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Visiting the Church of Saint-Martin, Bergues, France: repeatedly rebuilt following war damage

Updated on February 26, 2013
Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
Church of Saint-Martin, Bergues
Church of Saint-Martin, Bergues | Source
Saint Martin's church, Bergues
Saint Martin's church, Bergues | Source
Map location of Bergues in Dunkirk (Dunkerque) 'arrondissement'
Map location of Bergues in Dunkirk (Dunkerque) 'arrondissement' | Source

Dynamite and waves of damage

This originally Medieval church building has has a checkered history of repeated war damaged followed by rebuilding.

What is now French Flanders (French: la Flandre française) was very influenced by Flemish architectural styles in the Middle Ages. This building was originally designed as a hall church (French: église-halle or hallekerque): a three nave building, especially common in Flanders in the Middle Ages. The original three nave edifice is now a one-and-a half nave building.

During the religious conflicts of the 16th century, the building was badly damaged (1). Further damage was sustained in World War One. Interestingly, it was damaged on two separate occasions in World War Two: firstly, by German troops in 1940, when the structure was severely burned; then, on the day of the town's liberation in 1944, German troops decided to dynamite it! It is quite significant when one considers how transient, tactical advantage by one set of troops opposing another has repeatedly overridden heritage considerations borne of centuries.

While the south transept retains its Medieval character, part of the features of the repeated rebuilding of the church has been that its architects have evidently sought to 'improve' on the original design.

Whether objectively this has in fact happened I am not qualified to determine, but it does mean that 'what you see is what you get'. In any case, its monumental tower which — almost deceptively — looks as if it not attached to the main part of the building, continues to dominate the rooftops of this quaint, walled town. The Gothic element at the building is strong, with prominent flying buttresses and pointed window arching.

Given the preponderantly flat land around Bergues, the tower of the church of Saint Martin, together with the town's belfry, is a particularly prominent landmark.

Bergues is situated in the Nord department of France.

February 26, 2013


(1) Damage to this building is recorded as having been caused by French troops. Significantly, one should think of French troops in this locality in the Middle Ages as attackers rather than defenders! because the area was not incorporated into France until the 17th century. Interestingly also, similarly to what happened when Oliver Cromwell's troops visited many English parish churches in the Commonwealth period in the 17th century, a strong wave of Protestant iconoclasm swept through this area of Flanders now situated in northern France one century earlier.

Also worth seeing

In Bergues itself, other noted structures include its belfry and Town Hall, Saint-Winoc's Abbey remains and the town wall fortifications and gates.

Esquelbecq (distance: 10 kilometres) also has a hall church (see above); and a supposedly haunted château.


How to get there: United Airlines flies to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, where car rental is available, and the French SNCF railroad company maintains a service from Paris to Bergues (distance between Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport and Bergues: 262 kilometres). The nearest large international airport is Brussels Airport (Brussel-Nationaal / Bruxelles-National), where car rental is available (distance between Brussels Airport and Bergues: 173 kilometres). Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. You are advised to check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. You are also advised to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities is also advisable.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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