France Regions

Mont Saint Michel History


A brief history of Mont Saint Michel

Perched high on a 264-foot rock formation on the Atlantic coast where the regions of Normandy and Brittany meet in France, sits the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mont Saint Michel.

During the highest tides the abbey is completely surrounded by water. During low tide the flat marshes provide food for the world’s only herd of salt water plant eating sheep. Mont Saint Michel’s tides can rush in at incredible speeds. It’s not uncommon to hear an announcement in French (and occasionally English!) over the islands PA system imploring a car owner to move his or her vehicle to an the auxiliary parking lot or risk seeing their car underwater within minutes. The sea can rise up to 45 feet during high tide at Mont Saint Michel.

The glow of historic Mont Saint Michel from the tidal flats below.
The glow of historic Mont Saint Michel from the tidal flats below.

How Did Mont Saint Michel Get There?

The origins of Mont St. Michel can be traced back to a legend that has the archangel Michael appearing in a series of dreams to Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches. Saint Michael implored Aubert to build a church on what was then a barren rock called Mont Tombe. The original church structure was completed in 1144.

Other buildings were added in the 13th century to accommodate monks and pilgrims who flocked to the abbey. The pilgrimage never stopped, even when the abbey was in English hands during the Hundred Year’s War. The Monks of Mont St. Michel were revered for their copying skills before the printing press was widely in use. They were the metaphorical Xerox machines of the middle ages.

The interior of Mont St. Michel
The interior of Mont St. Michel

The Romanesque Choir was rebuilt in the popular Gothic style during the 15th and the 16th Centuries. The abbey’s monastic independence was undermined during the 17th century, when the monks began to flout the strict rules and discipline of their order, drifting into a state of decadence that culminated in their dispersal from the abbey. Mont St. Michel then served as a prison for a short period of time.

In 1874, the abbey was handed over to the French government with the aim of preserving the it for the ages.  Emmanuel Fremiet’s famous gilt statute of St. Michael was added to the spire in 1897. Currently, Monks live and work here again, just as in medieval times: you can join them for daily mass at 12:15 pm.

Visiting Mont Saint Michel from Paris

Book our very popular Mont Saint Michel Tour from Paris.

Stops include a visit to the medieval town of Dinan, the walled city of St. Malo and, of course, the abbey at Mont St. Michel.