Mont-Saint-Michel is truly an astonishing site. An awe-inspiring Gothic/Renaissance Abbey rising out the sea like something from Game of Thrones. Today it’s referred to as the “Wonder of the West,” a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over 3 million visitors a year. But how on earth did such a gem get in such a place?
Mont-Saint-Michel is actually a rocky, pyramid-shaped tidal island sitting about a kilometer off the northwest coast of France, between Normandy and Brittany, near the mouth of the River Couesnon. The island itself covers only 17 acres. It’s connected to the French mainland by a silty tidal embankment that’s completely submerged at high tide. The tides in the bay are quite dramatic and can vary by as much as 50 ft (15 m) depending on the weather and time of year. Because of this unique phenomenon, the Mont has held great religious AND strategic value over the centuries.
Back in the 5th century, the forested Mont was named Mont-Tombe by Irish monks. They established a small hermitage on the island, which over the next 300 years became a site of religious pilgrimage. Then according to legend, in 708, Bishop (later Saint) Aubert of Avranches was visited by the Archangel Michael in a dream 3 times. In his visions, Michael told Aubert to build an oratory chapel in his name atop Mont-Tombe. By 709, Aubert had fulfilled the Angel’s wish, building a small church on the island, and placing there holy relics of St. Michael he had brought in from Italy.
Norman domination of Mont-Saint-Michel began in 966 when King Lothair of France issued a charter, establishing a Benedictine monastery on the island. The monastery was built in the Romanesque style with thick stone walls, arched ceilings, and small windows. The Benedictine monks, under the Duke of Normandy’s rule, managed their monastery extremely well, turning it into both a major center of religious pilgrimage AND, due to its strategic coastal location, a place of commerce. The Benedictine monks produced so many manuscripts on the island, Mont-Saint-Michel became known as the “The City of Books.”
During the 11th century, Norman rulers saw Mont-Saint-Michel both as a place of faith AND a strategic fortress, due to the increased rivalries within France. The Mont received a military garrison, put at the disposal of both the abbot and the Norman kings. It was the Normans who built its larger Romanesque abbey church on top of the old Aubert chapel, which became its crypts.
During a successful siege by Philip II of France in 1203, Mont-Saint-Michel endured heavy damage. But his subsequent patronage facilitated the construction of a larger, three-story stone Monastery known as La Merveille, “The Wonder.” This impressive building is a masterpiece of Norman-Gothic architecture. Built on the rocky, sea-side of the island, it consists of a pilgrim almonry, a Chevaliers Hall for royal guests, a monks’ Refectory, plus a beautiful Cloister. The French King also fortified the small island, building high stone battlements and 9 towers around 2/3 of its perimeter.
The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel continued to become a place of military, commercial and religious significance over the centuries.
Benedictine monks translated ancient texts to Latin, and the relics of Saint-Michel attracted the faithful by the thousands. Back in the Middle Ages, those pilgrims had to cross about 4 miles (7 km) of sea to reach the island (5 kilometers farther than it is today). Those crossings could be a deadly task as one had to time it carefully with the low tides. Pilgrims routinely drowned trying to beat the tides and reach the Mont. In addition to the abbey, a small thriving village flourished on the island’s shore, on the south and east sides, facing the French mainland. Surrounded by high, thick walls, its narrow winding streets, with successive flights of stone steps, lead up to the abbey on top.
Thanks to its fortifications, the Mont survived numerous English attacks during the Hundred Years War. Then in 1421, during a siege by Breton knights, a fire resulted and burned down much of the abbey church’s chancel. It was then reconstructed a final time over the next 100 years, now in the Gothic style, complete with tall stained glass windows and flying buttresses like Paris Notre Dame. The church was heightened as well with a slender gothic tower above the transept, topped with a golden, armored Archangel St. Michael at 300 ft (91 m) high.
But all good things must come to an end. After the 14th century Renaissance and the 15th century Reformation, the island had lost both its military and religious significance. Mont-Saint-Michel sadly fell into a period of slow decline and disrepair. By the time the French Revolution came about in 1789, there were only seven monks left in residence at the Abbey. The French clergy, as well as its aristocracy, became target’s of the bloody Revolution and its notorious guillotine.
The Mont held the new French republic’s political prisoners, deposed members of the aristocracy, and ironically, even priests, up to 300 at one time – anyone who went against the principles of Robespierre’s new Republic. Mont-Saint-Michel sadly became known as the “Bastille of the Sea”—in reference to the despised Parisian prison that was stormed during the Revolution.
When Emperor Napoleon took over, he continued to use the abbey as a prison, adding wooden floors into the high ceiling monk’s Refectory to hold even more cells. A large treadwheel crane, manned by prisoners, was installed to drag supplies up the hillside. The beautiful Mont had turned from a admired place of worship and pilgrimage, into a feared fortress prison.
Mont-Saint-Michel continued to hold prisoners until 1863, when influential French figures, like writer Victor Hugo (author of Les Misérables), campaigned fiercely for its closure. Hugo wrote, “Mont-Saint-Michel comes into view like a sublime thing, a marvelous pyramid.” The campaign was successful. Its 650 remaining prisoners were transferred elsewhere, and the abbey was rented from the government by the French Catholic Church.
In 1874, the abbey was formally declared a French national historical monument and a major restoration project began.
The French government, still owner of the abbey, managed the renovations. To make access easier for visitors, a long causeway road was built in 1879, on an elevated, artificial embankment. In 1922, monks and worship services finally returned to the Mont, making it a site of Catholic pilgrimage once again. The Abbey was returned to the Benedictine order in 1966 to mark its 1,000 Year Anniversary. Religious pilgrimages, and more importantly thousands of European tourists, came back in force. It became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979
In 1983, a project to restore the ‘island’ aspects of the Mont was begun. Over the decades, the causeway road had provoked silt and sand to build up along the coast, basically connecting the island to the mainland, making it into a peninsula rather than island! The old causeway and a car park were removed. A new road, constructed above the water on concrete pillars was built, again allowing the bay’s tidal waters to flow freely around the island. It opened in 2015.
If you visit Mont-Saint-Michel, and I highly recommend you do if ever in France, be sure to have a hearty brunch at La Mere Poulard, a local restaurant since 1879, famous for its fluffy omelets. And wear sturdy shoes for you will be climbing a LOT of stones stairs up to the famous gothic abbey and monastery. The challenge for our 21st century is to continue providing access to the abbey for the 2,500,000 visitors who come each and every year. Only about 45 people live there in residence year round. Today, it remains one of the top three most visited sites in France, outside of Paris.