A magical location from the Middle Ages, Mont-Saint-Michel is tucked away off the coast of Normandy. This tidal island appears to have been taken straight out of a fairy tale, wrapped in a charming village and topped with a tower that towers above the surrounding landscape. Additionally, if you enjoy exploring castles, you can learn about some of the incredible castles in France right here.
Although Mont-Saint-Michel may look like a castle in the clouds, its past is not as idyllic as one might imagine. The island, which first served as a center of authority in the sixth century, later developed into a strategic stronghold, the location of an abbey, and even a prison during the American Revolution. Together with its fantastical appearance, Mont-Saint-Michel has become one of France’s most well-known tourist destinations and beloved landmarks.
One of the most iconic sights in all of Europe is the Mont-Saint-Michel. The mount is attractive from a great distance due to its location in a captivating bay that is shared by Brittany and Normandy. This breathtakingly beautiful place has long captured people’s attention. Early in the eighth century, Aubert, bishop of the nearby hilltop town of Avranches, claimed that the Archangel Michael himself had persuaded him to have a church constructed atop the island just out to sea. This is when the story of how the mount came to be a great Christian pilgrimage site begins.
The Normandy dukes, followed by the French kings, encouraged the construction of a significant Benedictine abbey on Mont-Saint-Michel beginning in 966. Throughout the Middle Ages, grand monastic structures were added, one particularly dizzying wing earning the moniker the Marvel. Some of Europe’s greatest intellects and manuscript illuminators were drawn to the Abbey of the Mont-Saint-Michel as it developed into a renowned center of learning.
Despite the constant cross-Channel fighting, a large number of pilgrims came; in fact, the ramparts at the island’s base were constructed to keep the English forces out. The steep village street is lined with additional beautiful structures that have been transformed into tourist-friendly museums, restaurants, hotels, and shops.
About Mont Saint-Michel
Mont-Saint-Michel, a rocky tidal island, is joined to the mainland by an embankment that is entirely submerged at high tide and exposed at low tide. Due to this phenomenon, the special location would eventually be of significant strategic value.
The island served a different purpose before it became a military outpost. An Irish hermit founded Mont-Tombe there in the fifth century, and for about 300 years it was the hub of Gallo-Roman culture. However, this came to an end when it was taken over by the Franks in the seventh century, and soon after that, it became a popular destination for pilgrims.
Accessing the Mont-Saint-Michel
To preserve the exceptional landscape of the Mont-Saint-Michel, the visitor parking lots have been moved farther inland. About 1.5 miles separate the parking lots from the mount. After parking, proceed to the Place des Navettes, where specially designed shuttle buses known as passeurs will transport you to the mount. The passenger stop is 450 meters from the mount itself, while the shuttle bus stop is 800 meters from the parking lots. Between 7:30 am and midnight, the passeurs are in operation every day at regular intervals.
The trans-channel culture that had persisted since the Romans left in 460 was put an end to when the Franks ransacked the Armorican stronghold of Gallo-Roman culture and power at Mont-Saint-Michel in the sixth and seventh centuries. From roughly the fifth to the eighth century, Mont Saint-Michel belonged to the territory of Neustria and, in the early ninth century, was an important place in the marches of Neustria. The island was known as Mont Tombe before the first monastic complex was built there in the eighth century. Avranches’ bishop Aubert of Avranches is said to have seen the archangel Michael in 708 and received the command to erect a church on the rocky islet.
In the Treaty of Compiègne, the Frankish king agreed to hand over to the Bretons the Cotentin peninsula and the Avranchin, including Mont Saint-Michel, which is historically associated with the city of Avranches, because he was unable to defend his realm from Viking attacks. A brief period of Breton’s control over Mont began at this point. These regions and Mont Saint-Michel remained separate bishoprics under the newly established Breton archbishopric of Dol and were never truly a part of the duchy of Brittany. These customary ties to the Rouen archbishopric were maintained when Rollo confirmed Franco as its leader.
In 1067, William the Conqueror’s bid for the English throne received support from the Mont Saint-Michel monastery. A small island off the southwest coast of Cornwall that was modeled after the Mount and turned into a Norman priory known as St. Michael’s Mount of Penzance was among the properties and grounds he received in return on the English side of the English Channel.
German troops occupied Mont Saint-Michel while occupying France in World War II, using the St. Auburn church as a lookout post. Between July 18, 1940, and the end of the German occupation of France, the island attracted about 325,000 German tourists and soldiers. After the initial Allied invasion on D-Day, many worn-out German soldiers sought refuge in fortresses like Mont Saint-Michel. Allied forces entered the Mont Saint-Michel on August 1, 1944. Two British reporters, Gault MacGowan of the New York Sun and Paul Holt of the London Daily Express, as well as throngs of joyful French locals, were with them.
Mont Saint-Michel and its bay were included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1979. The list was compiled using criteria like culture, heritage, architectural importance, and both man-made and natural beauty. You can read some of the best places in France to visit on a budget here if you’re a traveler on a tight budget.
The Abbey’s Design
According to legend, the archangel Michael paid Bishop Aubert of Avranches of a commune in Normandy a visit in 708 CE. This church would change a lot over the following few hundred years. It was redesigned in the pre-Romanesque style, which incorporated Germanic and Mediterranean elements, in 966 CE. It was rebuilt once more in the following century. This time, it adopted a Romanesque style with small windows, shallow arches, and vaulted ceilings.
Much of the abbey was destroyed in a fire that broke out as a result of a Breton siege in the 13th century. Then, it was rebuilt once more, this time with Gothic architectural features. The Merveille silhouette that has mesmerized visitors for centuries was created because of the church’s expansion and elevation.