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Mont Saint-Michel ; English: Saint Michael’s Mount) is a rocky tidal island 247 acres (100 ha) in size, and is a commune in Normandy, France. It is located approximately one kilometre (just over half a mile) off the country’s northwestern coast, at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches. The island’s highest point is 92 metres (301 feet) above sea level. The population of the island is 44, as of 2009.
The island has held strategic fortifications since ancient times, and since the eighth century AD has been the seat of the monastery from which it draws its name. The structural composition of the town exemplifies the feudal society that constructed it. On top God, the abbey and monastery, below this the Great halls, then stores and housing, and at the bottom, outside the walls, fishermen and farmers housing.
One of France’s most recognisable landmarks, Mont Saint-Michel and its bay are part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites and more than 3 million people visit it each year.
Mont Saint-Michel was used in the sixth and seventh centuries as an Armorican stronghold of Gallo-Roman culture and power until it was ransacked by the Franks, thus ending the trans-channel culture that had stood since the departure of the Romans in AD 460. From roughly the fifth to the eighth century, Mont Saint-Michel belonged to the territory of Neustria, and in the early ninth century was an important place in the marches of Neustria.
Inside the walls of Mont Saint-Michel.
Before the construction of the first monastic establishment in the 8th century, the island was called Mont Tombe (Latin tumba). According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared in 708 to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel’s instruction until Michael burned a hole in the bishop’s skull with his finger.
Unable to defend his kingdom against the assaults of the Vikings, the king of the Franks agreed to grant the Cotentin peninsula and the Avranchin, including Mont-Saint-Michel, to the Bretons in the 867 Treaty of Compiègne. This marked the beginning of the brief period of Breton possession of the Mont. In fact, these lands and Mont Saint-Michel were never really included in the duchy of Brittany and remained independent bishoprics from the newly created Breton archbishopric of Dol. When Rollo confirmed Franco as archbishop of Rouen, these traditional dependences of the Rouen archbishopric were retained in it.
The mount gained strategic significance again in 933 when William “Long Sword” annexed the Cotentin Peninsula from the weakened Dukes of Brittany. This made the mount definitively part of Normandy, and is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates the 1066 Norman conquest of England. Harold, Earl of Wessex is pictured on the tapestry rescuing two Norman knights from the quicksand in the tidal flats during a battle with Conan II, Duke of Brittany. Norman Ducal patronage financed the spectacular Norman architecture of the abbey in subsequent centuries.
Mont Saint-Michel and its Bay
In 1067, the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel gave its support to Duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. This he rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the southwestern coast of Cornwall which was modeled after the Mount and became a Norman priory named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance.
During the Hundred Years’ War, the English made repeated assaults on the island, but were unable to seize it due to the abbey’s improved fortifications. The English initially besieged the Mont in 1423-4, and then again in 1433-4 with English forces under the command of Thomas Scalles. Two wrought-iron bombards that Scalles abandoned when he gave up his siege are still on site. They are known as les Michelettes. Mont Saint-Michel’s resolute resistance inspired the French, especially Joan of Arc.
Cannons abandoned by Thomas Scalles at Mont Saint-Michel on 17 June 1434. Currently (June 2013), only the second cannon, the one closer to the wall, is on display inside the entrance to the Mont’s outer wall.
When Louis XI of France founded the Order of Saint Michael in 1469, he intended that the abbey church of Mont Saint-Michel become the chapel for the Order, but because of its great distance from Paris, his intention could never be realized.
The wealth and influence of the abbey extended to many daughter foundations, including St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. 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. The abbey was closed and converted into a prison, initially to hold clerical opponents of the republican regime. High-profile political prisoners followed, but by 1836, influential figures—including Victor Hugo—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 an historic monument in 1874. Mont Saint-Michel and its bay were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979, and it was listed with criteria such as cultural, historical, and architectural significance, as well as human-created and natural beauty.