Le Chene Chapelle: The Ancient Oak Tree Chapel as Old As France Itself
I will tell you where they are. …, they are already in their home under the ground, a very delightful residence of which we shall see a good deal presently. But how have they reached it? for there is no entrance to be seen, not so much as a large stone, which if rolled away, would disclose the mouth of a cave. Look closely, however, and you may note that there are here seven large trees, each with a hole in its hollow trunk as large as a boy. These are the seven entrances to the home under the ground, for which Hook has been searching in vain these many moons. Will he find it tonight?
– J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan
In J. M. Barrie’s most famous work, Peter Pan , the eponymous character’s hideout is depicted as an underground home accessed through the hollow of one of seven large trees. The notion that one is able to access an underground lair by stepping into the hollow of a tree is indeed the stuff of bed time stories and fairy tales. In France, however, there exists an equally fanciful tree – an ancient oak that is home to not one, but two ancient chapels in its hollowed-out center.
The Chêne Chapelle (meaning the ‘chapel oak’) is located in Allouville-Bellefosse, a commune in the Seine-Maritime department of the Upper Normandy region, France. According to the locals, the oak tree is old as the nation of France itself, and was already in existence during the reign of Charlemagne in the 9 th century A.D. It is also said that in 1035, William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England, had knelt at the base of this oak, perhaps on the occasion of his succession to the Dukedom of Normandy. Although local tradition states that the oak is about 1200 years old, scientists claim that the tree is probably closer to 800 years old. Nevertheless, it remains the oldest known tree in France today.
18th century engraving of the Chapel Oak ( Wikipedia)
It was only in the 1600s that the oak tree became the Chêne Chapelle. During that period, the tree was struck by lightning and was burnt right through the center, thus forming a hollow. The oak, however, survived, and even came to the attention of the local abbot, Du Detroit and the village priest, Father Du Cerceau. The two men interpreted the hollowing of the oak as a sign from God, and decided to build a sanctuary in it. Thus, a shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary, known as the Notre Dame de la Paix (meaning ‘Our Lady of Peace’) was built directly into the hollow of the tree. Later on, a small chapel, known as the Chambre de l'Ermite (meaning ‘House of the Hermit’) was added. This chapel was accessible via a staircase on the outside of the tree.
A staircase winds around le Chêne Chapelle. Credit: P. Biron
During the French Revolution towards the end of the 18 th century, the Chêne Chapelle was regarded as a symbol of the Ancien Régime . A mob inspired by the Revolution eventually arrived and threatened to burn down the Chêne Chapelle. An ingenious local, however, quickly renamed the chapel as the ‘temple of reason’, in accordance with the ideals of the Revolution. Thanks to this local’s wit, the Chêne Chapelle was spared from the mob.
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Today, the centuries old tree is showing signs of aging and decay. Parts of the tree are now dead, and its crown is shrinking every year. The tree is now supported by internal as well as external poles and cables. Additionally, in places where the bark has fallen away, it is now covered by a protective layer of oak shingles.
A protective layer of oak shingles now cover the tree. Credit: P. Biron
Despite all this, mass is still held twice a year in the Chêne Chapelle, and this landmark remains the destination of an annual pilgrimage in conjunction with the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which falls on the 15 th of August. Whilst the tree itself probably may not live much longer, it will likely continue existing as an important symbol in people’s minds, especially those of the people of Allouville-Bellefosse.
Featured image: The Chêne Chapelle . Photo source: Wikimedia.