Mont St. Michel

Mont St. Michel is on the north coast of France, near the border of Brittany and Normandy, and home to centuries of tradition.

In the early eighth century, the Archangel Michael appeared to Bishop Aubert of Avranges, who started an oratory. In 966, a Benedictine monastery was established. In 1020, Richard II began the Abbey Church, and supported Abbot Hildebert's construction efforts. Over time, the spiritual foundations of the abbey waned, and in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it was used as a prison. In 1874, the French government assumed responsibility for the abbey's upkeep and restoration.

What makes this monument striking, and the destination of so many visitors in the past twelve centuries, is its magnificent, almost arrogant location.


Mont St. Michel is a small quasi-island, separated by approximately one kilometer of waves from the mainland at high tide. It is about one kilometer in diameter and about 80 meters high, jutting defiantly above the ocean.

At low tide, however, it is separated from the mainland by approximately one kilometer of sand. Before a causeway was built in 1879, the only approach to the Mont was by foot over this land bridge.

This was never a casual stroll, however. The tides here are among the greatest in France, with a swing of up to 14m between the high and low water marks. The unwary pedestrian could easily be drowned by the sudden onslaught of high tide.

Furthermore, the force of those terrible tides shifts the sands about unpredictably, leading to unchartable quicksand fields. (The Bayeux tapestry bears the mention that Harold the Saxon and William the Conquerer, visited Mont St. Michel. Hic Harold dux trahebat eos de arena, it says, "Harold pulled them out of the quicksand.") Pilgrims needed great faith to visit Mont St. Michel!

Modern pilgrims can drive above the water, bypassing quicksand and irresistible tides. When they arrive, they will find an edifice nearly as impressive as its geographical location.

Architectural History

The first spurt of grand construction commenced in 1020, with Abbot Hildebert's ambitious works. Instead of removing rock to make a level base for the church, Hildebert added a masonry foundation to make a level base, and built from there. By 1058, the church was well-enough established to host William and Harold. That construction was completed in 1135, but in the meantime Abbot Roger II planned and built a trilevel gallery/cloister/dormatory as well.

In about 1170, Abbot Robert de Toringy started building a new facade on the western side of the church. In 1203, the Duke of Brittany accidentally set fire to the church as a side effect of Phillip Augustus expelling the British from Normandy. Ooops.

Phillip Augustus was not too happy about Archangel Michael's building being damaged, so used his influence with the King of France to allocate funds to repair the buildings. As is frequently the case with public monies, there was a little bit of alteration of the plan, and Abbot Jordan planed and started building The Merveille - The Marvel - in around 1210. The Merveille contains a number of great halls (presumably for dining and assembly), kitchens, cloisters, and a dormatory. Work was completed around 1230.

Unfortunately, Hildebert's original masonry was not adequate for supporting the weight of the granite his successors placed upon it. In 1300, one of de Torigny's towers collapsed, followed in 1421 by the collapse of Hildebert's nave. As there was some minor business about a war with the English going on at that time, reconstruction was stalled until 1450 and was not completed until 1521.

In 1618 the de Toringy facade started to collapse, and had to be pulled down a mere century and a half later.

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Copyright, Kaitlin Duck Sherwood, 1994

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