Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Fontevraud Abbey

I've been dying to go to Fontevraud Abbey, near Saumur, ever since I learnt of its existence a couple of years ago or so. Up until recently, however, it seemed it was impossible to get to without a car (or maybe bike). It's about 18 km away from Saumur, which is itself about an hour away by train. However, I discovered that there is a new tourist bus that now does the rounds between Saumur and Fontevraud a couple of times a day, so I decided to head out for the afternoon yesterday.

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

Ceiling detail

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


  1. This looks like a place I could take my parents if they ever come back to Poitiers (my mom's a big Eleanor of Aquitaine fan)! Too bad the tombs don't have actual bodies in them.

    1. You mum must love Poitiers then! She definitely had an amazing life.

  2. I was hoping that you would write a blog post about your trip after I saw your tweet saying that you were on your way to Fontevraud Abbey.

    It's a shame that the guided tour wasn't better but the bit about Robert of Abrissel was fascinating. I'm always amazed how some (all?) religions used to view women. When we were in the Ivory Coast about twenty years ago, I remember that our guide strictly forbid me to touch one of the religious buildings in the village because I was a woman and therefore unclean. It also reminds me of the segregation of the sexes in houses worship, whether they're temples, mosques or churches.

    In an interesting twist, I just saw a UPI tweet about a New Zealand study
    that found that women in developed countries are now smarter than men. Do you suppose that we'll start saying that they can't enter churches soon?!

    1. Ugh, yeah, definitely a negative aspect of religion. It probably is fair to remember, however, that in the past some women managed to gain power, influence or education via religious avenues that would otherwise not have been available to them.

      Ha, of course we are! ;)

  3. Great photos - very interesting post. Love those tombs! M x

  4. p.s. don't get me started about the attitude towards women in some cultures!!!

    1. I'm with you, but yes, let's not get started!

  5. You can tell me to keep out of churches whenever you like!

  6. I have just spent two days at a local company that is owned and run by exclusive brethren. These guys still repress women (hair must be covered, dress must conform, stereotypes must be followed) and we're supposedly an enlightened society. All major (and plenty of minor) religions suppress women to some extent or other, only the degree varies. About the only one that I can think of that doesn't is the Society of Friends. Perhaps someone should go along to one of their meetings. (However it won't be me).

    1. Yeah, I think you told me about that before (not the first time you've worked there eh?) Yes, one would think we'd moved on since the Middle Ages (which I hasten to point out, weren't ALL bad), but if people insist in believing Stone Age texts are literally true (or at least the parts that they want to believe), what do you expect?

  7. We have some of those flowers (whatever they are) in our garden at Taupo!

  8. I went there on my very first trip to France (7 years ago now)! It's such a beautiful place!


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