Fris seen in the back behind the simple altar. The tomb is supported by six white marble columns with capitals, but is otherwise devoid of ornamentation. There are no relics remaining of Saint Fris. Montgommery’s depredations resulted in the remains being burned and scattered to the winds.
The shot of the crypt stairs gives an idea of what pilgrims might have experienced in visiting the tomb of the saint.
The two extant portals – one on the west and the second on the south – are part of the 16th century reconstruction of the church and are identical in form.
The south portal is distinguised by an interesting decoration above the plain arched entry. This is a bas-relief of Saint Fris on horseback.
This bas relief of Saint Fris on horseback depicts him crowned and holding a scepter in his right hand. Behind him flutters the standard that lent its name to the battlefield.
As always, there is a personal note to this post. As Abd el Rahman retreated from the Battle of Poitiers, the site of the Saracen defeat by Charles Martel, he followed the Voix de La Ténarèze, an ancient ridge road leading south near Auch. The road gives its name to a local region which happens to be the site of Lupiac, the village celebrated for the development of my favorite French brandy – Armagnac. And my favorite region of Armagnac has always been Ténarèze. How tightly bound are French history and gastronomy!