LAON, a town of northern France, capital of the department of Aisne, 87 m. N.E. of Paris on the Northern railway. Pop. (1906), town, 9787, commune (including troops) 15,288. It is situated on an isolated ridge, forming two sides of a triangle, which rises some 330 ft. above the surrounding plain and the little river of Ardon. The suburbs of St Marcel and Vaux extend along the foot of the ridge to the north. From the railway station, situated in the plain to the north, a straight staircase of several hundred steps leads to the gate of the town, and all the roads connecting Laon with the surrounding district are cut in zigzags on the steep slopes, which are crowned by promenades on the site of the old ramparts. The 13th-century gates of Ardon, Chenizelles and Soissons, the latter in a state of ruin, have been preserved. At the eastern extremity of the ridge rises the citadel; at its apex is the parade-ground of St Martin, and at the southern end stands the ancient abbey of St Vincent. The deep depression between the arms of the ridge, known as the Cuve St Vincent, has its slopes covered with trees, vegetable gardens and vineyards. From the promenade along the line of the ramparts there is an extensive view northward beyond St Quentin, westward to the forest of St Gobain, and southward over the wooded hills of the Laonnais and Soissonnais.
The cathedral of Laon (see ARCHITECTURE, Romanesque and Gothic Architecture in France) is one of the most important creations of the art of the 12th and 13th centuries. It took the place of the old cathedral, burned at the beginning of the communal struggles mentioned below. The building is cruciform, and the choir terminates in a straight wall instead of in an apse. Of the six towers flanking the facades, only four are complete to the height of the base of the spires, two at the west front with hugh figures of oxen beneath the arcades of their upper portion, and one at each end of the transept. A square central tower forms a lantern within the church. The west front, with three porches, the centre one surmounted by a fine rose window, ranks next to that of Notre-Dame at Paris in purity. The cathedral has stained glass of the 13th century and a choir grille of the 18th century. The chapter-house and the cloister contain beautiful specimens of the architecture of the beginning of the 13th century. The old episcopal palace, contiguous to the cathedral, is now used as a court-house. The front, flanked by turrets, is pierced by great pointed windows. There is also a Gothic cloister and an old chapel of two storeys, of a date anterior to the cathedral. The church of St Martin dates from the middle of the 12th century. The old abbey buildings of the same foundation are now used as the hospital. The museum of Laon had collections of sculpture and painting. In its garden there is a chapel of the Templars belonging to the 12th century. The church of the suburb of Vaux near the railway station dates from the nth and 12th centuries. Numerous cellars of two or three storeys have taken the place of the old quarries in the hill-side. Laon forms with La Fere and Reims a triangle of important fortresses. Its fortifications consist of an inner line of works on the eminence of Laon itself, and two groups of detached forts, one some 25 m. S.E. about the village of Bruyeres, the other about 3 m. W.S.W., near Laniscourt. To the S.S.W. forts Malmaison and Conde connect Laon with the Aisne and with Reims.
Laon is the seat of a prefect and a court of assizes, and possesses a tribunal of first instance, a lycee for boys, a college for girls, a school of agriculture and training colleges. Sugar-making and metal-founding are carried on, but neither industry nor trade, which is in grain and wine, are of much importance.
The hilly district of Laon (Laudunum) has always had some strategic importance. In the time of Caesar there was a Gallic village where the Remi (inhabitants of the country round Reims) had to meet the onset of the confederated Belgae. Whatever may have been the precise locality of that battlefield, Laon was fortified by the Romans, and successively checked the invasions of the Franks, Burgundians, Vandals, Alani and Huns. St Remigius, the archbishop of Reims who baptized Clovis, was born in the Laonnais, and it was he who, at the end of the 5th century, instituted the bishopric of the town. Thenceforward Laon was one of the principal towns of the kingdom of the Franks, and the possession of it was often disputed. Charles the Bald had enriched its church with the gift of very numerous domains. After the fall of the Carolingians Laon took the part of Charles of Lorraine, their heir, and Hugh Capet only succeeded in making himself master of the town by the connivance of the bishop, who, in return for this service, was made second ecclesiastical peer of the kingdom. Early in the 12th century the communes of France set about emancipating themselves, and the history of the commune of Laon is one of the richest and most varied. The citizens had profited by a temporary absence of Bishop Gaudry to secure from his representatives a communal charter, but he, on his return, purchased from the king of France the revocation of this document, and recommenced his oppressions. The consequence was a revolt, in which the episcopal palace was burnt and the bishop and several of his partisans were put to death. The fire spread to the cathedral, and reduced it to ashes. Uneasy at the result of their victory, the rioters went into hiding outside the town, which was anew pillaged by the people of the neighbourhood, eager to avenge the death of their bishop. The king alternately interfered in favour of the bishop and of the inhabitants till 1239. After that date the liberties of Laon were no more contested till 1331, when the commune was abolished. During the Hundred Years' War it was attacked and taken by the Burgundians, who gave it up to the English, to be retaken by the French after the consecration of Charles VII. Under the League Laon took the part of the Leaguers, and was taken by Henry IV. During the campaign of 1814 Napoleon tried in vain to dislodge Bliicher from it. In 1 870 an engineer blew up the powder magazine of the citadel at the moment when the German troops were entering the town. Many lives were lost; and the cathedral and the old episcopal palace were damaged. At the Revolution Laon permanently lost its rank as a bishopric.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)