Tag Archives: Bayeux tapestry

The miracle of Mont Saint Michel

The Monastery of Mont Saint Michel sits easily on its rock in the English Channel, just off the Normandy Coast, a fixture of the landscape. Yet, it took an apparition, a burnt skull,  determination, several minor miracles  and incredible feats of construction to put it there.

Mont Saint Michel
Mont Saint Michel

In 708, the Archangel Michael appeared to the Bishop Aubert of Avranches and told him to build a church on a small rocky island, just off the nearby coast, in the English Channel. Believing the island to be a difficult, if not impossible site on which to build anything, let alone something a large and complex as a church, the Bishop steadfastly ignored the Archangel. Finally, the exasperated Michael burned a hole in Aubert’s skull and at last, he acquiesced. The  Monastery of Saint Michel was built. The Monastery became one of the holiest and most frequented pilgrimage sites in the known world and the Bishop became Saint Aubert.

The view from Mont Saint Michel
The view from Mont Saint Michel

In 1067, the Monastery lent its support to William the Conqueror in his invasion of England and his campaign for the English Crown. The Monastery and the treacherous sea that surrounds it feature in the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The Monastery was handsomely rewarded for its support, with a grant of land, which included an island  off the coast of Cornwall. A Norman Priory, modelled on Saint Michel and named Saint Michael’s Mount of Penzance, was established there.

The popularity and prestige of Mont Saint Michel declined over the ensuing centuries and by the time of the French Revolution, only a few monks remained in residence. During the revolution, the monastery was converted into a prison and precious frescos, paintings, furniture and books were tossed into the surrounding bay.

In 1836, prominent members of the French, including Victor Hugo, launched a campaign to save and restore what was left of the Monastery. They finally succeeded in closing the prison and Mont Saint Michel was declared an historic monument in 1874.

The permanent population of Mont Saint Michel is only about 40, but as it is one of the most visited monuments in France, thousands pour in every day to walk its ancient halls and pathways or to pick their way around its perilous sands at low tide.

Mont St Michel is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

 

Bayeux

Although small, quiet and unpretentious, Bayeux is a town with an impressive history.

The old mill in Bayeux
The old mill in Bayeux

It was from Bayeux that William the Conqueror set out to invade England in 1066. The details of his departure, the battle Hastings, the death of the English King Harold and William’s coronation as King of England are chronicled in the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The tapestry, which is in fact an embroidery, was said to have been created by William the Conqueror’s wife, Mathilde and her ladies in waiting. 70 metres long and 50 centimetres high, it depicts more than 600 people, 200 horses, 40 ships and hundreds of animals and mythological figures.

The tapestry was originally displayed in the magnificent Norman Romanesque Cathedral of Notre Dame, built by William’s half brother Odo of Conteville, which dominates the Bayeux skyline even today. Ironically, it was here that Harold Goodwinson of England had taken an oath on ancient relics to support William as the successor to the English throne. When he broke his oath and took the throne himself, William went to war against him. The tapestry can now be viewed in the Bayeux Tapestry Museum.

Much later, Bayeux was to play an equally important role in another invasion, this time, not as the point of departure but as the point of arrival. On June, 6 1944, the Allied forces landed on the beaches just north of the Bayeux. It was the first French town liberated from Nazi occupation in the Battle Normandy and it was to Bayeux that General Charles De Gaulle returned to make his first speech on free French soil, on June 16, 1944.