Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fontevraud Abbaye

Thursday, June 9, 2011
Source: John Phillips
We had free time that evening to explore Fontevraud. We'd all made advance arrangements through our fabulous tour manager for dinner so as to avoid last night's mealtime fiascos.  After all, it wasn't like we could cook up a meal in the abbey kitchen for ourselves.

Why not? It's a little, uhm, rustic. 

Behold: the ancient abbey kitchen at Fontevraud:

Source: John Phillips
Source: Julia Markovitz

The Romanesque kitchen of Fontevraud sports Byzantine  cupolas and that fish-scaled, pine cone roof characteristic of Plantagenet architecture. It dates to 1105-60 CE and is thus as old as the abbey church. It contains five of its original eight apsides. At one time there were 20 chimneys in all, but the building has been altered and some have been lost.

After Fontevraud Abbey was dissolved, the original function of this building was lost to history. It was variously thought to have been a baptistery, funeral chapel, or round church. The designation of it as a kitchen or smokehouse was based on comparisons with similar structures elsewhere, including in near-by Poitou. Credit has been given to that ubiquitous restoration architect Viollet-le-Duc for identifying it in 1865 as a smokehouse. 

The kitchen was restored in the early 20th century by Lucien Magne (who added a lantern to each chimney for that homey decorator touch).

We had time to wander the grounds before dinner and our late evening tour. The main draw was of course Église Abbatiale, the abbey church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The first church here was started in 1104 and largely completed in terms of structure by 1115, enough so that Fontevraud community founder Robert d'Arbrissel could be buried there the following year.

This church, like most antique buildings, has seen its share of revisions, but has had a more brutal history than most. When Fontevraud was a prison, between 1804-21 five floors were added within the church to house prisoner workshops and dormitories. Heritage and cultural preservation came into vogue by 1840, so Fontevraud accordingly was officially deemed a national monument. However, restoration on the church was delayed until 1903-10. Architect Lucien Magne supervised the removal of those dormitory floors, replacement of the roof domes (five of six of the abbey church domes had been destroyed), and other restoration.

Work was still being done in 1990 when I first visited. I remember that the church had no floor and that archaeological investigations were on-going. It looks vastly different now than it did even 20 years ago. We can only imagine how it might have appeared in Eleanor's time.

Source: John Phillips

Source: John Phillips
This church has not always been a peaceful place, especially not in the aftermath of the destruction of the religious houses during the Revolution, and most definitely not between 1804 to 1963 when Fontevraud operated as France's second largest maximum security prison. The religious and historical character of the abbey was lost for a long time, causing one of the prison chaplains to recall:
"And in this place where Faith was so strong for so many centuries....not one inmate seems to perceive, through the architecture or the still-visible traces of the former abbey, the smallest sign of faith or of prayer. It's as if the abbey didn't exist any longer."
The bones of those buried here have never been allowed to lie unmolested. Never content with only knowing part of a story, after returning from this trip I felt compelled to read more about the full history of Fontevraud beyond its Planatagent necropolis connections. Learning that thousands of prisoners despaired in this place was humbling. Fontevraud is undoubtedly beautiful and while it will forever be associated with the glory of the Plantagenets, for me there is much sadness about the place.

I suppose some tourists might come here and think they've seen everything exactly as Eleanor of Aquitaine would have known it. But everything has been reconstructed to create a cultural center par excellence, and reflects many centuries of history.

Here, for instance, is the Renaissance-era gallery of the Grand-Moutier cloister. The cloister, constructed over the tenure of two different abbesses between 1519-1560, was later found to be built over Roman remains. It was restored in 1860 by prison labor.

Source: Sue O'Dee

The buildings that surround this outer courtyard were actually barracks built in the 19th century for the garrison in charge of the prison.

Source: John Phillips
We Bastard Babes headed out the main entrance into town for a lovely dinner at Restaurant Brasserie - La Fontaine d'Evraud. 

Later that evening, our entire tour group embarked on a guided visit of the abbey around 10 PM. I'm still not sure why we were scheduled to do this so late....perhaps to add atmospheric flourishes? It was certainly lovely to see the grounds by night.

The area next to the church was an early cemetery for the abbey.
  We entered via Salle Capitulaire in the Chapter House, which was the central meeting place of the abbey built between 1543-62.

Source: John Phillips

Source: Julia Markovitz
In the forefront of the above photo is one of two huge pillars which support the vault and divide the space into six bays. The walls of the chapter house were painted by Thomas Pot, an artist from Anjou, in 1563. The paintings represent scenes from the Gospels: Washing of the Feet; Betrayal of Judas; Flagellation; Crowning with Thorns; Crucifixion; Burial; Resurrection; Ascension; Pentecost; and Assumption of Mary. Contemporary portraits of two of the abbesses were included in the Crucifixion painting, and later abbesses decided they might as well have their portraits added into the other scenes. Some of them should have thought better of that decision, because I'm not sure this abbess' memory is well-served by having a bare foot sticking out of her rump:

All of these paintings were covered over when Fontevraud functioned as a prison. (In the above case, that was probably just as well).

