The royal Abbey at Fontevraud has to be one of the most beautiful abbeys in all of France – and there are a lot of them. Historic, immense and absolutely magnificent, the UNESCO World heritage site listed 12th century abbey is one of the largest monastic complexes in Europe. It’s one of those places that you must see when you’re in the Loire Valley. There’s also a Michelin-starred restaurant and hotel as well as a fabulous art gallery which opened in 2021 in the former stables.
History of Fontevraud
The buildings date back to the start of 12th century, a time when churches were built high and great – think Notre Dame de Paris and Chartres Cathedral. Over the centuries more buildings were added so there’s a real mix of architectural styles from Romanesque to Renaissance. Home to monks and nuns throughout the centuries, it was ransacked during the French Revolution and turned into a prison by Napoleon in 1804, the largest in France after the one established at the Abbey of Clairvaux, It was considered one of the hardest penitentiaries in France and up to 2000 inmates were locked up here. It wasn’t until as late as 1963 that the Abbey was released from its fate. The abbey underwent a restoration and opened to the public and is now a major cultural venue. There are concerts, workshops, artists in residence and regularly changing exhibitions.
Richard the Lionheart and Eleanor of Aquitaine at Abbey Fontevraud
The Abbey de Fontevraud was the burial place of several of the important Plantagenet family members. Eleanor of Aquitaine died at the Abbey in 1204 and was entombed there alongside her husband Henri II of France who died in 1189 in nearby Chinon. It was she who commissioned the effigies that lie in the nave. Her son Richard the Lionheart died in her arms in 1199 and was also interred at the Abbey. Isabelle, wife of King John of England (Richard the Lionheart’s brother) also died at the Abbey and was interred there.
Their recumbent effigies lie in state in the magnificent nave of the Abbey and have a strangely human air to them. Eleanor looks younger than her 82 years, peaceful and regal, she’s shown reading a book. Seeing their likeness in the soaring nave, it really brings home to you just how important this Abbey has always been considered.
It has immense history you can almost feel when you walk through the doors and into the cool interior with enormously high ceilings. Byzantine style domes and white stone walls give it a bit of an other worldly air.
The women rulers of Abbey Fontevraud
Unusually this was an abbey that was run by women, powerful Abbesses who answered only to the King on secular matters and the Pope on spiritual matters. The abbesses came from princely ranks and the nuns from nobility. The monks lived in a priory outside the abbey walls. The women who lived here in the early days dedicated their lives to praying. For most of them, despite their backgrounds, it was a hard life. They were not allowed to speak to each other or make eye contact, even during meals.
When Louise de Bourbon (1673–1743), daughter of Louis XIV, became Abbesse, it became quite popular for the aristocracy to send their daughters there. It was certainly cheaper than paying expensive wedding dowries.
The nuns hunted and held feasts to which VIPs were invited and even danced! Gorgeous wall paintings show Louise had herself added to a religious scene, it seems worldly vanity didn’t completely disappear from life at the Abbey. Subsequent Abesses followed her lead – making the frescoes at Fontevraud a sort of ancient “selfie”.
Stroll the cloisters, visit the kitchens and the chapter house to get a feel of what life was like here for the nuns.
Museum of modern art Fontevraud Abbey
Following a vast donation by private collectors Martine and Léon Cligman, including 19th and 20th century works by artists Corot, Dubuffet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Derain and Delaunay, the Abbey of Fontevraud Museum of Modern Art opened in June 2021.
Staying at Fontevraud Abbey
On site is a beautiful hotel converted from one of the ancient buildings. Truly tranquil, it is exquisitely updated keeping as many features as possible. It’s the perfect marriage of modern and ancient. The air is scented with oils, the rooms are spacious and über luxurious but organic at the same time.
Staying here gives you access to the abbey and the gorgeous gardens. At night you can roam the abbey grounds with just the local cats for company. The bar and restaurant are open to non-residents and are worth going for on their own merits.
Virtual Visit to the Abbey de Fontevraud
Visit the Abbey of Fontevraud online with Google Arts and Culture – just click the link and scroll down to the circles marked ‘explore’: artsandculture.google.com/partner/abbaye-royale-de-fontevraud
It’s extraordinary to wander through the nave, see the paint on the effigy of Ricard the Lionheart, the grain in those thick ancient walls that have witnessed 900 years of history. There is a model of the abbey buildings which show just how enormous it was in in its heyday – a walled village in essence. See the artworks up close, peer out of the windows and see the views from the cloisters…
More brilliant places to visit in the Loire Valley
The enchanting Chateau de Brissac where you’ll also find the most amazing B&B in France!
The Chateau du Rivau a fairy tale garden and romantic castle
How to spend a perfect weekend in Angers
Chateau hopping in the Loire – 5 of our favourite castles