Before the current church
In the 3rd century, there was a Gallo-Roman bathhouse at this location, which burned during the Germanic invasion around 275 (there are also suspicions of the earlier presence of a menhir).
Saint Firmin, who came to evangelize the region, was arrested and then released from prison by the city’s inhabitants. He decided to build a church dedicated to Saint Étienne on the site of his detention. This church was likely an important place of worship, especially since in 982, it held the relics of Saint Vaast (Bishop of Arras) for 12 years. Saint Vaast was believed to have performed numerous miracles in the region. However, in 1180, a severe fire devastated the city and seriously damaged the church…
The Romanesque church from the 12th century
After the fire, a decision was made to rebuild a new church in the 12th century. Today, we can see the nave and the transept. The choir from that period no longer exists. According to excavations, it was 25 meters long and 18 meters wide. Smaller than the current choir, but in harmony with the nave.
An important place for the city
The solemn moments of the city take place against the north arm of the transept, on a platform called the ‘tribune aux harangues’ (the tribune for speeches). Saint-Étienne Church also had a cemetery on its north side, which has since disappeared. There are not many documents concerning the church from the 12th to the 16th century. It seems that the building did not suffer much during the Hundred Years’ War. Life around the building was very prosperous, especially in the drapery industry. At the end of the 14th century, the municipality installed a clock and a bell in the bell tower (now disappeared) at the crossing of the transept. The lives of artisans were thus punctuated by it. The clock and the bell remained in place until the Revolution.
The reconstruction of the choir in the 16th century
Like in many cities, it’s a period of reconstruction in Beauvais. New churches emerge, and the cathedral is equipped with its transept. Saint-Étienne Church can’t lag behind. A new choir is constructed in a Flamboyant Gothic style, as was the practice at the time. The construction begins around the perimeter in 1506, and then the high altar in 1522. The project is overseen by Michel de Lalict, the same person who completed the transept of the cathedral.
In this bourgeois neighborhood, the new chapels quickly become more beautiful. Sumptuous stained glass windows are installed. The construction ends with the installation of an imposing rood screen and an enclosure that confines the choir so that the canons feel at home.
From the 17th century to the eve of the Revolution
In 1579, with the construction of the new choir, the stability of the bell tower located at the crossing of the transept became a concern. Significant work was undertaken to demolish and rebuild the two large pillars at the east end of the transept. It was also decided to erect a monumental tower in the place of the first two bays of the north nave. In 1672, the old bell tower, even after reconstruction, was still not safe due to the deteriorated stones. The bell tower was therefore dismantled, and the bells were transferred to the tower. By 1674, the work was completed. The dream of a new nave was consequently forgotten!
In the 18th century, efforts were made to enhance the building. Repairs were also necessary for the significant damage caused to the choir by a violent hurricane in 1702. In 1731, the rood screen, considered unsuitable, was replaced by a grille, and the walls surrounding the choir were removed. In 1774, the high altar, as seen today, was installed. Following a royal order to relocate cemeteries away from city centers, the cemetery of the Saint-Étienne church, the largest and oldest in Beauvais, was abolished.
From the French Revolution to today
During the French Revolution, the church of Saint-Étienne did not escape the war against religious buildings. In 1792, the “tribune aux harangues” (a raised platform for public speaking) was demolished, the bells were melted down, the furniture and statues were vandalized, and the dome of the tower was demolished without care. Eventually, the church was transformed into a storage space for forage and oats. A door was pierced under the Tree of Jesse stained glass window, destroying its lower part. The collapse of the Rose window in the choir led to damage to the roof above the chapel of the Virgin.
The church was not restored for worship until 1796. An organ and two small bells from the old St. Sauveur church were recovered. The building also received a smaller organ from an abbey. However, significant restorations required a substantial amount of money.
In the 19th century, Louis Graves, a local archaeologist from Beauvais, proposed to the Commission of Historical Monuments to classify the church, which was officially done on April 25, 1846. It would still take until 1892 for funds to be allocated to carry out the most urgent repairs.
Following the damage from the 1940 bombing, the stained glass windows that had been protected were reinstalled, and restorations were carried out.