Tour de Beurre, Rouen Cathedral


Rouen’s most prestigious monument, the lofty and imposing cathedral, is one of the most exquisite pieces of pure Flamboyant work existing. The magnificent and lofty Tour de Beurre is one of the three mighty towers that make the cathedral of Rouen one of the country’s most stunning sanctuaries. As the southern tower of the West front, the Tour de Beurre is a luxuriant specimen of Flamboyant Gothic architecture with pinnacles, gables and statues on every side topped by a beautiful crown of open stone-work.

Construction of the Tour de Beurre

The Tour de Beurre is more recent than the Tour Saint-Romain to which it was built to counterbalance the West front of Rouen Cathedral. Like its counterpart, the Tour de Beurre was not built above the side-aisles of the nave.

The laying of the foundation stone took place on the 10th November 1485 by Robert de Croismare, then archbishop of Rouen.

Work was first led by architect Guillaume Pontif and then by Jacques le Roux who completed the tower in 1506. During the construction a small land subsidence made the tower shift southwards, making it necessary to remodelled the central portal of the West Front. In 1507 the tower was consecrated by Rouen archbishop, Georges d’Amboise. The clergyman was so delighted by the new tower that he choose it to house the largest bell in France.

The tower was built following a squared plan and comprises of four square-plan levels adorned with statues, pinnacles, gargoyles and gables on every side. The statues are amazing, especially those on the eastern side, which are inspired by the legend of Ara Coeli.

The Crown of the Tour de Beurre

The tower’s last level is a Gothic marvel as it transforms the squared plan to a refined octogonal balustrade of open stone-work. One characteristic of Flamboyant Gothic style, the ‘crown’ is more yellowness than the rest of the tower. While the bell tower was built with white stones from the quarry of Caumont near Rouen, the crown was designed with stones from the quarry of Saint-Maximin in the Oise Valley. One might think that the ‘crown’ was sculpted through butter. This is one of the reasons why the tower is called ‘Tour de Beurre’ (Butter Tower).

The other reason behind the name of the tower is a religious one. In the Middle-Ages, the consumption of butter was banned during Lent. For parishioners who hoped to escape the drastic religious rule, permission was given for them to keep on eating ‘fat’ in return for a donation of six Livres Tournois. The purchase of such indulgences was granted by Pope Innocent VIII. The construction of the Tour de Beurre cost 24,750 Livres Tournois.

In 1499 as the bell tower was near completion, there was animated discussion on how to top the tower. In the mind of the hardliners a stone spire was in their favour following the Gothic tradition whilst the modern thinkers supported a crown. Considering the divergent opinions expressed in stormy debates, the deterioration of finances and the contention with the architect, construction stopped momentarily. In 1505 an agreement was found and decision was taken to end the tower with a spire – which was never built. Eventually the elaborated terrace – the crown – was placed on top of the Tour de Beurre.

The Carillon of the Tour de Beurre

The tower houses one of the biggest carillons of France. In 1914 it had 29 bells and was later enlarged by the Paccard Bell Foundry in Annecy to include 64 bells. In 2015-2016, the carillon is being restored by Paccard, including the largest bell, the bourdon Jeanne d’Arc, weighing 10 metric tonnes. According to Paccard, the carillon of Rouen will be France’s second largest one after the carillon found in Castle of the Dukes of Savoy, Chambéry (70 bells).

Interior of the Tour de Beurre

The ground floor of the Tour de Beurre is occupied by a chapel: ‘Saint-Étienne-la-Grande-Église’. Accessed from the south side aisle, it stands on the site of two older chapels (1275), Saint-Jacques and Saint-Christophe built prior to the edification of the Tour de Beurre. The chapel houses two recumbent statues from the 17th century: Claude Groulard (first president of the Parliament of Normandy) and his wife Barbe Guiffard.

Several headstones adorn the chapel: Denis Gastinel (1440) a canon of the cathedral who was one of Joan of Arc’s judges, Nichole Sarrazin (1505), Inguerran d’Étrépagny (13th century), Nichole Gibouin (1320), Étienne de Sens (1282), and the headstone of the three ‘Innocents of Les Andelys’ who were hanged in 1625.

The lofty vaulted room features some beautiful stained-glass windows from the 16th century.

Part of the ground floor is used as a souvenir store. The chapel can be accessed from the South side aisles of the cathedral.

Facts about the Tour de Beurre

The Tour de Beurre is the third highest tower of Rouen Cathedral after the Lantern Tower and Tour Saint-Romain at a height of 77 metres above ground level. At the time of its completion in the early 16th century, it was Rouen’s tallest building and overlooked the Seine harbour and the trading districts of the local bourgeoisie. The city of Rouen regarded the lofty tower as a matter of pride just as the people of Strasbourg did regarding their cathedral’s spire (which was back then the tallest building in the world).

The Tour de Beurre bears some resemblance with another iconic landmark in Rouen: the lantern tower of the Abbey Church of Saint-Ouen, also nicknamed the Crown of Normandy.

The best views of the Tour de Beurre are from the Place de la Cathédrale, rue du Change and the viewpoint of Côte Sainte-Catherine.

The Tour de Beurre stood untouched from the Allied bombing in 1944 unlike the Tour Saint-Romain who was unfortunately damaged by the air-raid.

The Tour de Beurre partly inspired the architects of Tribune Tower, Chicago for the design of the 141 metre high skyscraper. The Tribune Tower in turn was a source of inspiration for the construction of two buildings in Australia: the Grace Building in Sydney and the Manchester Unity Building in Melbourne.


Find out more about Rouen Cathedral.


About Author

Pierre is a French/Australian who is passionate about France and its culture. He grew up in France and Germany and has also lived in Australia and England. In 2014 he moved back to Europe from Sydney with his wife and daughter to be closer to their families and to France. He has a background teaching French and holds a Master of Translating and Interpreting English-French with the degree of Master of International Relations and a degree of Economics and Management.

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