The Royal Abbey of Fontevraud
The Royal Abbey of Fontevraud was founded in 1101. During the so called Monastic period (1101-1792) the largest monastic city of Europe was built creating an extraordinary building with elegant architecture using local limestone.
The founder, the monk Robert l\’Arbrissel, empowered women by choosing an abbess, often of royal blood, to lead the double order of monks and nuns.
Originally the Abbey of Fontevraud was composed of four monasteries: Grand Moutier (used for the daily life of the nuns), St. Benedict (infirmary), Saint-Lazare (home of the lepers) and La Madeleine (refuge for ‘repentant women’ ).
The architecture reflects the daily life of the nuns – the cloister, dormitory, refectory and the unique kitchens.
During its most influential period the order quickly spread out over Europe and in less than a century a hundred priories were founded, mostly in France, England and Spain. Four effigies can be found in the abbey church: Eleanor of Aquitaine who spent the last years of her life in Fontevraud, her son Richard the Lionheart as well as his father King Henry II and Isabella of Angouleme, wife of John Lackland.
During his reign, four daughters of Louis XV were educated at the abbey. The abbey has always had close ties with royalty.
After the French Revolution, the abbey was transformed into a large prison. The first prisoners -men, women and children- arrived in 1814. The center had up to 2000 inmates and was known to be the “toughest in France after Clairvaux.” Children were imprisoned separately in the nearby Domaine St.Hilaire in Roiffé. Inmates worked in the locksmith shops, did weaving, made rush seating and mother-of-pearl buttons. This Prison Period lasted until 1963.
For inmates living conditions were particularly harsh, with one in 7 prisoners dying inside the walls of Fontevraud Abbey…
During WWII political prisoners were imprisoned here before being sent to the death camps, some members of the resistance were shot inside the abbey walls too.
After nearly one thousand years of religious life, the abbey was opened to public. The abbey is now an important centre for cultural activities with one annual core event : ‘Cité Idéale’ (The Ideal City) which promotes exchanges and contacts themed around cultural activities for all ages. The main objective is to encourage cultural activities as well as facilitate exchanges between the local population, artists and tourists so they can experience a kind of communal life based on shared values.
Activities in and around the Abbey include guided tours (also possible after dark), visual arts and animation, social debates, lectures, historical walking tours, musical performances, innovative multi-media presentations and the exploration of the work of contemporary artists through exhibitions, conferences and events.