Fontevraud Abbey, the impressive Plantagenet family necropolis – Meanderings through France n° 198
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
Fontevraud Abbey is one of the largest monastic cities in Europe founded in 1101. Two great historical characters, Robert d’Arbrissel its founder and Eleanor of Aquitaine have deeply marked the history of this unique abbey. Although it’s been deconsecrated during the French Revolution and turned into one of France toughest prisons, it still is a landmark monument in Europe’s Christian history.
Fontevraud Abbey is located halfway in between Tours and Angers in the Loire Valley. It was founded by Robert d’Arbrissel, an amazing character born in Brittany circa 1047. His life is a blend of legend and historic truth. He was a monk and hermit who preached the Gospel throughout northern France. This charismatic man was soon followed with a big crowd, men and women alike, from all walks of life. In 1099 he settled in a remote glen where the construction of Fontevraud Abbey soon began.
From the beginning it was meant to welcome several hundred monks and nuns and four different monasteries were built next to the abbey church. In the early years the abbey kind of created a scandal since monks and nuns lived together in order to be subjected to temptation but of course resisting it! This scandal is the reason why Robert never was beatified in spite of his undisputable contribution to the Roman Catholic Church influence. Robert d’Arbrissel died in 1116 and was buried in the choir of the church. Before his death this extraordinary man made sure that a woman would always be appointed abbess of Fontevraud. A woman ruling men and women was a total novelty for the time! Pétronille de Chemillé was the very first one and was followed by many other strong ladies including five abbesses born in the Bourbon royal French family.
Fontevraud and the Plantagenet
Eleanor of Aquitaine was one of the most powerful women of the 12th century, if not the most powerful one of them all. In 1137 she undoubtedly was Europe’s most eligible bachelorette, ruling one of the largest holdings of land in France. She was married to French king Louis VI son in that same year. Soon afterwards Louis VI died and the new royal couple was crowned King and Queen of France. They had two daughters and Louis soon reproached Eleanor for not giving him a male heir. She was the one to seek divorce and the marriage was annulled in 1152 on the grounds of consanguinity. Eight weeks later she married Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy.
Eleanor and Henry II were crowned Queen and King of England in 1154. On that same year they went to Fontevraud Abbey for the first time. This was the beginning of a long love story between the Plantagenet family and Fontevraud. Two of their eight children grew up in Fontevraud Abbey for several years, Joan born in 1165 and John who was later known as King John Lackland. However this second marriage was not a happy one and when Henry in 1170 proclaimed himself Duke of Aquitaine instead of Eleanor, they separated once and for all.
During the years to come Eleanor and her children never stopped plotting against Henry. In 1189 Henry is emotionally and physically exhausted and dies in Chinon (in the Loire Valley). He is the first Plantagenet to be buried in Fontevraud Abbey. Ten years later Richard the Lionheart is killed while besieging Chalus castle. Eleanor chooses to have her son buried in Fontevraud next to his father. Deeply affected by her brother’s death, Joan who had spent most of her childhood in the abbey goes back there and dies shortly afterwards. Finally Eleanor retires to the abbey in 1200. She dies four years later and is buried in the Abbey church next to her husband, her son Richard and her daughter Joan. Eleanor’s children and grandchildren kept the tradition and Fontevraud thus became the Plantagenet family necropolis.
Fontevraud Abbey today
Fontevraud still is an impressive site both by its size and by its stunning architecture. It now hosts a centre for modern and contemporary art, a hotel and a Michelin stared restaurant. It also proposes international arts residence programs and is a landmark place for concerts and artistic performances. Off the four original monasteries only two remain, the Grand -Moutier and the Saint Lazare Priory. The original 12th century cloister has been rebuilt in the 16th century in a Renaissance style. It really is huge and gives access to the main parts of the abbey: the chapter room with an amazing tangle of stone arches and Renaissance paintings, the vast monks’ refectory, the dormitories with their magnificent inverted hull shaped roofing frame-work, the abbey church… The kitchens are quite unique, set in a surprising Roman octagonal building (they are presently closed for restoration works). The highlight of the visit is of course the church where under the highest ceiling you will be able to see Eleanor, Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and Joan recumbent statues.
Staying at the abbey’s hotel for one or several nights is a unique experience. In the evening after all the abbey’s visitors are gone, you will be able to enjoy the abbey on your own. All the exhibition halls, the cloister, the church remain open and you will live a very special experience in this ancient place. Beautifully illuminated the abbey’s walls create a magic stage and imagination takes control… The 4-star hotel has 53 monastic bedrooms with plain white walls, indoor wooden shutters… and no air conditioning. A place apart for a special stay! Breakfast is served in the restaurant room surrounding a small cloister. You’ll enjoy a hearty breakfast with plenty of local products to start your day in a delicious way.
Thibaut Ruggeri is in charge of “”Fontevraud Le Restaurant” since 2014. This young chef was born in Megève in the French Alps and has worked in several stared restaurants in France and was awarded with the Bocuse d’Or in 2013, an award said to be the most prestigious gastronomic competition in the world. His cuisine is inspired by the vegetables from the abbey’s vegetable garden and is a contemporary blend of extra-fresh products with high culinary skills. His ambitious aim? Reconcile beauty and taste! Of course the menu changes with the seasons or, more specifically, with lunar cycles. In the quiet atmosphere of the priory’s cloister you will enjoy a sophisticated cuisine.
More and practical info at www.fontevraud.fr/en/
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes