At the heart of the stunning Romanesque complex of the Abbaye de Fontevraud, 13km southeast of Saumur, are the tombs of the Plantagenet royal family, eerily lifelike works of funereal art that powerfully evoke the historical bonds between England and France. A religious community was established in around 1100 as both a nunnery and a monastery with an abbess in charge – an unconventional move, even if the post was filled solely by queens and princesses. The remaining buildings date from the twelfth century and are immense, built to house and separate not only the nuns and monks but also the sick, lepers and repentant prostitutes. There were originally five separate institutions, of which three still stand in graceful Romanesque solidity. 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.
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. 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.