Mont-Saint-Michel is a stunning island located off the coast of Normandy that features a small village of 50 inhabitants, the stone ramparts that have long protected it, and the medieval monastery for which it is named. It is only 17 acres in size, and is located in a bay (also named Mont-Saint-Michel) at the mouth of the Couesnon river. It sits about one kilometre out from the shoreline.
View of Mont-Saint-Michel from the shore.
For over a thousand years, this island commune has been a popular place of pilgrimage. Access to the island was made possible by a causeway that was only available at low tide. However, the returning tide made the journey treacherous as it would race in “at the speed of a galloping horse.” Quicksand and fog also posed additional hazards. However, these perilous elements also served as a potent natural defence system. Assailants had to contend with the waves rushing in at high tide, and if they were caught unawares they would end up stranded or drowned.
In the image below you can see some of the mudflats that lie between the mainland and the Mont when the tide is out.
Below you can see the tide beginning to move in.
Neil and I took a day trip to Mont-Saint-Michel from Paris. It was a four hour drive to get there. We were supposed to have a family of six join us on the tour, but they had to cancel at the last minute. So it was just me, Neil, and the tour guide! It was a quiet and slightly awkward journey, but our destination was definitely worth it. We parked in a lot on the mainland, and then caught a shuttle bus out to the Mont. The bus features a driving station on both ends, so that it doesn’t have to turn around to make the return journey; the driver just switches spots.
Below is the bridge that the shuttle (and pedestrians) cross to get to Mont-Saint-Michel. It’s about 2.5 km from the parking lot to the island. I’m sure it’s a lovely walk on a beautiful day but, as you can see below, that’s not what we had.
The whole island was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It was truly beautiful, even with the rain and wind. I’ll focus on what we saw a little later in the post, once I cover the history of the area.
In prehistoric times, Mont-Saint-Michel was part of dry land. Rising sea levels and erosion did its work on the shoreline, and some of the tougher clusters of rock became tidal islands. Before the construction of its namesake monastery, the island was known as Mont Tombe. The island of Tombelaine, located a few kilometres north of Mont-Saint-Michel, was also formed in this way. Today, it is a bird sanctuary.
Below is the island of Tombelaine, as viewed from Mont-Saint-Michel.
The Mont has been occupied since ancient times, and by the middle of the 6th century it was populated by hermits (probably Celtic monks) and other religious devotees who were drawn in by the solitary nature of the island. In 708, according to legend, the archangel Michael appeared to Aubert, Bishop of the nearby town of Avranches, three times in his sleep and told him to build a church on the Mont. He didn’t need to be told a fourth time, and so a small church was built and consecrated on October 16, 709.
Below, the archangel Michael presents himself to Aubert in a relief that can be found inside the Abbey. Made in 1860 by the sculptor Barré for the southern portal of the Abbey Church of Saint-Pierre in Caen.
In 710, Mont Tombe was officially renamed Mont Saint Michel au péril de la Mer (“Mont-Saint-Michel at the peril of the sea). Charlemagne (742-814) chose Saint Michael as the symbolic protector of his Empire in the 9th century, and he shortened the name of the island to Mont-Saint-Michel. The Mont enjoyed a period of stability under Charlemagne’s rule and became a place of prayer and study.
I’m going to pause in the specific history of Mont-Saint-Michel at this point, and take some time to examine things on a more regional scale. Mont-Saint-Michel lies very close to the border between the provinces of Brittany (in the west) and Normandy (to the east). The Cousenon river, which Mont-Saint-Michel lies at the mouth of, has long served as the historic boundary between them. Today, the Cousenon river empties into the ocean on the western side of Mont-Saint-Michel, edging the island into the Norman side of the border. This wasn’t always the case. Formerly, the river flowed into the ocean on the eastern side of the Mont, which would have placed it on the Breton side of the border. This is significant, as Brittany and Normandy have warred with each other for centuries over territory. Mont-Saint-Michel is a prize that they both wanted.
The mouth of the Cousenon river as seen from the Mont (facing south-west), below. The province of Normandy lies to the left (east) of the river, Brittany to the right (west).
