Quick history of the Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy


 

The first time that I visited the Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy I was completely blown away by its beauty. Do yourselves a favor and do a quick Google Images search and you’ll see what I mean! There is a fairy tale quality to the island, especially when the tide is high and it seems to float in the ocean on its own.

Mont-Saint-Michel refers to the island and the commune in Normandy. In the early days, the island was accessible only during low tide. Today, there is a bridge which makes the island accessible at all times. The area has a rich history that begins all the way back in the 6th century! Keep reading for a quick history of the Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy.

The Mont-Saint-Michel as the City of the Books

Mont-Saint-Michel

A map depicting the Mont-Saint-Michel, Normandy, France (date between late 18th and early 19th centuries) that comprises an old view, with a bilingual historical description, of the place (in Latin and in French) by Daniel Louis Derveaux – WikiCommons

The history of the Mont-Saint-Michel begins in the year 708. A man named Bishop Aubert built a sanctuary in honor of the archangel Michael. At the time, the island was called the Mont Tombe. Legend has it that the archangel appeared in a vision to Bishop Aubert, calling him to erect a church on the island. This is where the name Mont-Saint-Michel comes from!

In 966, at the request of the Duke of Normandy, Richard I, Benedictine monks settled on the Mont. The monks were under the Order of Saint Benedict, and a new church was built before the year 1000.

In the 11th century, Richard I commissioned an Italian architect named William of Volpiano to build a Romanesque abbey. Before long, the abbey became a place of pilgrimage for Christians. It was also a center of medieval culture. Several manuscripts were written and stored here, which is why the Mont-Saint-Michel was referred to as the “City of Books” at the time! 

Expansions on the Mont-Saint-Michel and the Hundred Years’ War

La Merveille

La Merveille at the Mont-Saint-Michel by Photoglob Zürich – WikiCommons

The 12th century marked the beginning of several expansions made on the abbey. Then, in the 13th century, the king of France, Philippe-Auguste made a generous donation to the abbey which enabled more expansion.

Philippe-Auguste’s donation came in the wake of his conquest of Normandy. He wanted to build a structure that would glorify his victory! And so began construction of group of buildings called the Merveille (the Wonder). Even today these buildings are referred to as the highlight of the abbey’s architecture. 

The Hundred Years’ War was still in full force in the 14th century. To give you all a little bit of background on this war, it was a series of battles and conflicts between the House of Plantagenet, the rulers of the Kingdom of England, and the House of Valois, the rulers of the Kingdom of France.

What were they fighting over? Who had the right to actually rule over France. As you can imagine, the Valois felt pretty strongly that they were the rightful rulers. England did not agree. The Hundred Years’ War went on from 1337 to 1453, and is considered to be one of the most influential conflicts of the Middle Ages.

I digress! In an attempt to protect the island from the English, in the 14th century new military fortifications were installed. These measures helped defend the abbey for 30 years! The perseverance of the islanders was an inspiration to everyone in France, and to the famous Joan of Arc in particular.

Before the end of the Hundred Years’ War the Mont-Saint-Michel had become a place of religious pilgrimage, as I’ve already mentioned. Christians would flock to the island in the hopes of worshipping the archangel Michael. Roads emerged that led to the island and were dubbed “paths to heaven.”

The Mont-Saint-Michel during the French Revolution and restorations

Mont-Saint-Michel

Mont-Saint-Michel by Jean-Jacques Monanteuil – WikiCommons

In the 16th century, the Reformation has hit Europe. This movement questioned the powerful Roman Catholic Church and the Pope, and the abbey became less and less popular. By the French Revolution, barely any monks lived and worshipped on the island.

In addition to the monarchy, the French Revolution aimed to dismantle the church. Well, maybe dismantle isn’t the right word. But, the Revolutionaries did want a separation of church and state, at least.

During the Revolution, the abbey was closed and turned into a prison. The original idea was to hold clerical adversaries to the new Republic here. After the Revolution, political prisoners began to be held here.

Then, in 1836, several important historical figures came together in the hopes of restoring the Normandy prison back to its original state: as an abbey and a place of worship. The French writer Victor Hugo was among the group that fought for these restorations.

The prison did eventually close in 1863, and was declared a historic monument in 1874. Now that the abbey was a historical monument, restoration could begin. As you can imagine, after serving as a prison for years, there was a lot to be done.

In 1878, a new causeway was put in, which made accessing the island much easier. Then, a tramway was installed to better serve the groups of tourists that were beginning to flock to Mont-Saint-Michel.

The Mont-Saint-Michel in the 20th century and now

Mont-Saint-Michel

Mont-Saint-Michel in 1965 by Michel Huhardeaux – Flickr

In the late 1960s, a small group of Benedictine monks set up house in the abbey (who would go on to be replaced in 2001 by The Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem).

Then, in 1979, all of the hard restoration work paid off. Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site! It is credited for its historical value, natural and manmade beauty, and architectural significance.

Fast forward to 1998, when the Mont-Saint-Michel was added as a stop along the “Pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, in France.” Both of these acknowledgments show just how important the Mont-Saint-Michel is!

There is a constant need to restore and repair this monument due to its close proximity to the ocean, and the millions of tourists that visit all year round. You read that right: close to 3 million people visit the Mont-Saint-Michel each year!

If you visit the Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy today, you’ll be able to appreciate architecture, the religious importance of the site, and the beautiful scenery. There are also several shops and restaurants on the island and on the mainland area that are excellent, making it a great destination for tourists and locals alike.

Conclusion

You may have already seen pictures of the Mont-Saint-Michel without really knowing what it was or where to find it. I hope that I have answered all of your burning questions about this French historical monument and tourists destination! Do you have a trip to Normandy in the works? If you do, I wish you the best time ever!

If you’re in Paris, you can easily get to Normandy by car or train. I recommend renting a car if you can, as its a great way to explore this part of France, and you’ll have more freedom than with a train.

And, if you’re in Paris and want to learn more from Discover Walks, click here to learn more about our walking tour options!