Le Carnet de France: Aliénor d’Aquitaine and the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud
By Martine P. Dulles
Le Carnet de France vous présente ses meilleurs vœux pour 2022.
Le Carnet de France sends you its best wishes for 2022.
Christmas cards are not usually sent in France; however, between January 1 and January 31, it is the custom to send your New Year’s wishes on an engraved white card to family and friends older than you, and in return, they will send you theirs. In the street, with anyone you bump into — friends, acquaintances, shopkeepers and others whom you know, the exchanges will be addressed verbally.
I know many readers of this column have the wish of being able to travel back to France in 2022 and I hope their wish will come true.
Abbaye de Fontevraud, which hosts the tomb effegies of Aliénor d’Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart and other famous royals. Image by the author.
Should you be thinking of coming to the Loire Valley, you will want to visit the major French Renaissance châteaux, such as Amboise, Azay-le-Rideau, Chambord, Chenonceaux, Villandry and many more. However, I would highly encourage you to drive on small roads (routes départementales) and also visit privately owned smaller sites, open to the public, manoirs (manors), churches and local museums, just to mention a few.
One site not to be missed is the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud.
Fontevraud is a small town located halfway between Angers and Tours, and at the edge of the province of Poitou, three kilometers south of the Loire River.
In 1101, an itinerant monk born in Brittany, Robert d’Abrissel, chose this site to create a monastery and the Order of Fontevraud. It was the largest monastic complex built in the Middle Ages, where many members came, men and women, from prominent and royal families. Robert d’Abrissel died around 1116, but one year before his death, he appointed a nun, Sister Pétronille de Chemillé, to be the abbesse and run the Order of Fontevraud. The abbaye is known as the “Ladies’ Abbaye” as no less than 35 abbesses continually headed this monastery until the French Revolution, in 1792, when unfortunately it suffered a great deal of damage, and the nuns had to flee.
In 1804, Napoléon decided to convert the abbaye into a prison and it remained such until 1963! In 1975, thankful to Olivier Guichard, who was a minister under the president Charles de Gaulle and his two successors, the abbaye became a cultural center.
The abbaye has always been famous, thanks to Aliénor d’Aquitaine (1124-1204), an exceptional lady who is the only woman to have been queen of France and later queen of England and who was the head of the Plantagenet dynasty.
In 1137, at 13 years of age, she inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine and married the French king Louis VII. With him, she went on two Holy Crusades to Jerusalem, Antioch and other places in the Middle East. Together, she and King Louis VII had two daughters but no son. Some think it may be the reason for their separation and the annulment of their marriage that she asked for.
A few months later, in 1152, Henry II (1133-1189) future King of England and Aliénor celebrated their marriage in the Poitiers Cathedral (Henry was ten years younger than his wife), and two years later, they were crowned king and queen of England in Westminster Cathedral. They had eight children and two of them became kings of England: Richard I, better known as Richard the Lionheart (Richard Coeur de Lion) and John Lackland (Jean sans Terre).
But life was far from peaceful, with many conflicts due to territory and power. After she plotted with her sons, Richard and John, against her husband, Henry II had Aliénor imprisoned for 15 years. After his death in 1189, she was freed and lived the rest of her life in Fontevraud just outside the abbaye.
As I mentioned, the abbaye was and is still very spacious. It consisted of four different monasteries. The largest, called the Grand Moûtier (St. Mary’s Cloister), was a space reserved for the nuns, with the church, the cloister, the refectory and the kitchen. The Sainte-Marie-Madeleine Convent was where nonreligious women (single or widows) lived; the Priory of Saint-Jean-de-l’Habit was reserved for the monks but does not exist anymore; and finally, the Priory Saint-Lazare was the space occupied by lepers.
Left, tomb effigies in the Church of the Abbaye de Fontevraud; right, nave of the Church in the Abbaye of Fontevraud with the tombs effigies.
Today, the Priory Saint-Lazare has been converted into an elegant hotel with a one-Michelin-star restaurant. I would highly suggest you stay there. Why? Well, in the evening after the gates of the abbaye are closed to the public, you are allowed to meander freely throughout the buildings, which are all lit up. Being alone in the huge church with its 90-meter-long nave, in front of the tomb effigies of Aliénor d’Aquitaine next to her second husband. Henry II, and Richard the Lionheart next to Isabelle d’Angoulême, who was John Lackland’s third wife, is an unforgettable experience.
During her long life (80 years), not only did Aliénor travel a lot and far away, but she had tremendous influence over her own Duchy of Aquitaine and the territories of France and England ruled by her two husbands and her two sons. She was very well read and surrounded herself with writers, poets and musicians. Three books are attributed to her.
One year before her death, Aliénor became a nun and designed the effigy for her tomb, where she is holding an open book in her hands as a sign of her culture.
There are other reasons to visit Fontevraud and its surroundings, which I shall cover in my next article.
Martine P. Dulles lives in France. Martine was a docent at the MET in New York and later a licensed tour guide in Charleston for many years. She now organizes bespoke tours in France and is a translator for cultural material. You may reach her at email@example.com.