Brittany and Normandy have very interesting histories. They are both located along the north-western coast of France, and lie along the English Channel. During the Roman occupation (approx. 1st century B.C.E. – 5th century C.E.), they were both part of a region known as Armorica (meaning “on-the-sea”). Armorica lay between the Seine river in the north-east (labeled in red as its Roman name “Sequana” top right in the image below) and the Loire river in the south-west (the Roman “Liger” in red, towards the bottom left, below). Armorica extended inland to an indeterminate point.
Toward the end of the 4th century, there was an emigration of people who lived in Wales and the south-western peninsula of Great Britain across the English Channel and into western Armorica. Immigration increased after the Roman withdrawal from Great Britain (circa 460 C.E.), and with the arrival of Anglo-Saxon invaders in the 5th and 6th centuries. These British immigrants brought their Celtic language and culture with them. The region they inhabited began to be called Brittania, after the country they had fled, and the people were the Bretons. Later, it would be known as Brittany. Brittany would remain an independent kingdom and duchy until it was united with the Kingdom of France in 1532; even then, it remained a province, governed as if it were a separate nation.
The province of Normandy came into being due to another group of foreign immigrants. However, this group was not the same as the Bretons, fleeing invasion. Rather, these “Northmen” were the ones doing the invading. The Viking Northmen (which consisted of people from Denmark and Norway) began their raids on France with the Seine Valley in 841, and soon their attacks spread all along the coast. Monasteries were attractive targets because the peaceful inhabitants were unarmed, and the raiders could easily make off with a hefty supply of gold, silver, and other valuables. The treacherous tides and mudflats surrounding the island were no deterrent to a people famous for their longships, and Mont-Saint-Michel was in turn captured by Vikings in 847. The monks left the island, but a few members of the local population remained behind.
The famous Viking leader Rollo (also known as Hrólfr Ragnvaldsson) and his men conquered the lands in eastern Armorica and laid siege to Paris. In 911, he signed a treaty with Charles III (also known as Charles the Simple), the King of the Western Franks. In return for becoming a vassal of the King, the fiefdom of Normandy (named for the Nordmenn, a Norwegian word) was created for him; it consisted of the lands he had already laid claim to. He was titled Robert, Duke of Normandy.
The map below shows how the territory of Normandy grew between 911 (when Rollo first signed a treaty with Charles III) and 933.
Remember how I mentioned that Mont-Saint-Michel lay at the mouth of the Couesnon river, the (changeable) border between Brittany and Normandy? Well, in this time period, the Contentin Peninsula was another area of land that the two provinces fought bitterly over (shown in red, above). And Mont-Saint-Michel, once again, was caught right in the middle. In the map below, the Contentin Peninsula is that large spit of land that juts out into the ocean to the right of the islands of Guernsey and Jersey. Mont-Saint-Michel is located in the bay to the bottom left of the Peninsula, indicated by the dropped red pin in the image below.
From 867-933, the Cotentin Peninsula was part of Brittany, won by King Alan the Great through several successful campaigns against the Norsemen. This included the period in which Rollo was leader of Normandy (911-927). Rollo’s son and successor, William Longsword, won the peninsula back in 933 for the Normans. But Breton and Norman territorial disputes would continue, and Mont-Saint-Michel would remain in the thick of it.
Rollo took an interest in Mont-Saint-Michel and had the damaged religious buildings repaired. He asked for the monks to return to the island, which they did. Rollo’s successors would continue to provide financial support to the church at Mont-Saint-Michel. However, this newfound wealth began to corrupt its initial monastic purpose. Additionally, local nobles began using their money to obtain favours from the monastery’s inhabitants. The monks began to spend less time in seclusion and prayer, and instead engaged in more pleasurable pursuits such as hunting, traveling, and feasting. In 942, Richard I (Rollo’s grandson) tried to encourage the monks to return to their former religious lifestyle. When they refused to do so, he decided to replace them with a new order of Benedictine monks. The monks currently living on Mont-Saint-Michel were given an ultimatum: return to their monastic lifestyle and convert to the Benedictine order, or leave. Only one monk accepted this demand; all the rest left. In 966, the new order of Benedictine monks was established at Mont-Saint-Michel. This is the year that the Abbey celebrates as its founding year. By the year 1000, a new, bigger church was built; this was the double nave pre-Roman church Notre-Dame-sous-Terre.
