THE ORDER OF FONTEVRAUD / SOCIAL DIVERSITY IN THE MIDDLE AGES …
Fontevraud Royal Abbey was founded in 1101 by iconoclastic preacher and visionary, Robert d’Arbrissel. The peculiarity of the order that he created was that it was ‘mixed’ and that it included people from all social backgrounds. Fontevraud Abbey was envisaged as an ‘ideal city’, a place of worship dedicated to prayer and work, in abstinence, silence and poverty. The order of Fontevraud rapidly spread over a vast area, reaching as far as England and Spain.
THE ROYAL ABBEY / FROM ABSTINENCE TO HIGH SOCIETY
In 1189, Fontevraud became a royal necropolis, housing the tombs of Henry 2nd, Eleanor of Aquitaine and Richard the Lionheart. Over seven centuries, 36 abbesses, often drawn from high nobility, and sometimes even of royal blood, succeeded one another in running the Abbey. Over time certain rules were relaxed, opening the order up to worldly issues. A far cry from the original order of abstinence, the Abbey staged a performance of Racine’s play Esther under the ‘reign’ of Louis XIV’s personally nominated abbess, Gabrielle de Rochechouart.
FROM ONE ENCLOSURE TO ANOTHER / A DARK PERIOD OF INCARCERATION
In 1792, following the French Revolution, the last abbess of Fontevraud was evicted. Twelve years later, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered that the Abbey be transformed into a high-security prison. Housing up to 2,000 prisoners, Fontevraud was considered one of the toughest prisons in France. During the Second World War, many members of the Resistance were incarcerated here before being deported. Ten were shot on site …
THE ‘IDEAL CITY’ AT LAST / THE PUBLIC WELCOMED
In 1963, the prison was closed and the restoration of the buildings began in earnest. In 1975, Fontevraud Royal Abbey opened to the public, ending nine centuries of life behind closed doors and opening the way to the ‘ideal city’ – in the words of its founder – that can be visited today.