The town hall
|Intercommunality||Pays de Saint-Omer|
|o Mayor (2014-2020)||François Decoster|
|16.4 km2 (6.3 sq mi)|
|o Density||930/km2 (2,400/sq mi)|
|Time zone||UTC+01:00 (CET)|
|o Summer (DST)||UTC+02:00 (CEST)|
|Elevation||0-27 m (0-89 ft) |
(avg. 6 m or 20 ft)
|1 French Land Register data, which excludes lakes, ponds, glaciers > 1 km2 (0.386 sq mi or 247 acres) and river estuaries.|
It is a commune and sub-prefecture of the Pas-de-Calais department 68 km (42 mi) west-northwest of Lille on the railway to Calais. The town is named after Saint Audomar, who brought Christianity to the area.
The canalised portion of the river Aa begins at Saint-Omer, reaching the North Sea at Gravelines in northern France. Below its walls, the Aa connects with the Neufossé Canal, which ends at the River Lys.
Saint-Omer first appeared in the writings during the 7th century under the name of Sithiu (Sithieu or Sitdiu), around the Saint-Bertin abbey founded on the initiative of Audomar, Odemaars or Omer).
Omer, bishop of Thérouanne, in the 7th century established the Abbey of Saint Bertin, from which that of Notre-Dame was an offshoot. Rivalry and dissension, which lasted till the French Revolution, soon sprang up between the two monasteries, becoming especially virulent when in 1559 St Omer became a bishopric and Notre-Dame was raised to the rank of cathedral.
In the 9th century, the village that grew up round the monasteries took the name of St Omer. The Normans laid the place waste about 860 and 880. Ten years later the town and monastery had built fortified walls and were safe from their attack. Situated on the borders of territories frequently disputed by French, Flemish, English and Spaniards, St Omer for most of its history continued to be subject to sieges and military invasions.
In 932 Arnulf of Flanders conquered the County of Artois and Saint-Omer (Sint-Omaars in Dutch) became part of the County of Flanders for the next three centuries. In 1071 Philip I and the teenage Count Arnulf III of Flanders were defeated at St Omer by Arnulf's uncle and former protector, Robert the Frisian, who subsequently became the Count of Flanders until his death in 1093.
Along with its textile industry, St-Omer flourished in the 12th and 13th century. In 1127 the town received a communal charter from the count, William Clito, becoming the first town in West Flanders with city rights. Later on the city lost its leading position in the textile industry to Brugge. After the mysterious death of Count Baldwin I, the County of Flanders was weakened. In 1214 Philip II of France captured Baldwin's daughter Joan and her husband Ferdinand, Count of Flanders and forced them to sign the Treaty of Pont-à-Vendin, in which Artois was yielded to France. Ferdinand did not take this lying down, and allied with Emperor Otto IV and John, King of England, he battled Philip II at Bouvines, but was defeated. Despite the political separation for the next 170 years, the city remained part of the economic network of Flanders.
In 1340 a large battle was fought in the town's suburbs between an Anglo-Flemish army and a French one under Eudes IV, Duke of Burgundy, in which the Anglo-Flemish force was forced to withdraw. From 1384, St-Omer was part of the Burgundian Netherlands, from 1482 of the Habsburg Netherlands and from 1581 to 1678 of the Spanish Netherlands.
The French made futile attempts against the town between 1551 and 1596. During the Thirty Years' War, the French attacked in 1638 (under Cardinal Richelieu) and again in 1647. Finally in 1677, after a seventeen-day siege, Louis XIV forced the town to capitulate. The peace of Nijmegen signed in the fall of 1678 permanently confirmed the conquest and its annexation by France. In 1711, St-Omer was besieged by the Duke of Marlborough. On the verge of surrendering because of famine, Jacqueline Robin risked her life to bring provisions into the town, in memory of which in 1884 a large statue of her was erected in front of the cathedral.
The College of Saint Omer was established in 1593 by Fr Robert Persons SJ, an English Jesuit, to educate English Catholics. After the Protestant Reformation, England had established penal laws against Catholic education in the country. The college operated in St Omer until 1762, when it migrated to Bruges and then to Liège in 1773. It finally moved to England in 1794, settling at Stonyhurst, Lancashire. Former students of the College of Saint Omer include John Carroll, his brother Daniel and his cousin Charles.
During World War I on 8 October 1914, the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) arrived in Saint-Omer and a headquarters was established at the aerodrome next to the local race course. For the following four years, Saint-Omer was a focal point for all RFC operations in the field. Although most squadrons only used Saint-Omer as a transit camp before moving on to other locations, the base grew in importance as it increased its logistic support to the RFC. Many Royal Air Force squadrons can trace their roots to formation at Saint-Omer during this period. Among which are No. IX Squadron RAF which was formed at Saint-Omer, 14 December 1914 and No. 16 Squadron RAF which was formed on 10 February 1915.
