10 key moments in the history of Mont St. Michel (II)
The history of Mont Saint Michel #montsaintmichel 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. In a previous post, we covered the first five. This time we will complete our Top 10 by revisiting key moments in the period comprised between the XIII-XXI centuries.
The victor of Agincourt, King Henry V of England, managed to seize Normandy during the second phase of the Hundred Years' War. This led to an English occupation that was to last approximately 32 years (1418-1450). The only people in the dukedom whom the English forces could not bring to heal were the montois (fr. inhabitants of Mont Saint Michel). In 1425 the English even initiated a naval blockade in their attempt to beat the latter into submission. In addition, a series of attacks were launched from a makeshift base established on Tombelaine. It culminated with a major assault in June 1434. At the head of a force comprising some 8000 men - according to popular tradition - Thomas of Scales, 7th Baron of Scales and seneschal of Normandy, besieged Mont Saint Michel. The attack quickly turned to disaster as the tide came in and many an Englishman finished by drowning in the bay. By the end of the conflict Mont Saint Michel came to be regarded as a symbol of French resilience while the Archangel was elevated to the status of protector of France.
The Romanesque choir of the Abbey church crumbled in 1421, an incident that nobody could foresee and which occurred at the worst possible moment given that during the Anglo-French conflict all of the Abbey's resources had to be channeled into the war effort (see part I of this post for additional info on the Romanesque church). Despite these difficulties, the foundations of the new Gothic choir were erected in just six years (1446-1452), a section of the edifice that is known as 'The Great Pillars Crypt'. The lack of funds marked another large gap in the construction work until the end of the XV century. Ultimately, it took another two decades before the 25-meter (82 ft) structure could integrate the old Romanesque edifice in 1521; a century after its sudden collapse, the choir of the Abbey church of Mont Saint Michel was finally completed.
The Abbey Church as well as the Great Pillars Crypt
can be visited on a guided tour of the monument.
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The outbreak of the French Revolution had serious consequences for Mont Saint Michel. In 1792, the Abbey was secularised and the monks were compelled to leave its premises. A few hundred refractory priests were instead imprisoned within the walls of the Abbey until 1795. Mont Saint Michel remained a detention center throughout the revolution. Under Napoleon I, it was converted to imperial prison and for over a decade, between 1811-1822, it was a mixed-gender penitentiary. The fate of the 'Bastille of the seas' was to be decided during the Second Empire when, at the insistence of numerous French intellectuals, Napoleon III decided to close the prison in 1863.
Over twelve centuries after the dedication of the first sanctuary, Mont Saint Michel and its Bay were officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to WHC, the most important criteria taken into consideration at the time were: the unique combination of the natural site and the architecture; the co-existence of the abbey and its fortified village within the confined limits of a small island the fact that Mont Saint Michel may be regarded as one of the most important sites of medieval Christian civilization. Since 1979 other minor boundary modifications were inscribed by UNESCO in 2007 and 2018.
Mont Saint Michel had been a Benedictine Abbey for over a millennium. Richard I, duke of Normandy, was the ruler who took the decision in 965 to replace the community of canons with Benedictine monks. Although other changes were made over the centuries (e.g the monks of Saint Maur congregation were sent to Mont Saint Michel in the XVII), the Abbey remained a Benedictine sanctuary. This was the religious status quo until 2001 when, following a somehow controversial decision, the members of Fraternites Monastiques du Jerusalem replaced the Benedictine monks. This mixed-gender community is represented today not just in France but also in Poland, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and Canada.
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