Places to visit

Roman Catholic Church,
Buildings & religion

The Roman Catholic Church either side of the channel
The Reformation & the start of Protestantism
The English Reformation
English attitudes to Catholics
1789 French Revolution
1814 Return of the French Monarchy - Church in 19th century
State schools without religion
Religion in France today

The Roman Catholic Church either side of the Channel
Both Kent and the North of France were converted to Christianity in the 7th-8th centuries. St. Augustine in Kent, St. Omer and St. Vaast in northern France established many religious communities. In the Middle Ages, both regions invested huge resources in building huge, elaborate gothic cathedrals and abbeys - stone masterpieces that took centuries to build, and towered over the low timber hovels that ordinary people lived in. Back to top

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Saint-Omer and Canterbury Cathedrals - both gothic masterpieces representing an enormous investment of creativity and resources by quite poor communities over several centuries

The Reformation & the start of Protestantism
In the 16th century came a sharp divide. In 1517 a German monk, Martin Luther, started an explosion of protest against corruption, abuses of power and teachings of the Roman Catholic church. His followers, "Protestants", called for people to rely on the Bible rather than on bishops and the Pope; and to worship in a simpler way.

Protestant Criticisms
In Europe, bishops and the clergy often lived like aristocrats, and seemed part of the ruling elite. Corruption was rife: for example, bishops not undertaking religious duties, or even not living in their diocese. In France, the king rather than the Pope chose people for church positions. In Louis XIV’s court, bishops vied with nobles to make extravagant displays of wealth - often by endowing religious works of art. Luther criticised the Church for selling "indulgences" - i.e., saying God would pardon people’s sins if they gave to the Church. The Protestants objected to bible readings and services being in Latin - "mumbo-jumbo" that few ordinary people understood.

Catholic churches were full of works of art: statues, shrines, paintings, relics of saints, altars ornamented with gold and jewels. Lofty cathedrals were designed for the performance of fine music, from choirs and later with organs. All these practises Protestants described as “pagan idolatry”.

The English Reformation 1530
England joined the Protestants because Henry VIII quarrelled with the Pope, who refused to give Henry the divorce he wanted for political reasons. In 1534 Henry established the Church of England as the official state church, nominally Protestant, with the monarch as head - “defender of the faith”.

Remarkably quickly, English people turned against the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. - church buildings and the style worship were made much plainer. Like other Protestants, the Church of England introduced everyday language into services - English instead of Latin. They printed a new Prayer Book, and the first newly-translated official English Bible. They whitewashed over colourful wall paintings, removed many statues and stained glass windows, and destroyed all the shrines and saints' relics which had attracted pilgrims to many cathedrals, abbeys and monasteries. They ended the practice of people paying the Church to be forgiven their sins.

The Church of England never defined very precisely exactly what its members were supposed to believe in. But the Bishops were now appointed by the English monarch, not the Pope in Rome. Back to top

In 1534 in Spain, Ignatius Loyola founded the “Society of Jesus”, the Jesuits, to revive the Catholic church. Responding to the success of the new Protestant churches, the Pope called a catholic conference, the Council of Trent in 1545 to discuss reforms, which, led by the Jesuits, began to take effect from 1560. The abuses by the most corrupt of the clergy were tackled. The Jesuits set up colleges to train clergy all over the catholic world, including at Saint-Omer and Douai. Their zeal led to excesses, echoing the Spanish Inquisition, founded in 1478 to hunt out Jews suspected of practising their forbidden faith in secret.

English attitudes to Catholics
English observers were horrified at news from France of civil war between Protestants and Catholics (1562-98). The massacres of Protestants in France (1572), the Spanish Armada (1588), and the Gunpowder Plot (1605) confirmed the popular belief in England that Catholics and the Pope would bring tyranny. They saw that attacks on England by Catholic France or Spain had the blessing of the Pope. Very soon any English person who wanted to remain a Catholic was seen as a potential traitor and spy.

For centuries after, English Catholics were persecuted and denied civil rights.

17th century Catholic revival
The most visible reminder of this era that we can see today is the great flowering of religious art in churches. The Council of Trent gave guidelines to artists, to produce works of art that conveyed simple religious messages to the faithful - about Bible stories and the lives of the saints.

Many churches in Flanders have elaborate baroque altar-pieces dating from the 16th - 18th centuries, commissioned under Spanish or French rule. See 'Retables".

Starting in 1630, the goldsmiths of Paris each year on 1st May gave a giant specially-commissioned painting on a religious theme to hang in the nave of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. Arras museum has a 'Salle des Mays' where you can see some that have survived.

