The Medieval Le Mont Saint-Michel

This monastery is a fortified marvel and one of France’s most iconic historic sites

Image credit: Getty Images

The island of Mont Saint-Michel has survived sieges, fires and revolutions over the centuries. While it was once the destination of thousands of travelling pilgrims, today, the  it is a tourist hotspot and a World Heritage site.

Located at the mouth of the river Couesnon, the mount was originally entirely cut off from the mainland at high tide. This provided a natural defence against enemies, as even at low tide the exposed sand flats were treacherous to cross. The Bayeux Tapestry even depicts William the Conqueror’s knights falling into the surrounding quicksand. During the 19th century a causeway was built, providing a safer link to the mainland at low tide. In 2014, a permanent two-kilometre-long bridge replaced this, enabling tourists to travel across safely.

The island’s fortifications were constructed during the 14th and 15th centuries to defend against English armies during the Hundred Years’ War. Cannons abandoned by a besieging English general in 1434 are still on display at the gates. Behind the walls, the village of Mont Saint-Michel stretches around the base of the mount, with winding roads leading to the entrance of the abbey.

Many experts have observed how this layout reflects the hierarchy of medieval society, with the church at the peak of the mount, towering above the shops and houses below. However, after the French Revolution the island was claimed by the new government and converted into a prison. Today, Mont Saint-Michel is still a functioning monastery, and a marvel
for visitors.

5 Facts about Mont Saint-Michel

1. An English twin

Located in Penzance, Cornwall, St Michael’s Mount was its English counterpart – the oldest buildings there date back to the 12th century.

2. Tourist boom

Around 2.5 million people visit the island every year, making tourism the town’s primary source of income.

3. Tiny population

In 2015 the island was home to just 33 people, including several monks and nuns who live in the abbey quarters.

4. Medieval mount

The site is over 1,300 years old, with the first chapel constructed in 708 CE and dedicated to the Archangel Michael.

5. Tidal power

Mont Saint-Michel Bay experiences some of the highest tides in continental Europe. There can be a difference of up to 15 metres between low and high tide.

 This article was originally published in How It Works issue 114, written by Tim Williamson

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