Fontevraud, Royal Abbey

The historic Benedictine abbey of Fontevraud lies between Chinon and Saumur, in the area just south of the River Loire. We were lucky, it was an annual French jour de patrimoine, when entry to national museums is free – a great way for a government to encourage interest in local culture and history.

The necropolis

Fontevraud is designated a royal abbey because it was here that Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of the first Plantagenet King Henry II, established in the church a necropolis containing recumbent statues of the dead Plantagenets (from bottom, left to right, then top) Henry II, Eleanor herself set higher than her then-dead husband, their first son Richard I ‘the Lionheart’, and Isabelle, wife of Richard’s brother John. This was intended as a similar idea to the necropolis of French Kings in the church of St Denis in Paris, celebrating the continuity of Plantagenet reign over England/parts of British Isles/Normandy/Aquitaine (the so-called Angevin Empire). The necropolis never really developed after John, then king, ‘lost’ most of the French possessions to the French King Philip in 1204 – an early forced ‘Brexit’ which led to decades of scheming and warfare. The Plantagenets remained kings of England until the death of King Richard III in 1485.

A major feature of this abbey was that it contained both male and female monks/nuns, and was always overseen by a woman. Close links with French royalty ensured its survival until the French Revolution, when the abbeys were dissolved and taken over by the State, and where possible sold off. This was 250 years after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in England.

The abbey at Fontevraud was founded in 1101 by Robert d’Arbrissel, 3 years after founding of the Cistercian movement. This soon developed into a similar chain of monasteries across France, with a few in Spain and England. So controversial was the involvement of women, that  Robert was never canonised by the Catholic Church.

Evraud Tower

The architecture is quite remarkable, as you can see.

After the Revolution Napoleon decreed that the buildings be converted into a prison containing prison workshops. Even the abbey church was adapted to contain first 3 then 5 storeys. The experience of this prison is well described in exhibits at the abbey. The prison was only closed in 1963.

In the meantime, restoration work was recreating the essence of the original abbey. The kitchen/ Evraud Tower was rather imaginatively restored early on. Today, most traces of the adaptation of the abbey buildings to serve as a prison have been removed.

As well as being a tourist attraction in their own right, the abbey buildings now serve as a cultural centre for Western France, with many events and exhibitions.

Today Fontevraud looks magnificent. It provides a great day out to immerse yourself in this aspect of French/English history.

Featured image shows tombs of Henry and Eleanor.

Saint Richard Whiting

On entering Glastonbury Abbey, one of the first buildings you come to is the charming little St. Patrick’s Chapel. Here is a mural which recalls the last days of the Abbey in 1539.

At the time of the Dissolution programme which began in 1534, Richard Whiting was the gentle and respected bishop of Glastonbury Abbey, the second richest religious institution in England, with around 100 monks. The story is well told by Wikipedia here.

In essence, Whiting was conned in the early years that the programme would only affect smaller institutions. By 1539 Glastonbury was the only remaining abbey in Somerset. On being told to surrender the Abbey, Whiting refused, acting legally correctly. Naturally, the Glastonbury leaders took steps to keep the abbey’s treasures safe. This was then turned round by the church commissioners, and ultimately Thomas Cromwell acting on behalf of King Henry VIII, as evidence of treason. His defiance was simply not acceptable to the all-powerful king. There was no due process. Whiting was convicted in secret, and executed on Glastonbury Tor with two of his team.

The mural shows three gibbets on Glastonbury Tor, where the 3 men were hanged, drawn and quartered. These were savage times, and of course Whiting was not the first religious leader to be so treated.

Whiting is considered a martyr by the Catholic Church which beatified him over 300 years later.

Dissolution

One of the great infamous acts of British history was Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries 1536-41. On a recent trip across England we came across three of the great religious houses that were dissolved in this process – those at Glastonbury, Dunstable and Bury St Edmunds. The sheer extent of the ruins and the size of the remaining fragments emphasise the enormity of what happened, in a huge transfer of wealth and power from religious to royal authority. Most of the religious buildings in the abbey complexes were subsequently destroyed. Of course, these are just a small sample from the nearly 900 religious houses involved.

A modern day consolation is the wonderful opportunity for photographs offered by the remaining buildings/ fragments.

Glastonbury Abbey
Dunstable Priory, where Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was annulled
Bury St Edmunds Abbey, with modern cathedral tower in background

Cistercian Simplicity

I’ve long found inspiration and sustenance from the beauty and simplicity of the Cistercian abbeys, still found in various states of repair across Europe. For me their simplicity of form is unfailingly beautiful.

In this context I’ve also been aware of the towering spiritual figure of St Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the main instigators of the Cistercian movement, and wondered what sort of person he might have been.

spirit of simplicitySo I couldn’t resist the book ‘The Spirit of Simplicity’, being translations of classical French texts by that modern spiritual seeker Thomas Merton. The book is in two parts. The first part is a text with the book’s title, attributed to Jean-Baptiste Chautard in the mid 1920s. The second part contains selected texts by St Bernard himself on Inner Simplicity. Could this explain what lay behind the beauty of those old Abbeys?

The original Cistercian movement was one of renewal, aiming to return to the Rule of the monastic life originally established by St Benedict (c. 480-550 AD). Inner simplicity was a founding principle, and from this flowed the external simplicity of the forms created. The fathers of the first Abbey at Citeaux in the early 1100s were dedicated to this.

Chautard suggests that there was a golden age of 150 years for the Cistercian movement, when this simplicity was effectively maintained. This was followed by a silver age of another 100 years when it was not so effectively maintained and embellishments crept in. After the middle of the 14th century decline set in – with several causes: the Black Death, religious wars, and then the Reformation. (Paradoxically, Protestantism saw a return to simplicity in the form of religious buildings. Many of the older decorated Gothic buildings now show an almost Cistercian simplicity.) Another renewal movement at the end of the 19th century ensured that there are still some Cistercian Abbeys operating today.

St Bernard himself is regarded as the finest exemplar of the movement. The second part of the book contains his reflections on that simplicity, the need for humility, and obedience in the context of the monk’s life, the importance of the monk knowing himself – so actually quite modern psychologically – the overcoming of pride and dedication to the love of God.

I was quite struck by one particular quote:

And what greater pride is there than that one man should try to impose his own opinion upon the whole community, as if he alone had the spirit of God?

Modern dictators and populists please note. Pride always comes before a fall.

So the outer simplicity of the Cistercian abbey is a reflection of the inner simplicity of the monks. The evident beauty is a reflection of the inner beauty of their souls.

I would not suggest that the life of a monk is right for everyone, but it is clear that this dedication to inner simplicity produces this wonderful contribution to the beauty in the world. Go see some of these superb buildings for yourself – Fountains Abbey in UK, Fontenay, Senanques, Silvacane, Fontfroide, Pontigny and many others in France, Orval in Belgium. There are far too many to list them all. Here are just a few random selected photos.

For most, you must travel to less frequented parts of the country. The communities were built to be self sufficient, away from centres of population. These journeys provide a scenic mini pilgrimage in themselves. Even the less well preserved abbeys, such as Abbeycwmhir in an isolated valley in mid-Wales, once one of the largest abbeys in the UK, have a special atmosphere about them.

abbeycwmhir
Abbeycwmhir

And the book is certainly very readable if it aligns with your interest. Merton knew his stuff.