Presumably because it's a new service, there weren't any signs or anything on where to go, so when I came out of the train station I was a bit unsure if I ought to be waiting at the city bus stop on the road or at the coach bus stop in a layby next to the road. Luckily, a city bus came along and the driver told me to wait at the coach stop. When it turned up, it was a minivan driven by a guy who seemed to be on his first run, judging by the number of times he consulted his list of stops. He also stalled it once going round a slow corner, how embarrassment! I was the only passenger on both trips to the abbey and back. We drove out through some small towns and vineyards (reminding me that I quite like sparkling Saumur wine) to Fontevraud. Funnily enough, on the way the radio played Wham's Last Christmas - well, I suppose it's just a song if you're French.
I turned up just as a guided tour was about to leave, so I decided to join the group. Not that the tour guide did a bad job, but I would have liked more historical background on the royals who were associated with the abbey over the ages, from the famous Plantagenets buried here, to the royal Abbesses to the children of monarchs who were educated here. To be fair, these things were touched upon, but I didn't feel the history was really brought alive, and there wasn't much inside the abbey to really give you the spirit of the place. Apparently, the buildings themselves have been heavily altered and restored as well, both pre- and post-Revolution and into modern times.
This is partly because, like Loches, it was turned into a state prison. Incredibly, it housed prisoners until the 1960s! It's a wonder any of France's royal or religious history was preserved at all! Even the royal "tombs", of Richard the Lionheart, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II, and Isabella of Angoulême, one of King John's wives, are not really tombs at all, as their tombs lay elsewhere within the abbey and their remains have never been found. These statues which have been preserved were originally four out of a couple of dozen royal tombs, the rest of which have disappeared. In Richard's case, his heart and entrails were never at Fontevraud to begin with, as he had himself carved up post-mortem and dispatched to Rouen (heart), Châlon (entrails) and Fontevraud (body).
I was interested to know how the French viewed the Plantagenets, and luckily enough the guide weighed in, saying that Richard was completely French: King of England, but not at all English, seeing that he didn't speak a word of English and only spent about six months there. I see, looking at Wikipedia, that he was at least born in England, however. Most of the French people on the tour seemed surprised that the guide said he was French, so I suppose it's not a widely-held view in the general population, at any rate.
Apart from the royal tombs, the abbey, founded in 1100, is interesting because it housed both monks and nuns, but was always under the control of an Abbess. The Abbesses were of high social status, often royal. There seemed to be various different reasons for this: the founder, hermit Robert of Abrissel seemed to enjoy at least playing with fire, since he was criticised by contemporaries for frequently sleeping with the nuns in order to prove he was above fleshly temptations. Another reason was that religious men were supposed to humble themselves on earth in order to receive rewards in heaven, and submitting to the authority of a woman was one way to do so. However, Robert also personally led women into a church where the locals claimed that women were unfit to enter into a church and would die immediately if they did so, and afterwards preached a sermon demonstrating that women had been amongst the earliest disciples of Christ and were to be judged on their individual faults or merits, not as a sex. So a bit of a complicated backstory, but I suppose it was probably a comparatively good place for the women who lived there to end up.
So overall, I suppose I was expecting great things of Fontevraud and it didn't quite stack up to what I imagined. Maybe I would have got more of a flavour of the history from the audio guide (it certainly covered more of the grounds than the tour), but maybe that's just life. Part of history is its unfortunate habit of building over and obliterating what came before, and Europe has had more than enough wars, revolutions and religious upheavals to ensure that we should perhaps be thankful for what remains rather than lamenting what's been lost.
|View of Saumur|
|Saumur town hall|
|The abbey church from the back|
|Abbey church from the front|
|Inside the Abbey church|
|Tombs of Isabella, wife of King John; Richard the Lionheart (foreground); Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II (background)|
|Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II|
|Isabella and Richard the Lionheart|
|Richard the Lionheart|
|Doorway to the Chapter House|
|Closeup of doorway|
|Decorated ceiling vault of Chapter House window|
|Inside the Chapter House|
|Jesus' feet disappearing into a cloud|
|The various Abbesses were added to the Chapter House frescoes over time, in this case resulting in a spare foot coming out of nowhere|
|Fresco of the betrayal of Jesus in the Chapter House|
|In the cloisters was an unusual jungle-gym like art installation|
|I struggled to take a photo of this, but there were birds' nests in the cloisters|
|Wif widdle baby birds in them!|
|The former dormitories featured an artwork by Claude Lévèque|
|The abbey kitchen|
|The abbey gardens|