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Saint Bertin's Abbey, St. Omer

Today: what remains of Saint-Bertin's Abbey after the French Revolution in 1789, when the abbey was closed, and stones were plundered for new public buildings in Arras.

In the marshlands drained by monks, farmers still bring produce to market on flat-bottomed boats

Monks came to convert the tribes to Christianity
The town of Saint-Omer stands on hillside on the edge of the river Aa marshes. In the 7th century Benedictine monks came here to "spread the word" amongst the local Frankish tribes. Bishop Omer could not speak their Germanic language (which was an early form of Flemish) so he brought two monks with him, Bertin and Mommolin. They founded a monastery near the river, called "Saint Bertin's Abbey".

The community of monks worked to reclaim the Audomarois marshes around the River Aa, which are still rich farming land today - for market gardening, and grazing sheep.

As well as their daily round of religious services, St.Bertin's Abbey also became famous as a centre of learning. Its monks produced famous manuscript books, painstakingly illustrated - including some remarkable early maps.

The Abbey flourished and was rebuilt on a grander scale in the 13th century.

Book of Psalms made by monks in the scriptorium at St-Bertin's Abbey c.890AD

Above, 1814: St-Bertin's Abbey in 1814, the last year of Napoleon's Empire - before much of its stone had been quarried for building projects.
Right. The foot of a gold/bronze cross attributed to Saint-Bertin, made around 1180 - now in L'hôtel Sandelin museum, Saint-Omer

A religious town
Before the revolution Saint-Omer had many other religious establishments which took up nearly a third of the town's area.

Amongst the churches and chapels were two large Jesuit colleges for training catholic priests.

Gunpowder Plot
While Flanders was part of the Spanish empire, St.Omer was known as a Jesuit training centre. English Catholics came secretly for religious training in the Jesuit college in the backstreets.

Its graduates were regarded as very suspicious Spanish spies back in England - and it is likely that the 1605 "Gunpowder Plot" to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London was discussed here.

The 1605 Gunpowder Plot - celebrated in England on Bonfire Night; hatched in St.Omer?

Fate of church property in the French Revolution
In the French Revolution, monastic properties like Saint-Bertin's Abbey was closed down and confiscated. The buildings were often deliberately demolished for building materials - the stones of the abbey were sold to build a new town hall and music school in Arras. The extensive Jesuit colleges became first army barracks and hospitals, then state schools -"lycées" - in later years.

You can see the remains of the abbey at the lower end of the town, near the railway station - which hint at how grand it once was.

Guided walks round the town
Many of the churches are included in the guided tours organised by the town's Office de Tourisme. Visit the monks' marshes in the Regional Nature Park.

Background information
Church and religion
Medieval Art
English catholic refugees & the Gunpowder Plot

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Location: Saint-Omer

200m walk from Office de Tourisme in town centre
Take Saint-Omer exit from A26 autoroute
Information/ reservations:
Tel: 00 33 3 2




St-Omer Cathedral © Copyright 1999-2001 Invicta Media. Last updated 20th February 2001