The history of Mont Saint Michel and its sanctuary spans over 1300 years. The following is but a selection of historical milestones and not an exhaustive list of momentous events in the long story of this fabulous monument. This post will cover the first five and the interval comprised between the VIII and XIII centuries.
According to a hagiographic document entitled Revelatio ecclesiae sancti Michaelis archangeli in Monte Tumba, the archangel Michael appeared to Aubert, the Merovingian bishop of Avranches, and commanded him to build a sanctuary on the rocky tidal island the locals called Mont Tombe (fr. Mount Tomb). Aubert was skeptical at first, but after being visited by the archangel on three occasions, he eventually relented and set up an oratory in a cave. It must have been quite small and capable to accommodate only a few dozen people. The personage we know today as Saint Aubert entrusted the new sanctuary to twelve canons. Why twelve? Most people might think, for obvious reasons, that it represented the number of apostles. In any case, this was no coincidence. Twelve symbolises completion and harmony. Numerology was something that the clergy took very seriously. After a perilous journey to Italy, two of the canons brought to the mount the first relics ever displayed inside the sanctuary. The conversion of Mont Tombe to Mont Saint Michel #montsaintmichel was complete.
Avranches area and the Cotentin peninsula as a whole had been a Breton possession from 867 until 933. When the former was incorporated into the county of Normandy by William I ‘Longsword’ (N.B. Normandy formally became a dukedom only a few decades later under Richard II) Mont Saint Michel earned the status of a strategic location on the frontier with rival Brittany. No wonder Richard I ‘the Fearless’, fervent supporter and sponsor of the church among other things, wanted to make sure the sanctuary was looked after by people he could trust. In this context, he decided to replace the community of 12 canons with 12 Benedictine monks (yes, still 12!). Thus, a century before the Norman Conquest, Mont Saint Michel became a Benedictine abbey. It was to stay this way for almost a millennium.
Although it may seem hard to believe, this year we mark the millennial of the opening of the construction site for the Romanesque church of Mont Saint Michel. This majestic edifice was completed in approximately six decades, a remarkable feat of engineering if one is to consider that the church was supposed to be 80m/240ft long and perched on a granite mount that stood 80m/240ft above the sea level. It represents the very core of the UNESCO site and can be visited on a guided tour of the monument. #montsaintmicheltours #guidedtoursofmontsaintmichel #normandyguide #discovernormandy
On April 22, 1204, the Bretons led by Guy of Thouars besieged Mont Saint Michel. Guy was an ally of the King of France, Philip II (or Philip Augustus), in the latter’s dispute with John ‘Lackland’, Duke of Normandy and King of England. Although Guy failed to seize Mont Saint Michel — like so many other assailants either before or after — part of the Abbey and the village sustained considerable damage. The year 1204 would ultimately see the King of England lose Normandy to the French. After the Breton attack, the monks of Mont Saint Michel started the reconstruction of the monastic rooms ravaged during the siege almost right-away. Legend has it that the King (of France) proved magnanimous as he tried to atone for his ally's mistakes. In reality, the Abbey was at the pinnacle of its economic power and the monks could afford paying for the works. Reborn from its own ashes less than a quarter of a century later, the new monastery would come to be known as La Merveille (fr. The Wonder).
This was the year that marked the completion of La Merveille. The structure, built on the northern slope of the mount, was 80m/240ft long and 35m/100ft tall. It is very likely the Benedictine monks had never thought of calling their monastery La Merveille. The oldest document to mention the term dates from the late XVII century so quite a while later. Nevertheless, it was a gigantic project full of symbolism. Although its initial draft most certainly provided for the construction of a rectangular building divided into three sections, each one three-story tall, only two of them were to see the daylight. A worn-out spandrel located in the western gallery of the cloister, the crown piece of this jewel of Gothic architecture, enabled historians to pinpoint the moment when La Merveille was completed. The aforementioned spandrel bore a representation of Saint Francis of Assisi and an inscription that read St. Francis was canonised in the year of the Lord 1228 when this cloister was completed.
To be continued...
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