So much of the abbey that we know today had its origins in Renaissance times. For instance, the tiled floors in the Salle Capitulaire showcase the initials of the two abbesses who rebuilt the cloister and chapter house: RB (Renee de Bourbon) and L (Louise de Bourbon), arms of the Bourbon family (crowned wings) and those of Francis I (salamander).

Source: John Phillips

We next entered the church, which has become known as the Plantagenet family necropolis. Their  mortal remains were deliberately disinterred and were either lost or destroyed during the Revolution. Here are coats of arms of various family members who once were buried there.

One source I read stated that fifteen Plantagenets in all were buried at Fontevraud, but so far I can only account for twelve. In addition to Eleanor and Henry, Richard I, and John's wife/Queen Consort Isabella d'Angoulême there are:
  • The second abbess and Henry's aunt, Matilda of Anjou, who died in 1154. 
  • Joanna and her sons, the infant Richard and Raymond VII of Toulouse.
  • John, whose heart was buried here at Fontevraud where he and sister Joanna spent much of their childhood. His body is interred at Worcester Cathedral in England.
  • Henry III, son of John and Isabella, was represented here by his heart.
  • Eleanor 's grand-daughter Alix by her daughter Alix, second child of the marriage to Louis VII. This Alix was an abbess,
  • Another Eleanor, a grand-daughter of Henry III and abbess of Fontevraud, was buried here in 1329. 

The exact location of the Plantagenet graves remains unknown, but excavations from 1985-1991 have pinpointed the crypt more decisively.  

It was the discovery of this period painting of Raymond VII on a column, along with comparisons with his will and chronicles of the time that led archaeologists to conclude that his burial place was near this pillar. That narrowed the location of the Plantagenet family crypt to the eastern bay of the nave, where the stone effigies rest today.

It is impossible to determine anything more specific, since construction of a 1638 burial vault for the abbesses obliterated traces of anything built before then, royal or otherwise.

Other medieval stonework and even an effigy thought perhaps to be that of Eleanor's grandson Raymond VII of Toulouse were discovered in the nave. These items are not on display and presumably have not been authenticated.

I think that the selection of Fontevraud as the Plantagenet family necropolis was Eleanor's doing. It was a conscious choice made to establish dynastic continuity, albeit one influenced by circumstances, necessity, and even a medieval equivalent of the desire to 'keep up with the Jones'   -- in this case, the Capets.

It is interesting to look at the historical precedents and influences for Eleanor's decisions related to Fontevraud. There was no centralized English royal necropolis as we know Westminster Abbey to be today. And while Basilica St-Denis in Paris is the final resting place for most French royals, it was not always so. During Eleanor's time queens were not buried at St-Denis, plus there were restrictions on the types of memorials for the kings who were interred there.

It was expected that an English or French royal woman would be buried at the monastic house she was most closely associated with, either as a founder or significant donor. Since it existed within her domains and had as additional cachet its historical respect for female leaders, we can imagine that Fontevraud was high on the list for Eleanor's choice as final resting place.

But Henry? He ended up at Fontevraud largely by accident. His sudden death at near-by Chinon during the exceptionally hot summer in 1189 made it impractical to transport his remains to Grandmont, his preferred burial place and a house he'd actively patronized.  It was the serially-monarchially-monogamously-loyal Greatest Knight William Marshall who is said to have decided on Henry's final journey to Fontevraud. Eleanor likely had no say at all since she was still imprisoned in England at the time of Henry's death.

So, off to Fontevraud Henry went. The chronicler Gerald of Wales opined that there was perhaps divine retribution at play, what with Henry buried at the same abbey he'd 'invited' Eleanor to permanently enter as a nun following the Revolt of 1173. I rather like that idea and I'd prefer to think it wryly amused Eleanor, she who always made the best of her circumstances!   

Ten years later, Eleanor's favorite son Richard requested burial at Fontevraud as he lay dying his wasted death in 1199. Later that same year, her youngest daughter Joanna died in childbirth, taking the veil on her deathbed and thus assuring her burial at Fontevraud.  And after a long life well-lived, Eleanor's own mortality surely loomed large.

