France Regions

The Glorious History of Mont Saint Michel

A brief history of Mont Saint Michel abbey in Normandy, France

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

The area around the abbey of Mont Saint Michel is known for the dramatic tides that roll in and out daily from the Atlantic Ocean. 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. 

In the old days, before the tram system was added, it wasn’t 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 the auxiliary parking lot or risk seeing their car underwater within minutes. People didn’t always get there in time! The sea around the island can rise up to 45 feet during high tide.

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

Visit Mont Saint Michel from Paris

Book our very popular Mont Saint Michel Tour via train 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. We’ve been selling this tour since 2003 and it remains one of our most popular products. We look forward to seeing you there!

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 formation called Mont Tombe.  Eventually, Aubert listened to his recurring (and probably annoying) dream and built the church. Construction of the small original church was completed in 1144.

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

Other buildings were added in the 13th century to accommodate the multitude of monks and pilgrims who flocked to the abbey. The pilgrimages never really 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. Copying skills were very important during medieval times and the monks at Mont Saint Michel were best in class. The amount of concentration and dedication needed to do the job on a daily basis is astounding. Read more about the history of Mont Saint 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 actually then served as a prison for a short period of time thereafter.

Stained glass windows inside of Mont Saint Michel
Stained glass windows inside of Mont Saint Michel

In 1874, the abbey was handed over to the French government with the aim of preserving 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 at the abbey again, just as in medieval times. If you are so inclined, you can join them for a daily mass that starts at 12:15 pm.

Enjoy a short video tour of Mont Saint Michel, presented by our friends at Rick Steves:

Visit UNESCO for more historical information about Mont Saint Michel. A day trip to Mont Saint Michel is one of the top 5 day trips from Paris.