France isn’t short on fairytale castles, but not even the Palace of Versailles holds a candle to Mont-Saint-Michel. Close to three million people visit the landmark annually, making it one of France’s most popular sights. The gravity-defying Abbey, which sits atop a craggy island in a glittering bay between Normandy and Brittany, has watched over the Channel since the eighth century. Unsurprisingly, with over 1,000 years of history under its belt, there’s an awful lot to say about it. Here are a few interesting facts about Mont St Michel to get you started.
Interesting facts about Mont St Michel
1. It’s a dream come true
The story of this famous pilgrimage site dates back to the early eighth century. Bishop Aubert, who resided in the neighbouring hilltop town of Avranches, claimed that the Archangel Michael had visited him in a dream and pressured him into building a church. In fact, the story goes that Bishop took quite a bit of convincing, and after ignoring the vision for a little too long, the Archangel decided to burn a hole in his head as a not-so-gentle reminder.
From AD 966, the Dukes of Normandy and the French kings continued to drive the development of a Benedictine abbey on Mont Saint Michel. The monastic buildings were added throughout the Middle Ages. The Abbey of Mont St. Michel became a renowned centre of learning, attracting some of the greatest minds in Europe, despite conflicts over Chanel.
2. It has never been invaded
Despite hundreds of years of war over the Channel Sea, the Abbey has never been invaded. Its location, surrounded by water with double-ended ramparts, made it difficult for attackers to penetrate. During the 100 Years War, England repeatedly attempted to seize the island but failed thanks to those fortifications.
3. It was once a prison
Its popularity as a pilgrimage site declined during the Reformation and by the French Revolution, only seven monks still resided here. Under Napoleon I, The abbey closed in 1791 and was converted into a prison, mostly holding clerical opponents of the republican regime. The site was nicknamed ‘Bastille des Mers’, meaning ‘Bastille of the Sea’, holding as many as 300 priests at one point.
By all accounts it was pretty grim; prisoners would spend most of the day on the treadwheel crane – a human version of a hamster wheel used to lift heavy items.
It remained a prison until 1863, when high profile political prisoners, including Victor Hugo, campaigned for the restoration of the historical national treasure.
4. It has a (nearly) identical twin in the United Kingdom
By the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, a small island with a hilltop monster off the coast of Penzance had come into the possession of the Benedictine Abbey of Mont St Michel. The monastery gave its support to William the Conqueror in his claim to the throne of England and rewarded him with the island.
Both mounts share the same conical shape and tidal characteristics, though St Micheal’s Mount is smaller.
5. Joan of Arc once defended it
Joan of Arc was present at one of those sieges. Together, with other warriors, they managed to overwhelm the English offensive. This was one of her first victories. She was beautified in 1909 and canonized in 1920. There’s a statue on the island depicting her heroism to this day.
6. Pilgrims have always flocked here
Mont St. Michel has always been a blockbuster pilgrimage site. During the Middle Ages, it was second only to the Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The first pilgrims visited in the 11th century, and the rest is history.
Back then, it took quite a bit of commitment and sacrifice to get to the Benedictine Abbey – it was the ultimate test of faith. The fast-rising tides, combined with the quicksand surrounding the abbey, didn’t make for a particularly pleasant journey.
7. It has the highest tides in Europe
The tides on the island can reach a prickly height of 46 feet and incoming tides can race in at the speed of a galloping horse. Each month, the tides at Mont St-Michel become extreme and sometimes dangerous. There can be a difference of 15 metres (50 feet) between low and high tide. On a handful of days every year, the tides change so quickly that the surrounding sand becomes unstable. That turns it into quicksand.