Architecture in France: the churches of the north east

Explore the fortified churches of La Thiérache.

22 June 2020
Discover the history behind the architecture of fortified churches in France. Pictured: Burelles, fortified part in brick, the older part in limestone.Discover the history behind the architecture of fortified churches in France. Pictured: Burelles, fortified part in brick, the older part in limestone.
By Jane Hanks

A remarkable concentration of fortified churches built, or transformed from existing churches, from 1531 to 1699 to protect villagers from marauding troops can be found in one area of France.

The diversity of French architecture

Parfondeval, Pays de Thiérache
Parfondeval, Pays de Thiérache

Sixty-eight churches in La Thiérache, a region of Aisne, in the north east, are still intact, and there is evidence of a further 13 which have since disappeared. All bear witness to an astonishing mix of ecclesiastical and military architecture. In many, you can clearly see the original church built in limestone and the additional fortress added on in brick.

The buildings are very different but were all clearly built for defence, with some or all of these characteristics: towers and turrets, machicolations, arrow slits, watchtowers and bretèches, through which hiding villagers could hurl stones at anyone attempting to enter the stronghold. They have rooms to hide and live in for days, with fireplaces for heat and cooking.

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The history behind the buildings

Parfondeval guard room, Pays de Thiérache
Parfondeval guard room, Pays de Thiérache

Joëlle Dervin has been studying the fortified churches for some years and says they were built during a period when there was fighting nearly every other year. She said: “This area was on the front line during the wars between France and Charles V’s empire. It was followed by the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Huguenots, and then war between France and Spain. There were occasional periods of peace when building could go ahead.”

She said churches were fortified when there was nowhere else for villagers to go. “The lords had their castles, but they were too small to shelter many people, and richer inhabitants fled to the towns. So the church and the aristocrats funded new additions to existing churches, or sometimes constructed new ones. They were built by experts brought in from other regions with labour supplied by the locals." 

“One village would warn another that troops were on their way by ringing the bells. This gave the inhabitants time to gather up their belongings, food, water and animals and take them to the church. There were rooms where the population could sleep and cook and the men would keep guard and defend the stronghold if necessary. The animals would be kept in the nave of the church. Usually they would stay for up to five days." 

“Soldiers ransacking the village were either employed by the enemy or even, sometimes, the king of France. Soldiers were paid very little and the only way they could survive was to steal and ransack homes. There was never enough room for all the villagers in the church and there is evidence that others had to hide in wooden shelters built in the surrounding forest.”

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Different types of churches

Plomion, photo from Office de Tourisme du Pays de Thiérache.
Plomion, photo from Office de Tourisme du Pays de Thiérache.

There are three types of fortified church. The most basic have a bell tower for the population and a few elements of defence, such as arrow slits. Others had more fortifications, including a watchtower, a bretèche, and a refuge with a chimney, latrine and small towers.

A good example is Saint Martin, in Burelles, which was fortified first in the middle of the 16th century and again in the 17th century. Visitors can clearly see the original building in limestone and additions in brick. It has turrets, arrow slits, and a large square bell tower in brick, with a large room on the first floor with a fireplace which was used as a refuge.

From the outside, you can also see a bretèche with a large opening through which objects could be thrown on any attempting invaders. Saint Médard at Prisces was built in the 12th century in limestone and had a tower built on as an annexe to the old church in the 16th century, which resembles a castle keep rather than a church tower. It is the tallest of all the fortified churches, standing at 25 metres, with arrow slits. Though the floors have since crumbled away, it is clear there would have been four levels.

The third category has the most extensive fortifications. Saint Médard, in Parfondeval, is one of these and does not seem to have been built on the remains of an old church. It was constructed as a new, fortified church from 1550 to 1560.

To get to the church, visitors pass under an arch built into one of the houses constructed at the same time. Inside, you can enter the room on the first floor where villagers would have taken shelter. Ms Dervin said that, by the 16th century, brick was the most widely used building material in the area. There was plenty of sand, which would have been brought into the villages for the bricks to be made on site.

Decorative and functional

Plomion, firing room in south-west turret.
Plomion, firing room in south-west turret.

Even though these buildings were to be functional, and no doubt had to be constructed as quickly as possible, the masons and architects still found ways of making them decorative: “The sand was rich in flint, which meant if some were baked at too high a temperature, they would become vitrified, which changed their colour and gave them a glass-like quality. These bricks would be put to one side and then used to create a design, which could be a geometrical shape, such as a heart, or even people.”

There are examples at Notre-Dame in Plomion, which has some of the most sophisticated defences in the region. The walls of the brick fortifications built on to the original 17th-century building are decorated with geometric motifs.

There is a square keep tower flanked on two sides by circular towers and a watchtower. More than 60 arrow slits meant it could be defended from every angle. On the first floor, there is a refuge and in front of the door there is a funnel down which someone from above could have thrown rocks or burning liquid.

From the window of the guardroom, you can see the neighbouring church, allowing communication between the two. The church is under restoration and eventually the public will be able to visit the rooms where the villagers took refuge.

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Guided tours and visits

Visitors can go on guided tours of the fortified churches organised by the tourist office. For information, see the website: tourisme-thierache.fr.

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