Top 10 Facts about the Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy
Mont Saint-Michel was initially known as Mont-Tombe in the 8th century before the name was changed. St. Aubert, the then bishop of Avranches, built an oratory after getting a vision of the archangel st. Michael.
This led it to be a pilgrimage centre and eventually a Benedictine abbey was built in 966. If you have seen photos of this magnificent abbey or visited the abbey, one gets awed by its stature and location. Its history goes back to the 11th century and 16th century when it was built.
Looking at this building is truly a testament of a man touched by an angel to bring a vision into reality. The structure which is made up of other buildings make up a tiny village on an island.
To get to this magnificent landmark, you have to go to Normandy a kilometre off the French coast. Did you know that the castle in the animated movie Tangled was inspired by this abbey?
Here are 10 facts about Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy.
1. Mont Saint-Michel is a dream come true
It may have been more of a vision than a dream, but this abbey came to be after Bishop Aubert was asked to build the abbey by Archangel Michael. The angel appeared to Aubert in a dream severally because he ignored them as mere dreams.
It is alleged that Aubert was punished by Archangel Michael for not following instructions. The angel poked a hole into Aubert’s head, his broken skull is displayed in the abbey.
After he abided by the angel’s instruction, the abbey attracted pilgrims from several regions including tourists from all over the world.
This Gothic abbey is surrounded by a medieval village and has always been an architectural masterpiece of French history and culture. It stands at 302 feet tall and was named after the Archangel.
2. Mont Saint-Michel was never invaded by enemies
This abbey stands tall on an island surrounded by a medieval village. The ramparts surrounding this abbey are double-ended. There is water all around the island that made it hard for attackers to penetrate. Mont Saint-Michel is on the border of Brittany and Normandy.
The location of this abbey made it a perfect fort since it is one mile from the mainland. During low tide, it is all sandy and filled with water and dangerous waters during high tide.
With this advantage, the place became undefeated during the 100-year war between England and France. It was able to survive a 30-year siege and has been a symbol of the French resilience.
3. Mont Saint-Michel has always been a pilgrimage Destination
Mont-Saint-Michel is the second most visited place in France, after Paris of course.
Since the first pilgrims visited the abbey in the 11th century after its construction, several tourists from all over the world followed suit and visited the site.
The quicksand around the abbey and the high tide in the evening scared off some pilgrims.
This was solved by building a bridge from the mainland to avoid the dangerous walk on the sand. For those that wish to follow the traditional route, there are trained and experienced guards that know safer routes on the sand.
4. Mont Saint-Michel served as a prison once
King Louis XIV used the island prison for his political rivals. This was in the 18th century when most of the monks living there vacated. He saw this as an opportunity to lock up his enemies in an abandoned island.
During the time it served as a prison, the abbey held about 14,000 prisoners. About 3000 priests were held in this prison at one point.
A century later, Victor Hugo and other influential figures launched a campaign to restore the abbey to its former glory. This was a successful attempt to save the architectural treasure.
The prison was closed in 1863 and the site declared a historical monument in 1874. In 1979, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site, it is a site full of cultural, historical and architectural significance.
5. Mont Saint Michel has the highest and most dangerous tides
Pilgrims that made their way to Mont Saint-Michel nicknamed it St. Michael in peril of the sea. This is because the tides on the island vary and the speed and height of the tide can rise to 46 feet.
A modern walkway was built in 2014 to ease movement to and from the abbey. Those that opt to walk on the sand especially when the tide is coming risk getting swept away.
The tides here are said to be the highest in all of Europe and rise very quickly. The island becomes completely locked away from the mainland during high tide.
6. Mont Saint-Michel has provided a salt meadow perfect for grazing Sheep
After years of occasional flooding and slow reclaiming of the land by the sea close to the island; the water created salt marsh meadows that have become the best for grazing sheep.
The sheep that graze here have the tastiest meat you have ever tasted. The locals here call the dish agneau de pré-salé (salt meadow lamb). You can find this delicacy in the local restaurants. You will get to enjoy a naturally salted lamb while learning about the history of the region.
7. More than 3 million people visit Mont Saint-Michel annually
There is no doubt that Mont-Saint-Michel is an architectural wonder and anyone visiting France has this site on their bucket list.
The abbey together with the Bay of the Mont-Saint-Michel has been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1979.
This imposing landmark is one of the most recognized in the country, second after the Eiffel tower.
This island has become one of the main tourist attractions in the Normandy region. It has been renovated to provide accommodation areas, restaurants and antique shops can be found in the village. You can spend the night to catch the sunrise or sunset.
Some of the buildings in the village houses a community of nuns and monks. It is estimated that around 3 million people visit the site each year.
8. Mont St Michel has a counterpart in Cornwall, England
In 1067, the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel supported William the Conqueror in his claim to the throne of England. To reward and appreciate their support, William gave the monastery land on the English side together with an island.
A small island was part of the gift that the monks received located on the coast of Cornwall. A priory was built on the island resembling Mont Saint-Michel and served as a Norman priory. It was named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance.
The two islands share some characteristics such as tidal waves and a conical shape. The replica is much smaller and less impressive but has a striking resemblance to the French one.
9. Construction of the abbey was funded by the Dukes of Normandy
After St. Aubert got his vision and embarked on building the abbey, the structure was not as massive and impressive as it is now. It took centuries to build the abbey and the tiny village surrounding it.
The Dukes of Normandy took it upon themselves to continue the construction of the abbey during their successive reigns. They liaised with the pilgrims that visited the abbey to fund the project.
Building the abbey was not an easy affair because of the tides and distance from the mainland. This, however, did not impede the pilgrims who got support from the Dukes.
The island lies on 247 acres of land and has a population of at least 50 people.
10. Joan of Arc once defended Mont Saint-Michel
This abbey once served as a castle and was under siege by the English army. Joan of Arc, a courageous woman heard of the attack and went to defend her land.
Together with other warriors, they overwhelmed the English attackers who fled after abandoning their weapons. This was one of the many victories she won for France.
Through her courageous effort, she helped recapture France from England. She was named as a French heroine and was beatified in 1909 then canonized in 1920.