So what to do with all these bodies? Well, if you are Eleanor of Aquitaine, you've got lots of examples to fall back on. You've traveled to Byzantium, The Holy Land and Sicily and have seen their examples of Christian dynastic burial traditions. Your daughter Leonora and son-in-law Alphonso of Castile have founded Las Huelgas, a Cistercian convent near Burgos, and established it as their family's royal necropolis; that's a fine example to emulate. The first formidable mother-in-law of the pair you've had, Adelaide of Maurienne, set the bar high with a pre-planned burial site that combined the necessary prayerful devotion in perpetuity by a religious house with a striking personal grave monument.  Your second formidable mother-in-law, the Empress Maude, didn't shrink at sending a message beyond the grave in the form of an emphatic epitaph about the legitimacy of her lineage and that of the royal line you married into and expanded. And perhaps most galling of all, your ex-husband Louis VII was lying beneath the grandest tomb his third wife could give him, a striking life-sized painted and bejeweled stone gisant of his pious self in coronation splendor. That funeral art was the first of its kind, and I think it probably begged to be outdone at Eleanor's hands.

And so it was. She eclipsed them all.

Source: John Phillips

Richard I. Source: John Phillips
Henry II. Source: John Phillips
The gisants of Henry, Richard, and Eleanor are believed to have been carved circa 1200 by the same artist/group of artists, who used the ubiquitous tuffeau of the region. Henry and Richard are both shown lying in state, dressed in recreation of their coronation splendor. These gisants are a nod to the new French iconographic style of presenting an image of the eternally splendid king and his authority that stretches beyond the grave.  

Although she was 80 when she died in 1204, Eleanor's gisant shows her to be a dignified woman of middle age. She is thus forever young -- and very much alive. Eleanor likely never had a coronation per se of her own and therefore was not entitled to the same kind of imagery that she had designed for her son and husband. But her funeral sculpture choice is even more interesting. 

Eleanor's recumbent form is slightly elevated. She is crowned, a symbol of her secular role. But she is reading, not just holding a devotional book in repose like many other high-born woman would portray themselves (including her daughter-in-law Berengaria). She's actively reading what is most likely a psalter. Through this choice, scholars posit that she chose to move beyond a funereal show of secular authority to instead portray herself as very much alive, and clearly forever devoted to matters of a higher realm.

Eleanor of Aquitaine. Source: John Phillips

In other words, Eleanor got the last laugh over both of her husbands, who are forever tied in imagery to their royal roles....even pious Louis.

We can't know exactly how these gisants were arranged, although there are hints as to their relationships to one another in the abbey. Richard asked to be buried at his father's feet, we know that much. Joanna very likely had a monument, perhaps like those of her parents and brother since she died in that same period of time, but perhaps simpler given her final role as a nun. Joanna's son Raymond requested in his will that his tomb be placed at his mother's feet, although archaeological evidence indicates that this wish was not honored. We know from chronicles that when the community decided to make different use of the nave in 1504, the positions of the gisants of the immediate family members were rearranged in a single line, with Raymond's gisant and that of Isabelle d'Angoulême off to the side. 

Work done on the nave in 1638 resulted in the loss of the memorials for Joanna and Raymond. Kneeling figures replaced them for a time, but those have also been lost. In 1810 it was proposed that the gisants, presumably in the way at the new Fontevraud prison, be stored in Tour d'Evrault, which is what we now know were the Romanesque kitchens! The gisants ended up getting shipped to Paris to be repainted between 1846 and 1849. The British government tried to repatriate them to Westminster Abbey, and supposedly in 1866 Napoleon III even offered them to Queen Victoria, but the outcry from the French public caused him to rescind his offer. 

And thus it was that after wandering about throughout the mid/late 1800s, these gisants were returned to the centre of the nave in 1930.

We wandered around a bit more of the abbey and ended the night outside the Tour d'Evrault.  No one provided us with a midnight snack from the kitchens, alas.

The gisant of Louis VII is known to us now only by descriptions and drawings,  since it was lost during the Revolution. But the gisants that Eleanor designed for Henry, Richard and herself remain as powerful reminders of their dynasty. Fontevraud Abbaye itself was dissolved, so there are no more perpetual prayers for these royal departed souls.  Even their royal mortal remains are long gone. But I think there is an eternal respect and historical reverence paid by the tourists who come to gaze upon these stone gisants. 

Certainly there was in our group, as we gathered near midnight to pay our respects. We spent an evening in rarefied company that night.

Sharon Kay Penman's blog entry about our night tour of the abbey can be found HERE.


  1. I am a few years late in finding this entry, and I thank you for all the information.

    Now that they have managed to find the remains of Richard III, I shall live in hope that somehow, someday, they will find the bodies that were once at Fontevraud.

    1. You're very welcome. Fortunately time moves slowly in places like this, so the information is still relevant. It would be lovely to honor the first Plantagenets with formal re-interments, but I think their mortal remains have long since turned to dust and been scattered due to reconstruction or revolution.


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