Thirteen kilometres southeast of Saumur, lies the stunning Romanesque complex of the Abbaye de Fontevraud. The monastery housed four seperate communities all managed by the same abbess – an unconventional move, even if the post was filled solely by queens and princesses. The buildings date from the twelfth century originally built in 1101 by the Archpriest of Diocese, Robert of Arbrissel, and are immense, built to house and separate not only the nuns and monks but also the sick, lepers and repentant prostitutes.
Abbey of Fontevraud © Claudio Giovanni Colombo / Shutterstock
The Abbaye de Fontevraud Complex
At the heart of Abbaye de Fontevraud the tombs of the Plantagenet royal family, eerily lifelike works of funereal art that powerfully evoke the historical bonds between England and France. There were originally five separate institutions, of which three still stand in graceful Romanesque solidity.
The abbey church is an impressive space, not least for the four tombstone effigies: Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, who died here, their son Richard the Lionheart and daughter-in-law Isabelle of Angoulême, King John’s queen. The strange domed roof, the great cream-coloured columns of the choir and the graceful capitals of the nave add to the effect.
The tombs of King Henry II of England and his Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine © MountainPix / Shutterstock
Elsewhere in the complex, you can explore the magnificent cloisters, the chapterhouse, decorated with sixteenth-century murals, and the vast refectory. All the cooking for the religious community, which would have numbered several hundred, was done in the – now restored – Romanesque kitchen, an octagonal building as extraordinary from the outside (with its 21 chimneys) as it is within.
The Abbaye de Fontevraud throughout History
In 1804 Napoleon decided to transform the building into a prison, which continued till 1963. It was an inspiration for the writer Jean Genet, whose book Miracle of the Rose was partly based on the recollections of a prisoner incarcerated here.
Abbaye de Fontevraud, Church Gardens © Mor65_Mauro Piccardi / Shutterstock
Top Image: Abbaye de Fontevarud © Corentin / Shutterstock