Castle of the Week 52 – Mont St Michel

While Mont St Michel is not, strictly speaking, a castle, it is surrounded by fortifications and is a great monument to medieval building. It is built on a small (1km diameter) rocky island in a vast sandy bay between Brittany and is connected to the mainland by a 1km causeway which is covered at high tide. The traffic-free road winds its way up past small houses and shops to the 13th century monastic buildings and the Benedictine abbey at the summit, 80m above sea level.

Legend says that Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, had a dream when the Archangel Michael appeared to him and told him to build a church on top of the rock. The Bishop founded the first chapel, holding about 100, on the site in 708 and gave it St Michael’s name. Further buildings were put up in the next few years and it was inhabited by a small community of canons.

The buildings fell into disrepair after a severe fire in 922 and had been too small even before the fire, so in 966 Richard, Duke of Normandy, established an order of Benedictine monks there who started to reconstruct the church. They brought in craftsmen from Italy and started work in 1017. The abbey was finished in 1080 and pilgrims flocked to the island to worship St Michael.

At the beginning of the 13th century, Normandy was annexed to France. During the battles preceding this, part of the abbey burnt down and when peace returned, the King of France agreed to provide funds to help gain favour by building an even more magnificent abbey. Work began in 1204 and was finished in 1221. Much of this building is what can still be seen today.

When the first chapel was built, instead of flattening the pointed top of the rock, the Bishop had built up masonry round the peak. Unfortunately this was not strong enough to bear the later granite buildings and in 1300 one of the towers collapsed, followed by the nave in 1421.

Fortified walls and watchtowers were added in 1420 during the Hundred Years War when it acted as a fortress to protect the Normans from the invading English. Despite many attacks, it was never taken. The reconstruction of the collapsed areas didn’t start until after the war in 1450 and finished in 1521.

The King recognised its usefulness as a prison and it was first used for political prisoners in 1472 but the monks remained until the Revolution of 1789 when it was dissolved. It continued to be used as a prison holding many of France’s most famous citizens at various times.

There was a bad fire in 1856 and restoration took place in 1874 when Napoleon III declared it a national monument and the French government assumed responsibility for the repairs and upkeep. The causeway was built in 1879. Prior to that, the only access was across the sands at low tide which was dangerous as the sea sweeps in with very little warning.

Church services were revived in the 1920s and a very small community of Benedictine monks returned in 1969. Today there are only a handful left. It was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 1979 and is a very popular tourist attraction, the crowded streets making it hard to imagine what life was like there in medieval times.

Write-up provided by GillB. Pictures courtesy of GillB, Jayhawk and Castles of the World.