A model of the Mont and the new pre-Roman Abbey, 10th century.
In 1060, the Abbey received a major facelift. An Italian architect, William de Volpiano, was hired to design and build a larger and grander church at the top of the Mont. This included a large transept crossing. To support the weight of this structure, a lot of underground crypts and chapels had to be constructed. In the 12th century, the structure of the buildings was reinforced and the main façade of the church was built by Robert de Thorigny.
The Mont and Abbey in the 11th-12th centuries.
Rollo’s descendant, William, became Duke of Normandy in 1035. He is famous for launching the Norman conquest of England, in which he would become known as William the Conqueror. But prior to that, he was fighting the Breton-Norman War of 1064-1066 against Conan II, Duke of Brittany. An interesting figure crossed paths with William at this time. Harold Godwinson, who would later be crowned the last Anglo-Saxon King of England in 1066 (and defeated by William at the Battle of Hastings that same year), ended up shipwrecked in northern France. It’s not really known why he was in France, but he was taken captive by Guy I, the Count of Ponthieu. William secured Harold’s release, and in return Harold swore that he would support William’s claim to the English throne (probably while crossing his fingers). Harold then joined William as they rode out to battle Conan II. Harold, William, and the army rode past Mont-Saint-Michel on their way into Brittany. Harold is reported to have saved two Norman soldiers from quicksand as they passed the treacherous mudflats surrounding the Mont and its fortified Abbey. This scene is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry (with the Mont in the background, shown below), which was commissioned in the 1070s to commemorate the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
A close-up of Harold’s heroics.
In 1067, the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel lent its support to William in his claim to the English throne. William rewarded the monastery with property, including a small island off of the coast of Cornwall. A monastery modelled on Mont-Saint-Michel was built on this island, and was named St. Michael’s Mount.
In 1204, Mont-Saint-Michel found itself under siege. The King of France, Philip II (1165-1223, also known as Philippe-Auguste), was trying to deal with the threat that the too-powerful Norman region had become. Thanks to William the Conqueror’s successes, whoever held the title of Duke of Normandy was also King of England, and presided over their own impressive Empire of land (both French and English), wealth, and power (this was known as the Angevin Empire, and included English Kings Henry II, Richard I, and John). Philip II began to seize several fiefs in Normandy that belonged to John, Duke of Normandy and King of England. His ally, Guy of Thouars, the acting Regent of the Duchy of Brittany, was happy to assist Philip II in this task. Brittany and Normandy, as you’ll recall, had a long-standing rivalry. Guy decided to attack the Norman-held island of Mont-Saint Michel. The Abbey refused to surrender, so Guy torched the village and massacred all of the locals. He failed to conquer the Abbey itself, as it was protected by stone fortifications. However, the fire spread to the roofs of the Abbey and heavily damaged it. Philip II, horrified by Guy’s actions, took responsibility for them. He provided funds to construct a new Gothic-style church, plus a refectory and cloister.
This new Abbey was completed in 1228, and is what you currently see when you go to Mont-Saint-Michel (plus restoration work and various additions/alterations made throughout the centuries). The layout of the buildings on the island reflect an idealized model of feudal society: God and the monastery are at the top, the great halls just below, the stores and housing for the nobles and merchants come next, then the protective walls, and then, just outside of the fortifications, the small houses belonging to the fishermen and farmers.
