The Grosse Cloche “Big Bell” – a protected monument dating back to the Middle Ages
Saint-Eloy Gate where the bell is hung – also known as Saint-James – was built in the 15th century on the foundations of a former gateway bearing the same name. Dating back to the Middle Ages, a “big bell” has always featured in the gateway. For the local population, it will always symbolise Bordeaux, even in the 21st century.
Saint-Eloy Gate can be found at the intersection of cours Victor Hugo and rue Saint-James. The name Saint-James originally comes from Gascogny meaning Saint-Jacques, which refers to “Saint-Jacques de Compostelle” more commonly known as the Compostella de Santiago, or St. James’s Way, the famous pilgrimage route which takes in the famous gate along the way.
Located on the road leading to the market square, in Medieval times the gate was originally the path used to transport merchandise from the countryside to the town. Local residents even referred to it as the “Porte Nourricière” – the gate that feeds.
With six original towers, the gate served as a belfry and even a prison. In one of the towers, young offenders were locked away in the dungeon for misbehaving. The young prisoners jokingly called it “Golden Lion Hotel”, due to the copper lion featuring at the top of the gateway.
The “Big Bell” has always hung in the gateway. Much loved by the people of Bordeaux, it was even removed by King Henry II as a punishment for their revolt against the salt tax in 1548. Charles IX had the bell reinstated in 1561.
THE BIG BELL
In medieval times, the bell would chime to warn the population. It was used to announce the beginning of the grape harvest, to alert them of the danger of fire and as a call to arms.
The current bell was cast in 1775 by the founder Turmel, replacing the previous bell, created by Raymond Sudre in 1567, which cracked in the great fire of 1774. Weighing a colossal 7,800kg, it is 2m high and 2m wide. A latin inscription on the inside of the bell indicates its important mission to warn the people of Bordeaux:
“I ring the hours,
And my voice is a call to arms, (…)
I sing for happy events,
And weep for the dead”.
Given the risks of cracking largely as a result of its weight, the Big Bell now only rings 5 times a year for national holidays and major celebrations including New Year, July 14th, November 11th and August 28th to celebrate Bordeaux’s liberation in 1944.
The bell was recently restored and is now open to the public. The Tourist Office offers regular tours.