Mont St Michel
” Le Couesnon a fait folie cy est le Mont en Normandie”
“The [River] Couesnon, in it’s madness, put the Mount in Normandy” – Old Breton Saying
Although it isn’t actually in Brittany (although it used to be, several hundred years ago, before the river Couesnon regrettably changed it’s course as legend has it), Mont St Michel is still worth a visit, preferably from a distance in August, or if you do venture in, on a sunny morning in February when there are slightly fewer coachloads of Chinese and Japanese tourists. The mount is currently the second most visited attraction in France outside of Paris. At the moment there is a massive 164€ million project underway to build a hydraulic dam and make the Mount an island once more. The project is due to be finished in 2015. The current causeway will disappear and pedestrian bridge will be constructed so that people can reach the island.
Update: The big new car parks before the causeway have now been built and as from April 2012 if you visit the site you have to park your car here, walk 800m to catch the shuttle bus which will take you to the Mount. There is a disabled car park nearer the shuttle buses for easier access to them.
Mont Saint-Michel was used in the sixth and seventh centuries as an Armorican stronghold of Romano-Breton culture and power, until it was ransacked by the Franks, thus ending the trans-channel culture that had stood since the departure of the Romans in AD 460.
Before the construction of the first monastic establishment in the 8th century, the island was called Mont Tombe. According to legend, the archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in 708 and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel’s instruction, until Michael burned a hole in the bishop’s skull with his finger.
The mount gained strategic significance in 933 when William “Long Sword”, Duke of Normandy, annexed the Cotentin Peninsula, definitively placing the mount in Normandy. It is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates the 1066 Norman conquest of England. Ducal patronage financed the spectacular Norman architecture of the abbey in subsequent centuries.
In 1067, the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel gave its support to duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. It was rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island located at the west of Cornwall, which, modelled after the Mount, became a Norman priory named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance.
During the Hundred Years’ War the English made repeated assaults on the island but were unable to seize it, partly because of the abbey’s improved fortifications.
The wealth and influence of the abbey extended to many daughter foundations, including St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. However, its popularity and prestige as a centre of pilgrimage waned with the Reformation, and by the time of the French Revolution there were scarcely any monks in residence. The abbey was closed and converted into a prison, 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 finally closed in 1863, and the mount was declared a historic monument in 1874.
The Mont Saint-Michel and its bay were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979, as they rank very high on such World Heritage Site criteria as cultural, historical, and architectural significance, as well as human-created and natural beauty.