About Abbaye aux Hommes
The Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen, also known as the Abbey of Saint-Étienne, is a beautiful 11th century Romanesque abbey church known for being William the Conqueror’s gravesite.
Consecrated in 1077, William built the Abbaye aux Hommes as atonement for his marriage to Matilda of Flanders, which the Pope had condemned due to their family connection. In 1087, upon his death, William was buried in the foundations. However his grave has been disturbed on multiple occasions, including during the Wars of Religion and later the French Revolution when his remains were scattered, resulting in only his thighbone remaining in the marked grave.
Through the centuries, the Abbaye aux Hommes has undergone many architectural renovations. The main abbey is made up of the original Romanesque nave and transept and the 13th century Gothic choir. A ribbed vault was added around 1120, making the abbey a forerunner of the Gothic architectural style, and the nine spires were a 13th century addition. Further additions occurred right up until the late 18th century. However, despite the many changes, much of the original Norman church remains and forms the core of what visitors see today.
The abbey buildings lead off from the south end of the church, including the refectory; they now house the town’s museum and municipal offices. Impressive features of the church and grounds include the grand staircases, designed without cement to seem as if they are floating, the ceremonial ‘Salle des Gardes’ room and the large collection of 17th and 18th century art and furniture gathered in the monastery.
One of the abbey’s most distinctive features is the white Caen stone it is carved from, this same stone was taken to Britain to build the Tower of London, Canterbury Cathedral and the abbeys of Durham, Norwich and Westminster. The abbey itself was used a model for many Norman churches built throughout England, making it a must-see for those interested in both French architecture and Britain’s Norman history.
The church is open to all visitors but taking a guided tour is recommended in order to fully appreciate all of the buildings incorporated into the church. These tours are available in French and English (although English-speaking tours will be filled quickly!) four times a day.
Contributed by Isabelle Moore