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The Royal Abbey of Fontevraud

West of Tours


September 2007


Back to North & Centre France


Link to:  The Norman, Angevin and Plantagenet Monarchs of England and the Age of the Crusades



Fontevraud Abbey (near Saumur) was founded by Robert d'Arbrissel in 1099, and soon spawned a few dozen daughter houses in France, Spain and England.  Within its walls were both a nunnery* and a monastery, but its head and senior "officers" had to be women.  This was possibly because the nuns' contingent included some formidable female talent in the form of royalty and nobility (and a few discarded royal mistresses).


After the death of Richard I in 1199, Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 - 1204 (82)) retired to Fontevraud and was buried there alongside hubby Henry II (1133-1154-1189 (56)) and son Richard I (1157-1189-1199 (42)).  In fact the Abbey became the burial place for lots of other Plantagenets, at one stage containing 15 of their tombs (though no more Kings).  Today just 4 are still identifiably there - Henry II, Eleanor, Richard I and Isabella (John's Queen - his tomb and effigy are in Worcester Cathedral, though his heart got buried at Fontevraud somewhere). 


Eleanor's daughter, the sad Joan of England, her second husband, the very nasty Count Raymond number VI of Toulouse, and all the rest, have disappeared.  Joan 1165 - 1199 (36), the youngest and favourite sister of the awful King Richard I, became Queen Consort of William II's Sicily and owner inter alia of San Giovanni Rotondo (Padre Pio fans note), was a ring-in to the 3rd crusade after William died, and then married the very nasty Raymond VI of Toulouse.  She died after fleeing from her abusive hubby to the Abbey of Fontevraud and having to undergo a caesarean birth operation (pretty much a sentence of death for mothers in those days).  Her surviving son, Count Raymond VII, was a leading figure in the Albigensian Crusade and its eventual settlement by the Sainted King Louis of France.


*d'Arbrissel used to test out his monkly chastity vow by sleeping in the nuns quarters, though he would not let any other monk do this and few people believed his story.






Geoffrey, Count of Anjou (1113 - 1151 (38)), whose tomb is supposed to be in Le Mans Cathedral, liked to wear a sprig of broom in his hat Broom is known as planta genesta in Latin, genêt in French - which was how come Geoffrey got known as Plantagenet.  He married Henry I's daughter Matilda (widow of Emperor Henry V) in 1127.  She was 11 years older than Geoffrey and an (ex) Empress, and was a bit grumpy about being fobbed off onto a mere count, albeit a bit of a stud.  They parented three kids, the oldest of whom became Henry II of England - the first of the Plantagenet Kings, husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine, ruler of well over half of Western Europe and father of Kings Richard and John ("Jean Sans Terre" as they said in France, or "Lacklands" in England).





The restored church of the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud, from the north east



There is nothing left in today's Fontevraud monastic buildings that Eleanor would recognize, though the 1100s church itself is said to be structurally close to the real thing (without frescos, furnishings, reliefs, capitals and all the other stuff that would have made it interesting).  Team Paradox also thinks that here, and even in more attractive buildings (such as Toledo Cathedral), it is a big mistake to make pointing a darker coloured feature.  It is also possible that she might recognize the cookhouse.


The monastic buildings were all steadily replaced or enlarged and Gothicized over the years, and then much later when the Revolution came in the late 1700s the place was lucky to be turned into a prison - lucky because it might otherwise have been knocked down like Cluny. 


The church itself was divided into four stories and several small industrial processes introduced to keep the 1,000 + prisoners occupied.  The prison was active right through until the mid 1960s, when it was decommissioned and a start made on the long process of restoring the church and monastery.   


Much of the restoration work is now complete, though the impact of a century and a half of monstering gave the restorers a very difficult task.  Bear this in mind if the place seems cold and uninteresting (except for the Plantagenet Gisants and the wonderful geometry of the chancel which no prison could destroy).  That said, Team Paradox is not a fan of featuring pointing by using a darker colour cement, and the later cloister areas were probably pretty cold and formal before the prison took over. 


Compare for example the Cistercian Royal Abbey & Nunnery of Santa Maria la Real de Las Huelgas, Burgos which was set up by Eleanor's daughter Queen Leonora, and later became the pantheon of generations of Kings and Queens of Leon and Castile, yet still has a very human feel about it (not to mention the most glorious polished wide planked old wooden floors).





