5 things to know about France's Mont Saint-Michel

Genevieve Mansfield
Genevieve Mansfield - [email protected]
5 things to know about France's Mont Saint-Michel
The Mont-Saint-Michel, in Normandy, northwestern France in 2020 (Photo by DAMIEN MEYER / AFP)

One of France's most visited sites, the abbey of Mont Saint-Michel celebrates its 1,000th birthday (again) this year - from an expanding island to a local dispute, here's what you need to know about the ancient monument.


French President Emmanuel Macron will visit Mont-Saint-Michel - which the Elysée describes as "a symbol of the French spirit of resilience and resistance" - on Monday to mark 1,000 years since the founding of the world-renowned abbey. 

Here are some facts about the popular touristic and historical site, known for its dramatic tidal patterns:

Mont-Saint-Michel has celebrated more than one 1,000th birthday

While 2023 is recognised as 1,000 years since the abbey church was consecrated, there are other important historical dates.

The story goes that in 708 the Bishop Aubert has three visions where the Archangel Michael (hence the name) appeared and told him to build a place of worship on the rocky, tidal island. 

The year 966 is also important for the site - it is when the Benedictine monks settled there, deciding that they would eventually build the abbey church. In the years to come, Mont Saint-Michel would become an important pilgrimage site in the West.

The Abbey's library was also reputed throughout the Middle Ages, and it is now home to more than 200 manuscripts, some dating back hundreds of years.

The tidal island almost lost its 'maritime' character

Mont Saint-Michel is perhaps best known for the tides that come in and out, sometimes turning it into an island. However, it risked losing this status, thanks to human activity from the 1800s and onwards which resulted in a large amount of sediment build up around the island. 

In 1879, a causeway was build to connect the island to the mainland, but it disrupted the tidal patterns. Almost a century later, the French government built a dam at the mouth of the Couesnon River. This meant that there was less waster to push the sediments back out to the ocean.

By 1995, there was concern that if steps were not taken, it would only take a few decades for the famous Mont Saint-Michel to become part of the mainland. As such, the French government embarked on a huge restoration project to save the island's "maritime character". A new dam was built in order to time the release of water, to "to push sediment as far as possible into the bay", according to the Mont Saint-Michel tourist site. 

Now, thanks to the regulated flushes, Mont Saint-Michel has been able to maintain its island status, home to one of the highest tides in continental Europe - reaching a difference of around 15 metres between high and low tide.

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Mont Saint-Michel was once a prison

During the Hundred Years War, the island earned quite the reputation after having been used as a fortress, its walls and natural environment permitting it to withstand a 30-year siege by the English. 

However, it would soon take on the name of the "Bastille des Mers". During the 15th century, King Louis XI began sending detainees to the island, and during the French revolution, the state nationalised the land, expelled the clergy and began to use it as a prison.


Napoleon used it as a state prison too, and it stayed that way until 1863. Eventually, it was restored as a historical monument in 1874, in part thanks to the advocacy of celebrated author Victor Hugo. 

One of France's most visited sites

About 362 kilometres away from Paris and located in Normandy, Mont Saint-Michel is France's most visited site outside of the capital region, attracting almost three million visitors per year.

Year-round, the island is only home to 44 inhabitants (as of 2022). 

Even though many refer to Mont Saint-Michel as a "wonder of the west" this title is not official. But it has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. In the description, UNESCO describes Mont Saint-Michel as "a technical and artistic tour de force". 


A local dispute dating back centuries

Mont Saint-Michel is technically part of Normandy, but it is close to the border with Brittany, and this has been a source of conflict for many years. Some Bretons still feel that the island should still be part of Brittany and others go so far as being unwilling to recognise it as part of Normandy. This goes back to the Middle Ages, when Mont Saint-Michel belonged to Brittany for about 160 years.

In 867, Charles the Bald ceded the peninsula of Cotentin, as a thank you for assistance in repelling the Vikings, to King Salomon of Brittany, which meant that Mont Saint-Michel would have been included.

But in 933, it passed back to Norman hands when William I reclaimed the Cotentin and Avranchin regions. It was at this point that the Couesnon river became the boundary between Brittany and Normandy, which remains a point of contention to this day.


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