Mont Saint-Michel is a rocky tidal island and a commune in Normandy, France. It is located approximately one kilometer (just over half a mile) off the country’s north coast, at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches.
Before the construction of the first monastic establishment in the 8th century, the island was called Mont Tombe. According to legend, the archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in 708 and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. But Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel’s instruction until Michael burned a hole in the bishop’s skull with his finger. That did the trick.
The dedication to St Michael occurred on October 16, 708. The mount gained strategic significance in 933 when the Normans annexed the Cotentin Peninsula, thereby placing the mount on the new frontier with Brittany. It is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates the 1066 Norman conquest of England. Ducal and royal patronage financed the spectacular Norman architecture of the abbey in subsequent centuries.
An Italian architect, William de Volpiano, designed the Romanesque church of the abbey in the 11th century, daringly placing the transept crossing at the top of the mount. Many underground crypts and chapels had to be built to compensate for this weight. These formed the basis for the supportive upward structure that can be seen today.
Robert de Thorigny, a great supporter of Henry II of England (who was also Duke of Normandy), reinforced the structure of the buildings and built the main façade of the church in the 12th century. Following his annexation of Normandy in 1204, the King of France, Philip Augustus offered abbot Jourdain a grant for the construction of a new gothic style architectural set which included the addition of the refectory and cloister.
The wealth and influence of the abbey extended to many daughter foundations, including St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, England. However, its popularity and prestige as a centre of pilgrimage waned with the Reformation and by the time of the French Revolution there were scarcely any monks in residence. During the Revolution the abbey was closed and converted into a prison, initially to hold clerical opponents of the republican régime. High-profile political prisoners followed, but by 1836 influential figures, including Victor Hugo, had launched a campaign to restore what was seen as a national architectural treasure. The prison was finally closed in 1863, and the mount was declared a historic monument in 1874. Mont Saint Michel and its bay were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979.