Mont St Michel : Part 1

LINKS to other pages in the FRANCE PART ONE site and to the Colin Day Travelling Days series:

NORMANDY (Honfleur and Deauville)
NORMANDY (D Day Beaches and Bayeux)
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In prehistoric times the bay was covered by the sea, which retreated during the ice ages, Several islands of granite, which had resisted the wear and tear of the ocean better than the surrounding rocks, appeared in the bay. These included the Mont-Dol, Tombelaine, Lillemer and Mont Tombe, later called Mont Saint Michel. The St Michel rock is nearly a mile from the shore.

The islet, celebrated for its Benedictine abbey, has small houses and shops on its lowest level. Above these stand the monastic buildings, many of which date from the 13th century and are considered outstanding examples of Gothic architecture. The islet is crowned by the abbey church some 73 metres (about 240 ft) above sea level.

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The surrounding mainland is largely agricultural with sheep, cattle and orchards predominating.

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Over the centuries, the coastal flats have been reclaimed to create pasture land. Locks have been installed on the Couesnon River so reducing the flow of water and encouraging a silting-up of the bay. This prevented the tide from scouring the silt around the mount. In 1879, a causeway was constructed over the quicksand silt between the rock and shore. Plans are presently being mooted to remove the causeway and replace it with a bridge and shuttle train.

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The village to the south of the causeway has hotel and motel accommodation for tourists as well as restaurants and a small shopping centre.

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A restaurant in one of the motel complexes on the mainland.

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The tour group assembled below the steps to the monastery being addressed by its guide.

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The first chapel on the site was founded in 708 by Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, after the Archangel Michael appeared to him in a dream. The oratory, consecrated in 709 was served by a community of canons.

In 966 Richard I, Duke of Normandy, established a community of Benedictine monks (transferred from St. Wandrille Abbey) on the island. They were directed by Abbot Maynard who later began the reconstructions of the church and other buildings. The church was severely damaged by fire in 922.

The mount gained strategic importance in 933 when the Normans annexed the Cotentin Peninsula and by so doing thereby placed the mount on the new frontier with Brittany. Mont St Michel is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry commemorating the 1066 Norman conquest of England. The church was rebuilt in 1023 onwards, but on a larger scale, by Abbot Hildebert II.

In 1420, during the Hundred Years War, the fortifications of Mont St. Michel were reinforced. The English made repeated assaults on the island but were unable to seize it. In 1622 three western nave bays and the facade were removed and replaced with large terrace.

The abbey was dissolved during the Revolution (1789-95). It was used as a prison during the 19th century, initially to hold clerical opponents of the republican régime. High-profile political prisoners followed, but by 1836 influential figures, including Victor Hugo, had launched a campaign to restore what was seen as a national architectural treasure.

The prison was closed in 1863 and the mount declared an historic monument in 1874. It had been badly damaged by fire in 1856 but significant restoration was delayed until after 1874. Mont Saint Michel and its bay were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979.

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The Refectory. The narrow windows admit sunlight on the northern side. A pulpit (not visible in this picture) is a reminder of the holy words that would have been read in Latin here during meal times - and perhaps of homilies delivered to caution those monks who had transcended the bounds of 'holiness' ! (right)

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The Cloisters (left)

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