Shrouded by mist and encircled by sea, the enchanting silhouette of Mont- St-Michel soars proudly above glistening sands. Now linked to the mainland by a causeway, the island of Mont-Tombe (Tomb on the Hill) stands at the mouth of the Couesnon River, crowned by an abbey that almost doubles its height.
This superb example of a fortified abbey ranks as one of the most significant sites of pilgrimage in Christendom. Lying strategically on the frontier between Brittany and Normandy, Mont-St-Michel grew from a humble 8th-century oratory to become a Benedictine monastery of great influence. Pilgrims known as miquelots journeyed from afar to honor the cult of St. Michael, and the monastery was a renowned center of medieval learning. After the French Revolution, the abbey became a prison. It is now a national monument that draws one million visitors a year.
For centuries, the Mont was recognized as a sacred site of devotion, where both Druids and Romans worshiped. In 708, Aubert, Bishop of the nearby town of Avranches, had a vision in which the Archangel Michael commanded t hat a chapel be built in his honor on Mont-St- Michel. In response, Bishop Aubert had an oratory erected on the summit, his belief inspiring one of Christianity’s most spectacular holy sites. The faithful came to appeal for the archangel’s protection and Mont-St-Michel soon became an important place of pilgrimage. Although nothing remains of Bishop Aubert’s original oratory, it is thought to have been situated on the west side of the rock, on the ground where St. Aubert’s Chapel now stands.
The three levels of the abbey reflect the monastic hierarchy. The monks lived at the highest level, in the enclosed world of the church, the refectory and the elegant columns of the cloister. In 1776, three bays in the church’s nave were pulled down to create the West Terrace, which has fine views of the coastline. Monks ate in the long, narrow refectory, which is flooded with light through its tall windows. On the middle level, the abbot entertained his noble guests. Soldiers and pilgrims further down the social scale were received at the lowest level of the abbey, in the almonry. The three-story complex of La Merveille (The Miracle), added to the north side in the early 13th century, is a Gothic masterpiece.
THE MONT PRISON
The monastery first served as a prison in the 15th century under the reign of Louis XI whose political opponents were kept here in famously severe conditions. During the French Revolution, the monks were dismissed and the abbey once again functioned as a penitentiary, with aristocrats, priests, and political adversaries imprisoned within its walls. Prominent figures, including writers such as Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo, protested against this practice, but Mont-St-Michel remained a state prison for 73 years until October 20, 1863, when a decree was passed returning the abbey to divine worship.
Protected by high walls, the abbey and its church occupy an impregnable position on the island.
At the top of the inner staircase, this terrace is named after a prisoner who leaped to his death.
This was built in 1524 by the military engineer Gabriel du Puy.
Fortified walls with imposing towers were built to withstand attacks by the English during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453).
Tides of Mont-St-Michel
Extremely strong tides in the Baie du Mont-St-Michel act as a natural defense. They rise and fall with the lunar calendar and can reach speeds of 6 mph )10 km/h) in spring.
St. Aubert’s Chapel
This small 15th -century chapel, built on an outcrop of rock, is dedicated to St. Aubert, the founder of Mont-St-Michel.
A dramatic statue of St. Michael slaying a dragon can be seen in the elaborately carved side chapel of this medieval church.
Now crowded with restaurants, the pilgrims’ route, followed since the 12th century, climbs up past Eglise St-Pierre to the gates of the abbey.
This provided lodgings for the abbot’s soldiers.
Insside the abbey is a 13th -century Anglo-Norman covered gallery. It surrounds an open-air garden where the monks would meditate.
Mont-St-Michel became a symbol of French national identity when its defensive 15th-century walls protected it against fierce cannon attacks in the Hundred Years’ War. The whole of Normandy was conquered by the English, except this well-fortified island.
OVER THE CENTURIES
The 10th -century abbey: Richard I, Duke of Normandy, founded this great Benedictine abbey in 966.
The 11th -century abbey: The Romanesque church was built between 1017 and 1144.
The 18th -century abbey: The number of monks slowly dwindled, and in 1790 the abbey was disbanded and turned into a political prison.
708: St. Aubert builds an oratory dedicated to St. Michael on Mont-Torn be.
966: Duke Richard I founds the Benedictine abbey.
1446-1521: A flamboyant Gothic choir replaces the Romanesque one in the abbey church.
1863-74: The prison closes and the abbey is declared a national monument.
1977-9: A causeway is built, linking Mont-St-Michel and mainland France.
1895-7: The belfry, spire, and statue of St. Michel are added.
1922: Religious services resume in the abbey church.
1979: Mont-St-Michel is added to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list.