The Royal Abbey of Fontevraud 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.
ROBERT D’ARBRISSEL / THE ECCENTRIC FOUNDER
The Royal Abbey of Fontevraud, a site that has for a long time been synonymous with silence, with simplicity … A site one might not imagine conducive to the production of personalities. However, some powerful personalities have marked its history, starting with its founder, Robert d’Arbrissel. The object of ferocious hostility in the Church of the 11th century, but also under the protection of Pope Urban II, the Breton preacher fascinated as much as he shocked in both turnout and practices. Once, for example, he demonstrated his vow of chastity … in a bed of women!
ELEANOR OF AQUITAINE / THE FONTEVRAUD QUEEN
Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and then of England thanks to her marriage to Henry II, is the emblematic figure of the Royal Abbey. She kept close links with Fontevraud and came here to run the affairs of the kingdom after the death of her husband. She spent the end of her life here, ordering the reclining effigies that ornament the nave of the Abbey Church. She died in her 80s in 1204.
GABRIELLE DE ROCHECHOUART / THE « PEARL OF THE ABBESSES »
Gabrielle de Rochechouart is the most famous of the Fontevraud abbesses. She was even, according to Louis XIV himself, the “pearl of the abbesses”. Hightly cultivated, the sister of Madame de Montespan turned the 17th-century Abbey into a hub of spiritual and intellectual activity. Under her ‘reign’, the Royal Abbey gradually opened up, distancing itself from d’Arbrissel’s original vow of enclosure.
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, the Royal Abbey of Fontevraud 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.