Mont Saint Michel history
Standing on a rock peak, the church of Mont Saint Michel has a commanding view over the nearby bay. In prehistoric times, the bay was a part of the coastland. Over millions of years, rising sea levels lead to erosions which tore down and shaped the coastal landscape.
Some blocks of granite resisted the wear and tear of the ocean better than its surroundings, which is why Mont-Saint-Michel, together with a few other rocks, is standing tall in an otherwise flat and ever-changing landscape.
The origin of the Mont Saint Michel dates back to sixth and seventh century, when Armorican Gauls used the island as a stronghold of Breton culture and power. During this time the island was known as “Monte Tombe”.
After the Romans left Britannia – today’s United Kingdom – in mid 5th century, many Britons crossed the channel due to fear of the increasing Anglo-Saxon influence in their former home country. This emigration is the reason why this French region is called Bretagne, in English “Brittany”- “little Britain”. The Monte Tombe served as a stronghold until it was later sacked by the Franks, which ended the era of Celtic cultural links between Britannia and the region Bretagne.
Mont Saint Michel got its current name in 709, when the bishop of Avranches, St. Aubert, ordered a small church to be built on the site. The legend says that the Archangel Saint Michael, leader of the armies of heaven, appeared before the bishop and instructed him to build the church on this rocky isle.
Today, a golden statue of Saint Michael can be seen at the top of the church spire, protecting and overlooking the entire island.
The original church of Mont Saint Michel was rather small, but the church and its surroundings grew as time passed. Much of this construction was financed by ducal patronage. After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the church gave its support to duke William of Normandy in his claim to the English throne.
This resulted in the church gaining both political and financial power to expand the constructions on Mont Saint Michel. The church was originally a typical Romanesque church but it was, just as many other churches during the late medieval period, affected by the wave of Gothic architecture that spread throughout Europe. The church is today seen as a Gothic church.
Throughout the Middle Age, a village grew up around the church, mostly on the eastern side of the island. Many of these old buildings are still standing today. In the 14th century, during the Hundred Years War between France and England, the church of Mont Saint Michel and its surrounding village was fortified in order to be able to fend off English attackers.
Much of the walls around the island dates back to this period. The English did assault the island several times, but were unable to seize it.
Mont Saint Michel has ever since its creation been a place of pilgrimage, but its importance grew during the Middle Age. For nearly one thousand years, people have traveled to Mont Saint Michel in hope for salvation. The land strip between land and the island was called “the path to paradise” and it’s quite easy to understand the fascination people had, and still have, for this place.
Mont Saint Michel stands like a beacon of light in the flat landscape, almost like taken from a fairytale or a movie.
Mont Saint Michel’s popularity as a centre of pilgrimage did however decrease with the Reformation which began in early 16th century.
By the time of the French Revolution, there were scarcely any monks in residence. After the revolution, the church was closed and converted into a prison, designed to hold religious and political enemies to the new regime.
In 1836, influential figures including the popular writer Victor Hugo, launched a campaign to restore what was seen as a national architectural treasure. This lead to a closure of the prison almost 30 years later and Mont Saint Michel was declared a historic monument in 1874.
Why visit Mont Saint Michel ?
Mont Saint Michel is one of the most remarkable examples of medieval architecture in the whole world. Together with its surroundings, Mont Saint Michel is simply breathtaking.
Mont Saint Michel was the first French site to be added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 1979.
It was listed with criteria such as “cultural”, “historical”, “of architectural significance”, as well as “human-created” and “natural beauty”. It’s a clear testament to how special and unique this place really is.
While the Mont Saint Michel itself is outstanding, it is not the only thing this area is known for. The other thing is its tidewater. Tidewater is caused by the gravity of the sun and the moon, together with the earth’s rotation. The tide varies the most shortly after a full moon. Mont Saint Michel happens to have some of the highest tides in all of Europe.
The tide varies greatly; roughly 15 meters between high and low water marks. This area also has some of the fastest moving tides. During the period when the tides shift the most, the sea pulls back 15 kilometers from the coast and comes in again very quickly.
As Victor Hugo described it, the water moves “as swiftly as a galloping horse”. Needless to say, it is dangerous to venture alone into the bay.
While Mont Saint Michel no longer attracts masses of pilgrims, it attracts another type of visitor. You guessed it; tourists. The island itself only has a population of around 50, but it is visited by around 3.5 million people each year.
Mont Saint Michel location
Mont Saint Michel is located on the border between lower Normandy and Brittany in northern France. The mountain is situated approximately one kilometer off the Normandy’s north coast, at the mouth of the Couesnon River, near Avranches.
For the exact location of Mont Saint Michel, check out the location Map to the right.