Normandy continued to be a source of tension between England and France, eventually spilling over in the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). Thanks to William the Conqueror, the (now) English royal family had French-Norman origins, and they continued to hold property and titles back in Normandy, and in other regions throughout France. Like Philip II, other French monarchs resented and were threatened by the power these English monarchs held. The French tried to seize these lands and strip the English nobles of these titles when an opportunity presented itself. The English, naturally, opposed these efforts. Additionally, marriage alliances had been made between the royal families of the two nations. The offspring from these matches provided the English monarchs with what they felt was a blood claim to the French throne, and they were eager to press it when succession issues arose in France. That’s as specific as I’m going to get because The Hundred Years’ War is a huge topic on its own. Suffice it to say that the province of Normandy and the people who had claims on it remained a sticking point between the two nations. Mont-Saint-Michel was part of Normandy, and it was also located on the English Channel. If the English got it in their mind to invade, then the Mont would end up right in the crossfire.
Charles VI of France (1368-1422) anticipated the needs of Mont-Saint-Michel in the case of an invasion, and so he added major fortifications to the Abbey, strengthened the ramparts, and built additional towers. Thanks to these improvements, Mont-Saint-Michel was able to withstand all efforts by the English to to capture it throughout the Hundred Years’ War. The English made it as far south as the Loire Valley in France, so this was no small feat! The Mont was first besieged in 1423-1424, and then again in 1433-1434. This was an impressive show of resistance from the tiny island community, and it inspired many—including Joan of Arc.
Below you can see some of the ramparts at the base of the island as they appear today.
During the Reformation (1517-1648), Mont-Saint-Michel began to wane in popularity and prestige. Fewer pilgrims made the trek to the Mont. By the time the French Revolution broke out in 1789, there were barely any monks left in residence. The Abbey was closed in 1791 and converted into a prison. Clerical opponents of the republican regime were held there, including up to 300 priests at one time. Due to this, the Abbey earned the nickname “Bastille of the Sea.”
The Mont and Abbey in the 17th & 18th centuries.
The Mont and Abbey from the 20th century onward to today.
The Abbey at Mont-Saint-Michel remained a prison until 1863, and held up to 700 political prisoners. In 1863, Victor Hugo and several other people recognized the historic value of the Abbey and campaigned to close the prison. 650 prisoners were transferred, and the Abbey was restored. The Mont was declared a historic monument in 1874. In 1879, a raised causeway was built to provide better access to the island. In 1979, the Mont and its Abbey were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
Some man-made changes to the coastal environment surrounding Mont-Saint-Michel in the last century or two have had the unforeseen effect of silt building up so high in the bay that the Mont ceased being an official island. In the map below, you’ll see that a mass of land has formed where the former raised causeway of 1879 was located. This causeway prevented the tide from moving freely. Additionally, the Cousenon river was canalized, which reduced its flow of water into the ocean. Other stretches of land that were once underwater have been drained and turned into pastureland, which has shortened the distance between the Mont and the mainland. In 2006, the French government announced a $164 billion project that aimed to make Mont-Saint-Michel an island again by removing the silt that had built up in the bay. Construction of the new raised bridge and removal of the old causeway was part of that plan, as was moving the visitor parking lot to the mainland. A hydraulic dam was also built, which uses the water from the tides and the Cousenon river to further remove the silt. Hopefully, in a few years Mont-Saint-Michel will become an official island once again.
All right, now that the history has been covered, let’s take a tour of the island and the Abbey.
Here’s a closer view of some of the ramparts I showed earlier.
A gate leading into the small village.
The Grand Rue, aka. Main and Only Street. While we were wandering, we saw (and heard!) a FedEx guy arrive with a cart that rattled very heavily on the cobblestones.
There are 50 shops on the island. Some people might complain that it’s a little touristy but Rick Steves has pointed out that, as a pilgrimage site, Mont-Saint-Michel has been a tourist site for a long time. There have been little shops selling trinkets and food for generations. Omelettes were popular with pilgrims, who had to make the most of their time before the tide returned and cut them off from the mainland once more.
Around 2.5 million people visit Mont-Saint-Michel every year. Only 25 people sleep on the Mont each night (including monks, not including hotel visitors).