During World War II, the Luftwaffe used the airfield. When the RAF's legless Battle of Britain ace, Douglas Bader, parachuted from his Spitfire during an aerial battle over France, he was initially treated at a Luftwaffe hospital at Saint-Omer. He had lost an artificial leg when bailing out, and the RAF dropped him another one during a bombing raid.
The fortifications (which had been improved by Vauban in the 17th century) were demolished during the last decade of the 19th century, and boulevards and new thoroughfares built in their place. A section of the ramparts remains intact on the western side of the town, converted into a park known as the jardin public (public garden). There are two harbours outside the city and another within its limits. Saint-Omer has wide streets and spacious squares.
The old cathedral was constructed almost entirely in the 13th, 14th and centuries. A heavy square tower finished in 1499 surmounts the west portal. The church contains Biblical paintings, a colossal statue of Christ seated between the Virgin Mary and St John (13th century, originally belonging to the cathedral of Thérouanne and presented by the emperor Charles V), the cenotaph of Saint Audomare (Omer) (13th century) and numerous ex-votos. The richly decorated chapel in the transept contains a wooden figure of the Virgin (12th century), the object of pilgrimages. Of St Bertin church, part of the abbey (built between 1326 and 1520 on the site of previous churches) where Childeric III retired to end his days, there remain some arches and a lofty tower, which serve to adorn a public garden. Several other churches or convent chapels are of interest, among them St Sepulchre (14th century), which has a beautiful stone spire and stained-glass windows. The cathedral has a huge Cavaillé-Coll organ, which is still playable.
A collection of records, a picture gallery, and a theatre are all situated in the town hall, built of the materials from the abbey of St Bertin. Several houses date from the 16th and 17th centuries. The Hôtel Colbert, once the royal lodging, is now occupied by an archaeological museum. The military hospital occupies the former English College, founded by the English Jesuits in 1593. It is now part of the Lycée Alexandre Ribot. Besides the Lycée, there are schools of music and of art.
The old episcopal palace adjoining the cathedral is used as a court-house. Saint-Omer is the seat of a court of assizes and tribunals, of a chamber of commerce, and of a board of trade arbitration.
The industries include the manufacture of linen goods, sugar, soap, tobacco pipes, and mustard, the distilling of oil and liqueurs, dyeing, salt-refining, malting and brewing and fresh frogs and snails for sale at the market.
At the end of the marsh, on the borders of the forest of Clairmarais, are the ruins of the abbey founded in 1140 by Thierry of Alsace. Thomas Becket sought refuge here in 1165. To the south of Saint-Omer, on a hill commanding the Aa, lies the camp of Helfaut, often called the camp of Saint-Omer.
On the Canal de Neufossé, near the town, is the Ascenseur des Fontinettes, a hydraulic lift which once raised and lowered canal boats to and from the Aa, over a height of 12m. This was replaced in 1967 by a large lock.
During the Second World War, the area was chosen as a launch site for the V-2 rocket. The nearby blockhouse at Éperlecques and underground complex of La Coupole were built for this purpose and are open to the public.
Saint-Omer is diverse in ethnic, linguistic and immigrant communities. Haut-Pont is a heavily West Flemish section of Saint-Omer which has Flemish/Belgian roots. In the Southeast of the cathedral is a newly formed Turkish neighborhood; the majority of the local Turks are members of the Christian faith (i.e. Greek Orthodox or of ethnic Greek origin, Eastern Rite and Catholic converts), who arrived in France after World War I to escape religious persecution. Genealogists have noted the many cultural influences in the area, including British, Dutch, German, Austrian, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak and Polish. It is believed the region's mining and glass manufacturing industries contributed to a revived post-war (WWI and WWII era) population.
The public library of Saint-Omer holds, in its rare books section, one of the three French copies of the 42-line Gutenberg Bible, originally from the library of the Abbey of Saint Bertin. The other two copies are in Paris. In November 2014, a previously unknown Shakespeare First Folio was found in a public library in Saint-Omer. The book had lain undisturbed in the library for 200 years. The first 30 pages were missing. A number of experts assisted in authenticating the folio, which also had a name, "Neville", written on the first surviving page, indicating that it may have once been owned by Edward Scarisbrick. Scarisbrick had fled England due to anti-Catholic repression and attended Saint-Omer College, a Jesuit institution. Confirmation of its authenticity came from a professor at the University of Nevada and one of the world's foremost authorities on Shakespeare, Eric Rasmussen, who happened to be in London at the time. The only other known copy of a First Folio in France is in the National Library in Paris.
Saint Omer is twinned with: