A potted history of Fontevraud l’abbaye

Fontevraud Abbey by Richard Leray

Fontevraud l’abbaye a painting of l’abbaye royale by local artist and illuminateur

Richard Leray

Back in the 12th century in 1101 an itinerant monk called Robert d’Abrissel stumbled across a majestic forest and a secluded area that he felt would be perfect to establish an abbey for both monks and nuns.  It was quite a revolutionary and some might argue controversial move for the times i.e. men and women of a religious order inhabiting the same space.  They were however kept apart and had separate quarters and once the abbey was built, the monks lived outside the abbey walls, so never the twain would meet….some stories however linger to this day pointing to the fact that there were nuns and monks who met secretly for trysts and conversations.  Such secrets however remain unrecorded in the pages of time and we can but speculate on the accuracy of these whispered legends. It was however certainly the case that the nuns were the big chiefs at the abbey.  In all 38 of them ruled not only the abbey and its inhabitants, but also all the religious institutions throughout France and for many centuries also of England.  Napoleon put an end to that in 1804 when he decreed that the abbey become a prison.  The abbey and most of its Ecclesiastical accoutrements were stripped and plundered bare by the revolutionaries of 1789.  Today you can see the Golden Altar, that was saved at the time from the abbey by some brave villagers, now located in the church of St. Michel opposite the entrance to the abbey.  There is a quaint story of a farmer who bought the abbey for a few hundred francs – 7,762 francs to be precise, but with a not so quaint outcome of him being forced to hand it over to the Empire.  

Over its two hundred year history as a prison, Fontevraud was considered one of the harshest penitentiaries in the land.  French Resistance prisoners were shot there under the Vichy Government and one of them is commemorated in the village to this day and each year flowers are laid at the commemorative stone.  This was a truly dark period for Fontevraud and I have seen pictures of swastikas and flags hanging from the awnings of the town hall which chills the blood.  We are told that the former glove factory in the village was during that time the headquarters of the Gastapo.


Today the Town Hall is resplendent in its tuffeau beauty, but during the reign of Vichy France and the terror that ensued it was the swastika that prevailed

In its heyday the abbey was famous as a salon for the intelligentsia and as an education establishment for the daughters of Bourbon Kings and Queens who studied with the nuns.  One of the most famously cultured and powerful abbesse was Gabrielle de Rochechouart nee Mortemart. 

Abbesse Rochechouart

She is commemorated by references within the abbey and by the name of the avenue where Chez Teresa is located today (we are at number 6).   At the time of the nuns, the abbey also had a reputation for being self sufficient in terms of growing fresh produce such as fruit, vegetables, grains, herbs and a vineyard.  Herbs were used as aromatics for flavouring dishes and also for medicinal purposes.  There would also have been livestock.  Legend has it that a favourite drink of the famous Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine who ended her days at Fontevraud l’abbaye was almond milk.  Today visitors can see in the Nave at the abbey, Eleanor’s effigy alongside her husband Henry II and their son Richard Coeur de Lion.

medieval woman collecting herbs

I keep meaning to do some more research into the story that during her reign as Queen in the 19th century that Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901) was keen to have the tombs of Henry 11 and Richard his son returned to Britain.  Victoria was great friends with Napoleon III’s wife Eugenie (the latter spent her final years in England).  Victoria almost managed, through this friendship to have the tombs transferred to Britain, but in the final analysis this proposal was rejected.  It is however in any case, doubtful that any of the actual remains of any of the royals remain in the abbey at Fontevraud, let alone in the tombs.  The abbey was thoroughly ransacked in the late 18th century and most of its contents either stolen or scattered to the winds.  The tombs are valuable as symbols rather then as the repositories of the remain of their original incumbents.

Chronology of Fontevraud l’abbaye


Birth of Robert d’Abrissel in rennes




Hersend de Champagne is appointed abbess

1115 – 1149

Petronille de chenille is elected first abbess of Fontevraud


Robert d’Abrissel dies


Pope Calixtus II consecrates the abbey’s choir

1149 – 1155

Abbacy of Mathide d’Anjou

1150 – 1200

The order has more than a hundred priories in its domain; 10 of them are in England


Death of Henry II, Plantagenet King of England


Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II’s widow retires to Fontevraud


Death of their son, Richard the Lionheart



Death of their second son John


Decline in the number of monasteries

1457 – 1477

Abbacy of Marie de Bretagne who reformed the Fontevraud Abbey

1491 – 1534

Abbacy of Renee de Bourbon; the first Abbess of the Bourbon line. She established strict separation.

1611 – 1637

Abbacy of Louis de Bourbon-Lavedan

1637 – 1670

Abbacy of Jeanne Baptiste de Bourbon, natural daughter of Henry iV who completed the reform of the order

1638 – 1640

Insubordination of the monks

1670 – 1704

Abbacy of Marie-Madeleine Gabrielle de Rochechouart, appointed by Louis XIV


The daughters of Louis XV board at Fontevraud for 10 years

1742 – 1753

Abbacy of Louise Claire de Montmorin de ST. Hereme


The Abbess burns all of the Jansenist Books at the Abbey in the Courtyard

1765 – 1792

Abbacy of Julie-Gillette d’Antin the last Abbess to leave in 1792


A Decree orders the Nuns to vacate the premises


Fontevraud is abandoned and plundered 10 days after the death of Louis XVI


The Abbey is sold – A farmer buys it for 7,762 francs


A Decree signed by Napoleon transforms the abbey into a prison


Arrival of the First Prisoners


The Abbey is classified as an Historic Monument

1840 – 1900

Restoration by the Prisoners of the large cloister and the Chapter House of the Refectory

Post 1900

Restoration of the abbey church and the Roman Kitchens


Jean Foyer, Keeper of the Seals (Minister of Justice) from Angers closes the Prison

Since 1965

The beginning of the biggest restoration project in Europe

1975 to the present day

In 1975 Fontevraud Abbey became the Arts Centre of the West with a focus on music






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