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
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
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
The Abbey flourished and was rebuilt on a grander scale
in the 13th century.
1814: St-Bertin's Abbey in
1814, the last year of Napoleon's Empire - before much of
its stone had been quarried for building
The foot of a gold/bronze cross attributed to Saint-Bertin,
made around 1180 - now in L'hôtel Sandelin museum,
A religious town
Before the revolution Saint-Omer had many other
religious establishments which took up nearly a third of the
Amongst the churches and chapels were two large Jesuit
colleges for training catholic priests.
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
Fate of church property in the French
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