Mounts of Saint Michael: France and England

Dedicated to Saint Michel or Saint Michael, the Christian Archangel of Light, these hallowed and sacred sites remain important places for visitors and pilgrims to discover. From ancient Benedictine monastic and medieval settlements their history and structures have survived the ravages of ages and stages of time. Situated in Normandy in France and Cornwall in England, the Mounts majestically rising from the sea are steeped in folklore and legend mentioned by poets and others, including John Milton (1608-74), in a poem Lycidas for a friend drowned during a passage from Chester on the Irish Seas (1637).
Mont Saint Michel
Mont Saint Michel and its bay were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979. Perched on a rocky islet in the midst of vast sandbanks it is exposed to powerful tides between Normandy and Brittany. Described as the ‘Wonder of the West’, its Gothic style Benedictine Abbey dedicated to the Archangel Michel was built between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. With the village that grew up in the shadow of its great walls, the Abbey is viewed as a technical and artistic tour de force having had to adapt to the problems posed by this unique natural site.
At the mouth of the Couesnon River in Normandy, the Mount with its Benedictine Abbey and steeple church occupies most of the l km diameter clump of rocks jutting out of the waters in the English Channel. It was a strategic cross channel trading and cultural link during the time of the Romans in the sixth and seventh century. Legends about the apparition of Archangel Michel are many associated with the initial construction of the first monastic settlement from the eighth century. The Mount gained strategic significance in 933 under the Normans and is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry which commemorates the 1066 Norman Conquest with Norman architecture of the abbey in subsequent centuries.
However, its popularity and prestige as a centre of pilgrimage waned with the Reformation and by the time of the French Revolution there were scarcely any monks in residence. During the Revolution the abbey was closed and converted into a prison, initially to hold clerical opponents of the republican regime. High profile political prisoners followed by the 1836 influential figures, including Victor Hugo (1802-85), had launched a campaign to restore what was seen as a national architectural treasure. The prison was finally closed in 1863 and the Mount was declared a historic monument in 1874.
Mont Saint Michel is connected to the mainland via a thin natural land bridge which, before modernisation, was covered at high tide and revealed at low tide, giving the Mount a mystical quality. However its insular character has been compromised by several developments. The Couesnon River has been canalized reducing the flow of water and thereby encouraging a silting up of the bay. In 1879 the land bridge was fortified into a true causeway. This prevented the tide from scouring the silt round the Mount. In 2011 major works are in progress at the site of Mont Saint Michel for completion in 2014.
The wealth and influence of the abbey extended to many daughter foundations including Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, England.
Saint Michael’s Mount
Described as “the jewel in Cornwall’s crown”, St. Michael’s Mount was originally the site of a Benedictine Chapel. Situated on top of a great granite crag in the beautiful Mount Bay, access is on foot across the causeway at low tide or by short ferry crossing at high tide. It offers stunning panoramic views and its fascinating history is steeped in both legend and folklore. Dedicated to Saint Michael whom in the Cornish legend appeared to a group of Cornish fisherman in 495 AD, standing high on a rocky ledge on the western side of the Mount, this is The Great vision of the Guarded Mount from English poet, John Milton’s Lycidas.
It is believed to have been a trading post from the earliest times becoming an important port by the Iron Age. It is generally believed Saint Michael’s Mount was the island of ‘Ictis’ where the Greeks traded for Cornish tin; Diodorus, a Sicilian Greek historian writing in the very early years of the first century AD, gives an account of the inhabitants of Belerion (Lands End), tin streaming and the way that the early tin streamers used wagons to carry the hard won minerals across to the island of Ictis during the ebb of the tide, when the intervening space is left dry, to trade with the waiting merchants.
Edward the Confessor (1003-66), nicknamed for his piety, founded a chapel on the Mount in 1044 as a grant to the Benedictine Abbey of Mont Saint Michel in Brittany, though he may have made the grant before he became King of England (1042-66) and some doubts exist over what actually happened at this time. Edward did spend much of his youth in Normandy and was greatly influenced by the Norman monks and intrigued by the symbolic similarity between St. Michael’s Mount and Mont Saint Michel. The Charter held by the monks at Mont Saint Michel may even have been a forgery to strengthen the claim on their possessions in Cornwall.
Following the Norman Conquest much of the west of England was given by William the Conqueror, first Norman King of England (1066-87) to Robert, Count of Mortain, upon whom he also bestowed the title ‘Earl of Cornwall’. Robert granted Saint Michael’s Mount to the Norman Abbey of Mont Saint Michel. The first priory on the Mount was established in 1135 by Bernard of Le Bec.
The situation of Mount Saint Michael makes it an ideal fortress. During the twelfth century whilst Richard I, the Lionheart, King of England (1189-99) was on a Crusade in the Holy Land, the Mount was seized and held as a fortress by a group of his brother John’s supporters. The buildings later returned to their monastic use but were again used as fortresses in the Wars of the Roses (1455-85) and the Cornish Rebellion against reigning King Edward VI (1547-53). The last occasion the Mount was used in a military role was during the English Civil War (1642-51) when it was held by Royalist supporters who were forced to capitulate to the Parliamentarians in 1646.
In 1660 the Mount was bought by Sir John St Aubyn and since that time it has enjoyed a peaceful existence. For many years the house was used by the St Aubyn family as an occasional residence mainly during the summer months. During the eighteenth century the family established a permanent residence at the Mount building a great new wing with impressive Victorian apartments which are decorated with fine plaster relief and furnished with some fine examples of Chippendale. Saint Michael’s Mount also contains collections of paintings and armour.
Since owning the building, the family has upgraded the Castle and Church to a high standard. In the 1950s the property was given to the British National Trust charity by the 3rd Lord St Levan. The Mount has received many famous visitors including the Royal King Charles II, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and members of today’s Royal Family have also visited the Mount. The unique site with its beautiful gardens and stunning panoramic views is open to the public.
Ita Marguet
Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources used in preparation of this text. It follows a visit to the United Kingdom and Saint Michael’s Mount, Cornwall, in July 2011.