Looking east down the restored church nave (originally completed around 1160)  - the four surviving gisants are in the distant centre of what probably would have been the choir.





Beyond the gisants lies the earliest part of the church - the much more attractive Romanesque chancel.  This was originally built between 1106 and 1117 to house the tomb (now gone) of founder Robert d'Arbrissel, and consecrated in 1119 by Pope Calixtus II.





Eleanor (Aliénor) of Aquitaine (1122 - 1204 (82)), Queen of France then England and one of the most remarkable women of the high middle ages, lived her last years in and died at Fontervraud,


and (below) Eleanor and hubbie Henry II (1133 - 1154 - 1189 (56)), the first Plantagenet King of England, though he came from Le Mans.

Link to chronology entry





Henry was 56 when he died, and Eleanor, 11 years older than him, was 82 when she died 15 years later (now take away the number you first thought of ......).  So although the images were probably made within living memory of them, the sculptor was obviously under instructions to wind the clock back a few decades in terms of their appearance!


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also an interesting e-book

by Robert Fripp




Eleanor and Henry's son, the nasty French speaking and mostly absent from England King Richard I (1157 - 1189 - 1199 (42)) - with the only ray of sun of the day lighting up his face.  The huge ransom that England (urged by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine) foolishly agreed to pay to Emperor Henry VI (Hohenstaufen) (1165 -  1194 - 1197 (32)) to release Eleanor's Richard, after the latter had been captured slinking back to England after the Third Crusade, nearly bankrupted England and bankrolled Henry's big push south to take over the then rich pastures of Sicily and Southern Italy.


Link to Crusades Insight  Page





Looking back towards the west door of the Abbey church





North east corner of the large cloister - elegant and soulless







Flashy Francis (Valois King Francis I 1494 - 1515 - 1547 (53)) paid for cloister / chapter house remodelling in 1543 to secure his place in heaven,  and left his "F for Francis" chop and animals over the chapter house doorway to remind everyone of this.









A re-headed nun - heartbreakingly tough for the restorers to find anything original and unbroken in this place which, like so much of France, was smashed up by the English, the Wars of Religion, the Revolution, and (in this case) recalcitrant prisoners ......



The much restored and altered medieval cookhouse - maybe the only place where  Eleanor would vaguely recognize something.




Cookhouse corbel faces




The Refectory





The Priory of St-Lazare, originally built for lepers and therefore located away from the other abbey buildings, has been turned into a hotel.  As is too often the case in such restoration projects it sounds more attractive than it is, and both general and room functionality is lacking (the only exception to this rule we have discovered has been the outstanding hotel in the Cistercian Royal Abbey of Rueda in Aragon), but it's OK with the proviso that it's best to avoid the restaurant, which is blandly fooded, badly waitered and very overpriced.


La Licorne (The Unicorn), just up the road in the village, is a similarly priced but a much much better gustatory and service proposition .....




Scampi salad



La Licorne web site



Fig tarts are a French speciality, but few come as good as this





A couple of Ks west towards Saumur (on the Loire Valley at Turquant) there is L'Hélianthe Restaurant Triglodytique, which is energetic and fun.  Hélianthe means sunflower and Triglodytique does not describe the food but the fact that the restaurant backs into a whitewashed cave area, as do many houses and weekenders (and of course wine caves) in several areas of the Loire valley. 


The food (right - 2007 menu) is good country and river stuff - our dinner choice was rilettes de truite, anguille (eel) fumée, jus de betterave rouge (entrée) and to follow demi coquelet rôti, poêlée de choux verts et pleurotes sauce bière et miel (basically a very tasty chick frick & veg).  Also on offer was Loire catfish steak, which apparently is very good as well.


The restaurant also does Saumur wines, which we found generally to be excellent and much better value than their Loire cousins.


L'Hélianthe Restaurant Website   02 41 51 22 28 (closed Wednesday)




L'Hélianthe Restaurant Triglodytique - September 2007 Menu




South bank of the River Loire at Saumur (on the way to Angers)



Still waiting to be visited ....


We did not know about the Romanesque churches of Cunault (near Saumur) and Tavant (near Fontevraud) when we stayed at Fontevraud in 2007 - next time, along with the zodiac roses at St-Maurice in Angers!


We have also bought Peter Stafford's excellent guide to the Romanesque Churches of France to reduce the frustration of "accidental near misses".



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