The counter-reformation led to a burgeoning of religious art to help communicate the Church’s message

The 1605 Gunpowder Plot involved English Catholics

Painters' illustrated stories about the Apostles, following detailed rules.

1789 French Revolution
In France, the Catholic Church had remained a great power in the land. The poor saw the Bishops and the Church as their oppressors, just as bad as the King and the aristocracy. In the North the clergy owned as much land as the aristocracy - each had about 1/5th of the total.

In the turmoil of the 1789 French Revolution, as well as beheading the King and sending many nobles to the guillotine, many cathedrals, abbeys and monasteries were also destroyed. The new Republic was atheist. By 1802, it had confiscated all the Church's land and property; the nobles lost almost half theirs. Church lands were sold cheaply to peasant farmers and to businessmen - creating a big class of people who had a personal interest in keeping what they had gained by the Revolution.

Napoleon's “Concordat” with the Pope
Napoleon made a "concordat" with the Catholic church, agreeing which church buildings would be returned to enable the bishops and priests to carry on. The Catholic church was again made the official state religion; the state resumed paying money to the church and appointing bishops - but people remained free to practice any other beliefs. Back to top

Ruins of Vaucelles Abbey near Cambrai

Ruins of Saint Bertin's Abbey in Saint-Omer - another victim of the Revolution

An 18th century abbey became the museum & art gallery in Arras. Napoleon allowed the adjacent Abbey chapel to become a cathedral for Arras, to replace that destroyed in the Revolution.

1814 Return of the French Monarchy
The Church and the aristocracy had to accept that they would not get much of their property back - this would have been deeply unpopular. The church had got used to operating on a smaller scale than before the Revolution, but some monastic institutions were now reopened.

Return to Catholicism
The Catholic Church remained very powerful throughout the 19th century. New monasteries and convents were built, like the Mont des Cats near Bailleul, and a new Cathedral for Lille, the growing industrial centre and provincial capital. Most people returned to Catholicism; the church ran the hospitals, and organised what help was available to the poor and needy. From 1833 the Church allied with the Second Republic to expand primary education. Many village schools were opened, and most school teachers were priests, monks or nuns.

Boulogne cathedral - burnt down in the Revolution - was slowly and expensively rebuilt, in a very different style to the old gothic cathedrals. It is in the baroque style, similar to St. Paul's in London - with the world's biggest dome outside St. Peters in Rome. Back to top

The re-building of Boulogne cathedral - after its destruction in the Revolution - was finally completed in the 1860s. It huge dome was meant to dominate the town.

St. Omer Cathedral was one of the few major gothic churches to survive the Revolution

Below Boulogne cathedral, the large old crypt contains remains of an older 3rd cent. Roman temple, a 14th cent. shrine, and 15th cent. painted walls.

The Church and politics
Throughout the 19th century, there were right-wing French politicians who wanted a return to the monarchy, old-fashioned values, a respect for law-and-order, and the Catholic religion at the centre of society. France remained a very unequal society, and those French people who wanted a social reforming republic tended to be against the Church - especially the Church's role in educating the young. After two more revolutions which changed little (in 1830 and 1848), the moderate republicans finally gained power after Napoleon III's catastrophic defeat by the Germans in 1870.

State schools without religion
In the 1882, the Third Republic offered the first radical alternative to church schools. New state schools were set up in each town and village. In 1904 it started training educated lay-people (not priests) as teachers. They were selected by exam, and worked as civil servants. They could be posted to any school in France; the timetable and curriculum were fixed nationally. It was compulsory for children aged 6 to 13 to attend school. France is the only country in Europe where there is no religious education in state schools. In 1905, the Church was dis-established.

Religion in France today
Today, France is still nominally a Catholic country. Out of 60 million inhabitants, 46 million are nominally Catholics, only 1 million Protestants, 4 million Muslims, and about 650,000 Jewish. But 70% of those who call themselves Catholics never go to church; about 20% practice occasionally, and only 10% regularly go to Sunday mass. There are fewer priests (45,000 in 1970; 30,000 in 1993); and fewer church weddings and christenings.


Places to visit:
Saint-Omer Cathedral
Vaucelles Abbey (ruins)
St-Amand Abbey (ruins)
Salle des Mays - 17th century religious paintings in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Arras
Lille Cathedral - in the Old Town

Related background information
French Revolution
English Catholic refugees
Church altar-pieces - “retables”




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