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Soissons Travel Guide

Abbey of St-Jean-des Vignes in Soissons (© Claudio Giovanni Colombo - iStockphoto.com)
Abbey of St-Jean-des Vignes in Soissons.

Introduction

Soissons (Noviodunum, or Augusta Suessionum in Latin ; pop. 29,500) is one of the most ancient towns of northern France. Capital of its own kingdom for about 100 years, it became a major medieval city before falling into near oblivion for centuries. Soissons is well-known among French people for the story of the Vase of Soissons (see frame below).


History

The town probably started as the capital of the Suessiones, a Celtic tribe of Belgian Gaul. It was known to the Romans as "Noviodunum", meaning "new hillfort". It was renamed "Augusta Suessionum" under Emperor Augustus.

From 457 to 486, under Aegidius and his son Syagrius, the town was the capital of the Domain of Soissons, an independent province of the Western Roman Empire, until it fell to the Frankish king Clovis I in the Battle of Soissons (486).

After Clovis' death, his four sons split the Merovingian kingdom between each others, and Soissons became the capital of Clotaire I. Through diplomacy, warmongering, and murder of his relatives, Clotaire managed to become the king of all the territories conquered by father by 555, but the kingdom is divided again at his death (in 561) by his three sons. The Frankish kingdom was eventually reunified in 613 under Clotaire II, and apart for a brief period between 639 and 673 (Neustria-Austrasia division), it remained unified until the split of Charlemagne's Empire in 843.

In 751, Pepin the Short is anoited King of the Franks in Soissons by (Saint) Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz.

Cathédrale Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais, Soissons (photo by Thbz - Creative Commons Licence)
Cathédrale Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais, Soissons.

In 978, the King of France Lothair (941-986) provoked a war with his cousin, Emperor Otto II the Red. Lothair invaded the Duchy of Lotharingia, devastated as much as he could, then returned to Paris. Otto then came with an army of 60,000, went on a rampage in Reims, Laon and Soissons, and marched toward Paris. Satisfied with his revenge, he started retreating home. This is when Lothair, allied with Hugh Capet, followed the imperial army until Soissons, where they set camp before crossing the River Aisne. Most of the troops crossed the river before nightfall, leaving only the loot, the servants and a few hundred soldiers behind. At dawn, the cavalry of Lothair fell on them, and most were forced to jump into the river in flood and perished, drowned. Otto then asked Lothair to choose a proper battlefield, but they didn't really fight, and the French chased the Germans all the way back to the Ardennes.

The County of Soissons was created in 969, with Guy as first count. The county passed through various noble families, including, since the 15th century, the Bar, the Luxembourg, the Bourbon, and the Savoy. The last Count of Soissons, Eugène-Jean-François de Savoie-Carignan, who died heirless at the age of 20 in 1734.

Soissons experienced an economical and artistic golden age in the 12th and 13th centuries. After that, the town went into a steady decline. Around 1800, it was merely a big village of 7,000 inhabitants.

The Vase of Soissons

The bishop begging Clovis to return the Vase of Soissons (15th century engraving)

The Vase of Soissons was a semi-legendary sacred vase that was held in a church in Soissons during the end of the Western Roman Empire.

According to the writings of Gregory of Tours (c. 538-594), who wrote a century after the vase was presumably destroyed, the vase was of extraordinary beauty and value.

The army of Clovis, who had not yet converted to Christianity, was wont to plunder churches. This is how the vase of Soissons, along with other holy ornaments, came to be seized by soldiers in the pillage that followed the Battle of Soissons.

The local bishop (in latter versions of the story identified as Saint Remigius, the bishop of Reims) then sent an emissary to Clovis, begging that if the church might not recover anything else, at least this holy vessel might be restored. Clovis agreed, for reasons which remain unknown, as he would not convert to Christianity until 10 years later, at the request of his wife.

Clovis reviewed his troops gathered around the booty at his camp in Soissons. He then asked his brave warriors to give him the vase in addition his rightful part of the booty. The soldiers replied that everything there was his, and that they were subjected to his authority. One soldier of bad character, however, disagreed and shattered the vase with his battle-axe and said "You will get what fate will really give you". Clovis at first didn't react to this event - although his pride may have been hurt by this act of disobedience.

At the end of the year, Clovis reviewing his troops again recognised the barefaced warrior who broke the vase. Reproaching his neglected outfit , he took the man's weapons and threw them on the grounds. The soldier cheekily bent down to pick them up, and Clovis, not bearing this new act of defiance, took his own axe and smashed his skull saying "That is for the vase of Soissons !". The soldier's body was left to rot in the open, to serve as an example for others.

Attractions

Saint-Jean-des-Vignes, Soissons

The historic heritage of Soissons is chiefly religious, with four medieval abbeys, and a Gothic cathedral. The only major non-religious sight is the gorgeous town hall.

The Cathedral Saint-Gervais & Saint-Protais marks the centre of the city. Erected from 1175 in classical Gothic style, it took two centuries to complete.

The town's most compelling sight is undoubtedly the ruins of the Abbey of Saint-Jean des Vignes. Its spires are in fact taller and more impressive than those of the cathedral. The abbey was founded in 1076 on a hilltop. The construction of the facade started in the 12th century and lasted until the 16th century ! Fortunately, it hasn't been destroyed like the body of the church.

Saint Léger Abbey was founded 1139, and rebuilt from 1200. It now houses the municipal museum.

The so-called Square Saint-Pierre is the only remaining part of one of the largest female monastery in northern France : the Abbey of Our Lady. Founded between 659 and 666, it comprised three churches: Saint-Pierre-au-parvis, Sainte-Geneviève, and Notre-Dame ("Our Lady"). It was destroyed during the French Revolution, and only parts of Saint-Pierre are left nowadays.

Our Lady is not the only casualty of the French Revolution. Only the crypt of Saint Medard Abbey has survived the furies of the revolutionaries. It was the oldest abbey in the region, founded by Clotaire I, some 1,500 years ago.

How to get there

Soissons is located at the junction of the N2 road between Paris (110km) and Laon (35km) and the E46 between Reims (60km) and Beauvais (100km).

Trains from Paris Nord take 1 hour to 1h20min (14.70 €), while those from Laon make the journey in about half an hour (6.10 €). Trains from Reims require a change at Laon. Those from Beauvais must transit by Paris.

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