THE chapel OF Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais


The magazine Patrimoine normand has published a very complete article about this old church in its issue n°31 (february-march 2000). To access the page of its  Internet site (in french language) which contains a large part, click on the logo of this interesting publication.

Church or chapel ? This church was deconsecrated in 1836 ; after that event, we will name it chapel.


Creators and "patrons" of the parish

No document mentions the construction of the chapel. However, strong assumptions can be made about the date of its construction and about its creator. We shall see in the chapter on architecture that the people overseeing the building work were highly competent and aware of the very latest advances in the field.

In 1254, Robert of Sainte-Marie, Lord of the parish and the son of Ives de Sainte-Marie, made a donation to the priory of Sainte-Barbe-en–Auge in Mézidon which was very prosperous at that time. The name "Sancta Maria ad Anglicos"  is found around 1277, which proves that the name "aux Anglais" precedes the Hundred Years War. There is no explanation as to origin of the name. During the Anglo-Norman kingdom, the fortified town or feudal motte, which was on the other side of the river Viette  was perhaps occupied by English soldiers.

The archives of the diocese of Lisieux show that, in the 14th century,  the "patronage" of the chapel belonged to Geoffroy de Sainte-Marie, the Lord of the parish who had inherited it from his ancestors and could pass it on to his descendants.  The "patronage" of a church was granted to the person who had played a leading role in its construction and endowment grant. It was a hereditary right, according to very strict rules and which, amongst other things, gave “the inalienable right to be buried in the choir”.  Although we have no absolute proof, it seems very likely that it was the de Sainte-Marie family who built the church and that the recumbent statues in the choir are of two of its members. 

The property of a neighbouring priory till the deconsecration

In the 16th century this right still belonged to the local Lord. At the end of the 18th century, just before the Revolution, it was transmitted to the priory of Sainte-Barbe-en-Auge. Such transmission to a religious community was common. Indeed , the parish church of Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais was under the control of the Bishop of Lisieux.  "Inspection" reports in 1713 and 1788 written by officials from the diocese have been found which cover both the "spiritual and temporal" aspects of the church, and of the sacristy which has now disappeared, but was still in existence in 1905. They also took the opportunity to check the accounts !

In 1785 a bell called "Marie-Rosalie" was hung in the tower, given by Marie Rosalie Geoffroy,  a descendant of the last Lord of Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais and the wife of Etienne Louis Choron. Their son, Alexandre-Etienne Choron, was famous in his day as a mathematician (he taught at the Ecole Polytechnique) and then as a musician. He spent some years as a teacher in Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais to devise a new method for teaching music. As for the bell, it was taken down when the bell tower was no longer able to support it.

Between the choir and the nave, above the opening or triumphal arch, there is a beautiful crucifix from the 18th century. There are no documents relating to what happened at the time of the Revolution. Many paintings have been found covered by white distemper which may have been to protect them from the revolutionaries.

In 1836, after the regrouping of several small villages, the church was deconsecrated and the church of Authieux-Papion took over as it was considered to be in a more convenient location. The deterioration of  Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais was to continue apace until the actions described in the section on “Historians and Sponsors to the Rescue of the Chapel.”


Since the documents do not give us any useful information on the dating of the chapel, let us look at it.  Its solid shape tells us it is a Romanesque building. The setback buttresses and  the gentle mound which forms the site put it later than the mid 12th century. The paintings and recumbent statues show costume from before the 14th century.

The nave is lit by round arched windows while those in the choir are pointed. Historians tell us that the transition between these two forms of arch took place between the 12th and 13th centuries. The stoup which contained holy water on one side and ordinary water on the other is typical of the 13th/14th centuries.  In the walls, both north or south, and in the same position in the nave, an irregularity in the alignment of stones can be observed, as if the construction had been stopped and then restarted by another team of masons. The roof beams in the nave and in the choir have been assembled in two different ways.

Could the chapel have been built in two phases ? Chronodendrology dating permits us to say that was indeed built in two stages, but sufficiently close to each other to preserve the unity of the building. This explains why different historians have maintained that the chapel was built in a single phase.

Chronodendrology is a technique for dating sections of wood by studying number of rings ; the more rings available, the greater the accuracy. A CEDRE laboratory in Besançon has taken samples from the beams of the chapel and dated them.  The date is when the trees were felled and not when they were made into roofing beams, although according to CEDRE the beams were not left to dry for more than one to two years. A little later, the same samples were given to another laboratory, the Laboratoire Archéosciences in Rennes to redo the dating process. The results were as follows :
- the roofing of the nave :  each laboratory gave a different date with same probability : 1144 or 1191
- the buttresses and bracing for the nave are later than 1277 and earlier than 1312 (study only carried out by CEDRE)
- the bell tower was built later than 1411 (CEDRE)
- the roofing of the choir is 1216/1217 for CEDRE whereas Rennes considers that the samples do not permit dating
- the panelling is more difficult to date as it is extremely thin : around 1520-1565 (CEDRE)

Does the nave date back to 1144 or 1191 ? In his book (Ref. 2) Frédéric Epaud is clear: the appearance of the architectural characteristics of the nave (windows, buttresses, modillions etc)  dates back, according to him, to 1130/1150,  so 1144 is the correct date.

Among the Norman buildings whose original roofing beams have been dated, the church of Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais seems to be one of the oldest with a unity of style.                                                  

In the middle of the 12th century, the Norman architects created the first stone vaults. It was tempting to adapt the roof timbers which covered them to the same shape, to form a vaulted roof structure. But this posed problems for the roofers as each truss would have to contain several parts of beams linked together which were already curved or were shaped into curves. Frédéric Epaud mentions the church of Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais as the first one where this technique was successfully carried out (and which can still be seen today).

It seems, then, that the chapel was built in two periods separated by about 70 years. A century after it was constructed, it became necessary to strengthen the framework by bracing. At that time there was no church-tower: it was added in the 15th century.  The panelling was added a century later. Two windows were widened after the construction of the chapel, one in the choir the other in the nave. The chapel must have been quite dark with the small original windows. The choir window dates back to the 13th century, shortly after the construction was completed : it is a double or germinated window which fits in fairly well with the style of the chapel. However, the nave window in Flamboyant Gothic style is the only element which mars the beauty of this Romanesque ensemble.

Various elements which we have discussed here show that the chapel was maintained after it was constructed : the buttresses, the bell tower, the panelling, a picture and a crucifix all contributed to improving the fabric and the appearance of the chapel which was well maintained until the Revolution. The parish registers show that there was a priest and all the sacraments were carefully noted down.

Who was buried in the choir ?

To conclude, let us look at the tombstones and the recumbent statues in the choir which requires a mention of the Lords of Sainte-Marie-aux Anglais who came after the Sainte-Marie family mentioned above. The names of the two families appear several times and then are linked by marriage.

The de Drosay family 

In 1483, Jehan de Drosay, the Lord of Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais (also described as Sainte-Marie-en-Auge), attended the questioning of several criminals detained in Saint-Pierre-sur-Dives.  It seems likely that it was at this time that feudal motte of Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais on the side of the chapel was removed at the request of Madame de Drosay to permit a more comfortable castle to be built in the latest fashion, bearing the porcupine of Louis XII, who died in 1515.

In 1544 Jean de Drosay, Lord of Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais and a jurisconsult in Caen published a book about grammar as well as a legal work. In 1640 Pierre de Drosay was the squire and Lord of Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais, and the father of Madeleine de Drosay.

The de Mathan family

Jean de Mathan was a comrade in arms of William the Conqueror. His son was a Knight on the First Crusade. The genealogy of the family, who lived in Southern Normandy can be tracked. In 1637, César-Auguste de Mathan, knight and Lord of Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais was born.

The union of both family

In 1661, César-Auguste de Mathan married Madeleine de Drosay. They had 5 children.

The tombstone and the recumbent statues

Cesar-Auguste died on 15th February 1693. It is his tombstone we can see in the chapel, with the inscription  "Lord and patron of Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais". The patronage of the chapel then passed from the Sainte Marie family to the de Mathans who took advantage of their right to be buried in the choir. Madeleine died in 1712, the last remaining member of the de Drosay family. Their grandson, Claude de Mathan, who married in 1726, was still the Lord and patron of Sainte-Marie-aux-Anglais. It was probably his son, Pierre de Mathan, who gave the patronage to the priory of Sainte-Barbe-en-Auge around 1750. The priory had no spiritual life, but since 1609 had merely been a source of income.

In about 1905, Louis Régnier (Ref. 1) wrote that this tombstone was "in the middle of the flooring of the choir". This flooring has now gone, probably stolen, and the tombstone was put on the side.

The resting place of the two recumbent statues is more enigmatic ! It has been claimed that it was made after the construction of the chapel. We do not agree.  How could the painting of The Last Supper, done at the same time as the other paintings, have remained intact after this structural work.

The statues could well date from the end of the 13th century and seem to be by the same sculptor. His modelling is not particularly fine but there is a certain ‘freshness’ in both subjects who are smiling in death. So who are they ? Many commentators claim that is a knight and his lady. But Louis Régnier (Ref.1) observed that in the 13th century a woman would never have been depicted with a ‘short dress’ revealing some of her legs. The statue clearly has no bust and, according to Vincent Juhel, the person has a masculine hairstyle of the period, making him a member of the middle class or a young man.  However, this person is depicted holding a glove, a symbol of submission which (at least at that time !) was characteristic of a wife.  What can we conclude ? We could say that the sculptor was not a great artist who chose to ignore the usual artistic conventions and depicted a knight and his lady. Alternatively, since the church was constructed in two stages by two different Lords and patrons (perhaps the grandfather and his grandson), it is they who are buried there. Only one of them was a warrior and so the glove could be a symbol of respect towards his ancestor.

References :
1)    Louis Régnier, Bulletin de la Société des Antiquaires de Normandie  Vol. XXVII pp. 42 to 68.
2)    Frédéric Epaud,  "De la charpente romane à la charpente gothique" Publications du CRAHM,  Caen 2007.