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Boulogne Cathedral, Old Town & Walls

Town Walls and the Old Town within...

19th century cathedral - symbol of church revival after the Revolution

Viewed from the rue de Lille and its many pavement restaurants, the Italian-style dome of Boulogne's Cathedral of Notre-Dame dominates the town. Inside, the nave is a cool quiet oasis in the Old Town.

Inside the huge dome, the biggest in Europe after St. Peters in Rome

Boulogne cathedral was rebuilt in the 19th century as a symbol of the revival of the French Catholic Church after the Revolution, in which the old cathedral and so many other churches were closed and destroyed.

The Legend of Notre Dame
In about 633, when St Omer was a bishop, legend has it that a mysterious boat carrying a luminous statue of the Virgin Mary appeared in the estuary of the river Liane at Boulogne - without oars, sails, or sailors! Townsfolk carried the statue to their church on the hill, and soon miracles were attributed to it.

Later embellishments of the story had the boat pulled by a swan - which became the emblem of the town.

From the 13th to the 16th century, pilgrimages to kneel at the feet of the "Virgin of the Sea" at Boulogne were very popular. Medieval pilgrims came especially from England, France and Flanders. Inns and hospices offered them food and lodging in Boulogne and along the way; the pilgrims bought souvenirs, like small lead badges (see below), candles, etc., which gave work to local craftsmen; whilst donations and alms made Boulogne's cathedral monastery prosperous. Back to top

1. 14th century lead pilgrims' badge, showing the "Virgin of the Sea".
2. A representation of the Virgin made in 1803, after Napoleon allowed the churches to reopen.
3. 1885 statue of Mary, again holding the baby, and the boat in the waves.
4,5. Buried crypts of earlier churches were uncovered during the slow construction of the cathedral, which started in 1827 after the defeat of Napoleon. Some of these painted walls and arches date back to the 11th century - a few parts even to the earliest 7th century church - other to the 15th century. Amongst the "treasures" in the crypt are a pile of stone cannon balls from when Henry VIII besieged Boulogne in 1544. Back to top

"Our Lady of the Great Return" in the Nave

Processions of the Virgin's statue
In 1854, when the building of the cathedral was well advanced and a new railway opened from Paris to Boulogne, the Abbot started an annual procession in August when the statue of the Virgin would be carried through the town, attracting many pilgrims.

In the Second World War, when Boulogne was in the German-occupied half of France, four statues were built on large open trailers. They were pulled through many towns all over France, eventually arriving in Boulogne, to encourage people to pray to "our Lady of the Great Return" - the return of refugees, of prisoners, of soldiers, and of peace. Back to top

Walk the Town Walls - and see the Old Town within....

Boulogne: the Porte Neuve by the cathedral. Walking the walls. The castle in one corner of the walled town - now the Museum.

Today you can walk all round the ramparts, with good views inside to the Old Town (see below), the Cathedral, and looking outwards to the newer town centre, the port and the sea. On most sides, the walls are lined with trees and gardens - you don't realise you are so high up!

In one corner of the walls, there is a medieval castle which is now the town
Museum. The château strengthens the weakest landward-facing corner of the town's defensive walls - built in the 13th century by the Counts of Boulogne, on the foundations of earlier Roman walls.

There are four gateways by which you can enter the old town inside, one on each side of the rectangular fortification - see map, right:
D= Porte des Dunes, P=Porte des Degrés, G=Porte Gayole, N=Porte Neuve. Also marked are: B=Place Godfrey de Bouillon, L=rue de Lille, R=Place de la Résistance. Back to top

Boulogne's Walls and the Old Town

The Old Town from the air

Old 17th century map

Old Roman Fort
The rectangular shape of Boulogne's old town walls reveals its origins as an old Roman fort. Boulogne's harbour in the estuary of the River Liane was the base from which the Roman emperor Cladius successfully invaded Britain in AD43-45, as well as for Julius Caesar's brief expeditions in 55 and 54BC.

Roman Lighthouses
Twin lighthouses on either side of the Channel - on the hilltop overlooking Boulogne, and on top of the white cliffs at Dover - helped guide trading ships across the narrow straits, carrying grain, hides and lead from Britain and essential supplies of wine and olive oil in the other direction.
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Spanish Armada
For centuries Boulogne was a heavily fortified border stronghold. In the 1580's rebel Catholic forces tried to capture the town as a possible base for the Spanish Armada en route to invade England.
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Pavement cafes in Godefrey de Bouillon square - part of the lively summer scene in Boulogne's old town.

Restoration of the Old Town
Not so long ago, the old town was run down and very quiet.

Today as well as visiting the cathedral, you can enjoy walking round the walls. Inside the walls, many of the old buildings have been restored.

Particularly in the rue de Lille and in Godefrey de Bouillon square, there are lively pavement cafes, interesting shops and some good restaurants. Back to top

Cathedrals to visit:
Arras cathedral - adjoining the Musé des Beaux-Arts
Boulogne cathedral of Notre-Dame
Lille cathedral - the newest in France
Saint-Omer cathedral
Therouanne cathedral (archaeological ruins)

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Take Boulogne exit from A16 autoroute
Office de Tourisme
24 Quai Gambetta
Tel: 00 33 3 21 10 88 10
Fax: 00 33 3 21 10 88 11

Background information
Churches in Nord-PasdeCalais
Spanish Armada




Chateau-Musée © Copyright 2001 Invicta Media. Last updated 29th August 2001