The Mont Saint Michel from the south
Photo © Eric Pouhier, June 2005
Mont Saint-Michel (English: Mount Saint Michael) is a small rocky tidal island in Normandy, roughly one kilometre from the north coast of France at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches, close to the border of Brittany, which has led to Breton claims to the mount. Originally the Couesnon formed the border between the two duchies, and every so often the river would shift its bank, leading to ownership of the mount shifting between them. The river's bed has now been fixed and Mont Saint Michel is now firmly in Norman hands. It is home to the unusual Benedictine Abbey and steepled church (built between the 11th and 16th centuries) which occupy most of the one-kilometer-diameter clump of rocks jutting out of the waters of the English Channel. The church is crowned by a gold leaf statue of St. Michael by Emmanuel Frémiet, reaching a height of 155 metres (510 feet) above the sea.
In prehistoric times the bay had been covered by the sea, which retreated during multiple glaciations, allowing erosion to shape the coastal landscape over millions of years. Several blocks of granite or granulite emerged in the bay, having resisted the wear and tear of the ocean better than the surrounding rocks. These included the Mont-Dol, Tombelaine, Lillemer and Mont Tombe, later called Mont Saint Michel.
The Mount was connected to the mainland via a thin natural land bridge, which before modernization was covered at high tide and revealed at low tide. Thus, Mont Saint Michel gained a mystical quality, being an island half the time, and being attached to land the other: a tidal island.
However, the insular character of the mount has been compromised by several developments. Over the centuries, the coastal flats have been polderised to create pasture. The coast south of the mount has thus encroached on the distance between the shore and the mount. The Couesnon River has been canalised, reducing the flow of water and thereby encouraging a silting-up of the bay. In 1879, the land bridge was fortified into a true causeway. This prevented the tide from scouring the silt round the mount. Now there are plans to remove the causeway and replace it with a bridge and shuttle.
On 16 June 2006, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin announced a €150 million project (Projet Mont Saint Michel) to build a hydraulic dam that will help remove the accumulated silt and make Mont Saint Michel an island again. It is expected to be completed by 2012.
Le Mont-St-Michel was used in the 6th and 7th centuries as an Armorican stronghold of Romano-British culture and power, until it was sacked by the Franks, thus ending the trans-channel culture that had stood since the departure of the Romans in AD 459.
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 dedication to St. Michael occurred on 16 October 708.
The mount gained strategic significance in 933 when the Normans annexed the Cotentin Peninsula, thereby placing the mount on the new frontier with Brittany. It is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates the 1066 Norman conquest of England. Ducal and royal patronage financed the spectacular Norman architecture of the abbey in subsequent centuries.
During the Hundred Years' War the English made repeated assaults on the island but were unable to seize it partly due to the abbey's improved fortifications. Les Michelettes, two wrought-iron bombards left by the English in their failed 1423-24 siege of Mont-St-Michel, are still displayed near the outer defense wall.
The wealth and influence of the abbey extended to many daughter foundations, including St Michael's Mount in Cornwall, England. 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 high on such World Heritage Site criteria as cultural, historical, and architectural significance, as well as human-created and natural beauty.
An Italian architect, William de Volpiano, was chosen as building contractor for the mount in the 11th century. He designed the Romanesque church of the abbey, daringly placing the transept crossing at the top of the mount. Many underground crypts and chapels had to be built to compensate for this weight; these formed the basis for the supportive upward structure that can be seen today. Today Mont Saint Michel is seen as a Gothic-style church.
Robert de Thorigny, a great supporter of Henry II of England (who was also Duke of Normandy), reinforced the structure of the buildings and built the main façade of the church in the 12th century. Following his annexation of Normandy in 1204, the King of France, Philip Augustus, offered Abbot Jourdain a grant for the construction of a new Gothic-style architectural set which included the addition of the refectory and cloister.
Charles VI is credited with adding major fortifications to the abbey-mount, building towers, successive courtyards and strengthening the ramparts.Mont Saint Michel and St Michael's Mount in Cornwall were historical counterparts. The parallel existence of both reflects a number of corresponding places in Cornwall and Brittany. Indeed, both have the same name in their respective languages: carrick loz en coz in Breton and carrick looz en cooz in Cornish. To this day many Cornish people consider Mont St Michel to be in Brittany, not Normandy.