It was founded in the early 12th century by Robert d'Arbrissel, a visionary itinerant preacher who set up a Benedictine community of monks, nuns, nobles, lepers and vagabonds. Due to Robert's charisma, there flowed rich donations, much of it from the counts of Anjou.
The radical founder entrusted the running of the abbey to an abbess, usually from a noble family, and the abbey became a favourite sanctuary for the female aristocracy, including Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The Abbess was in charge of the "Grand Moûtier" (Great Minster) of St. Mary's for the nuns, the St. Benedict infirmary for the sick, St. Lazarus for the lepers, and St. Magdalene's for repentant women (prostitutes), and enjoyed the unique privilege of taking orders from none but the Pope in spiritual matters and from the French king in temporal affairs. The monks had their own home, built outside the walls of the abbey, and were ruled over by a Prior, under the authority of the Abbess.
Modern stained-glass has replaced the old windows. They represent the coats of arms of the Plantagenet kings and of the counts of Toulouse, who lie buried in the church.
|Effigies of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine|
|Romanesque kitchen, or Evraud's Tower|
Legend has it that it was, in olden times, the lair of a brigand, who used to light a beacon after dark to lure on travellers who had lost their way in the forest, to rob them undisturbed of their belongings. More prosaically, it is nothing but the old kitchen of the monastery, the only one of the Romanesque period still existing in France.
It is an octagonal tower roofed with overlapping flags laid out like inverted scales. Its pattern allows the rain to fall in a scattered pattern rather than all in one spot, which would deteriorate the more porous walls.
|Inside view of kitchen chimneys|
The monastic era ended with the French Revolution. It was only with the arrival of Napoleon that the Abbey was converted into a penitentiary, ensuring its survival. The first prisoners arrived in 1814 and eventually numbered 2000. During WWII, the Vichy government used the Abbey to imprison French Resistance fighters.
Outside the abbey, there are multi levels of gardens, with some plants representing what would have been available during those days.