Remember how I said Joan of Arc was inspired by the resistance that Mont-Saint-Michel displayed during the Hundred Years’ War? Well, now she, in turn, inspires the inhabitants of and visitors to the community. There is a statue of her standing outside the Église Saint-Pierre.
Here are some pictures from inside the chapel.
Saint Michael, slaying the dragon.
An interesting stained-glass panel.
Saint/Archangel Michael, again. (I’m sensing a theme).
Sorry about the railing in the photo below, but I thought the dragon/demon depicted was worth sharing with you.
There is a small, beautiful cemetery outside the chapel, with the spires of the Abbey looming overhead.
It’s a lovely walk up to the Abbey. Buildings are squeezed in closely to each other, making the most of what space there is.
You can always see the spires of the Abbey overhead, drawing you ever up.
The views get better as you go higher.
The ramp that they used to haul supplies up into the Abbey. Remember that for later.
The top spire of the Abbey features Saint Michael slaying the dragon.
The entry into the Abbey. I was unable to squeeze the entire building into one frame.
This tile bears the maker’s mark of the person who laid & or completed it. The numbers helped sort out who got paid for the work.
I don’t know what was up with the giant griffin sculpture.
The view from the square in front of the Abbey was incredible.
The Island of Tombelaine, again. View from the Abbey.
View of the Couesenon river and the raised bridge, from the Abbey.
All right, let’s go in! Sadly, the pictures taken inside didn’t turn out the best. I had a scratch on my camera lens that sometimes messed up the camera’s ability to focus. Shots I took outside were mostly okay, but interior shots suffered the most.
Virgin and child. From the beginning of the 13th century. Comes from the former prioress of Montois de Ballant (commune in Vessey, Manche).
Christ descending to Limbo. 1547. Comes from the choir fence from the ancient Church of Saint-Pierre, in Caen.
I liked this sneaky dragon in the top right corner of this relief.
The Four Evangelists. 1547. From the choir fence from the ancient Church of Saint-Pierre, in Caen.
An extension of the earlier griffin sculpture.
A former stairwell.
There was an exhibit on sculpture going on inside the Abbey. I didn’t really care for them.
Saint Madeleine Chapel.
A black Virgin Mary and Child.
All right, remember that ramp I told you about earlier? I’ll refresh your memory.
There’s a huge wheel that six men would walk on, like hamsters, to pull the loads up.
Again, hard to get all of it in one frame.
View down the ramp from the window where the goods would be hauled in.
Looking slightly to the right of the ramp. That is steep! Practically a sheer drop.
A view from the same window, sans ramp.
Okay, back to touring the Abbey.
The Meeting of the Three Dead and the Three Alive. End of the 13th century. Fragment of a painted mural from the ruins of the ancient infirmary of the medieval Abbey, found in 1979.
I love the architectural details in this room.
I took a picture of this because the rock shows some fire damage. Not sure from what…
Below is a model of the statue that lies at the top of the Abbey’s tallest spire; Saint Michael slaying the dragon.
All right, we’re outside the Abbey and heading back down to the village.
An impressive-looking door.
Beautiful stone house.
Exploring the ramparts and the houses that are set along it.
This is so beautiful it makes my eyes hurt.
Looking back up at the Abbey.
Back to the ramparts and the houses.
Please excuse the large raindrop in the top right of the picture. I just love this stone house and it’s the only frame I took of it.
A cool door.
I love this. A look-out post? You can see another view of it in two pictures, above.
I love a nice timber-framed house or two.
Check out the shingles on the roof and side of this house!
Looking down on the Grande Rue.
The other side of that gate I took a picture of earlier.
What a gorgeous tower. Check out the window shutter!
I can’t resist pink hydrangeas, so here’s a second one.
Cute blue door.
A history museum that we, sadly, didn’t have time to go see.
Saint Michael and his slain dragon on a lamp post.
That’s it for Mont-Saint-Michel! We really enjoyed our time there. I really felt like I could imagine what it would be to explore a medieval village from wandering its streets. It was definitely worth the trip.
I would also like to visit Saint Malo one day, which is located about 50 km to the west. That was the setting for the excellent novel “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr.