Located 50 kilometers southwest of Rouen in the Eure department, the site of the Abbey Le Bec Hellouin is one of the unsung cradles of Christian power in France, as well as for England. Indeed, it is quite remarkable that this abbey has produced three of the archbishops of Canturbury, two of whom were also very influential in the affairs of England.
The term Bec means stream, and Hellouin is a reference to the knight of Herluin who served the count of Brienne, a local lord. The knight of Herluin had a religious enlightenment at the end of his life and decided to create an abbey around 1034. The place was to become the heart of religious life in the region, and a major site in France. Among the reasons why the site was chosen in the recently pacified Normandy, which was now a dukedom, were the excellent weather conditions that it enjoyed: abundant rain for the crops, few storms, and no floods. It was ideal for sustaining a community of monks.
Aerial view of the Abbey
Let us not forget we are in the land of Vikings, around the time of William the Conqueror. The Normans created here an abbey church in the Benedictine style and it was bigger than Notre Dame de Paris! The church itself was demolished at the time of the French Revolution, and its stones were used for the purpose of building other structures. Today we can still see the surrounding walls, which are about 2 miles long and twelve feet tall.
Two other notable figures passed through Le Bec Hellouin: Pope Alexander II studied there around 1050. Another was Anselme, who came from Aoste in Italy, and who became Abbot of Le Bec before later going on to become the archbishop in Canterbury in 1093.
Today the church of the abbey is located in the ancient dining room of the site, a room that is remarkable due to its extraordinary dimensions. Many areas built after the middle ages still exist and they display the grace and splendour of what was one of the central religious organs of France. One of the most important ones is the collossal bell tower, the tower of St Nicolas, which dates from the 15th century, and which reminds one, in a way, of the St. Jacques bell tower in the Châtelet, in the center of Paris.
The church of the Abbey, located in the former refectory,
a reminder of the importance of the site in old times.
One of the buildings of the modern era, in the most impeccable classical style, dating from 1644-1666
Visiting the Abbey le Bec Hellouin even today is a voyage through time, and an immersion in a site which is undoubtedly replete with a soothing and peaceful aura. It affords a trip out of time to a place full of wonder. As a matter of fact, the Bec Hellouin village and its half timbered houses also hosts another haven, the Bec Hellouin Farm, which is today perhaps the most important agro-ecological farm in France, a pioneer site for organic food and a pilot site for new garden dispositions and mixed-crop cultivation. No doubt the site was chosen for its optimal growing conditions, which can still be found in Le Bec Hellouin. The village is also often chosen among the Hundred Most Beautiful Villages of France, no mean accomplishment in its own right.
A closer look at the Saint Nicolas bell tower dating of the second part of the 1400’s