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Mont Saint-Michel

Le Mont Saint-Michel
Le Mont Saint-Michel
Le Mont Saint-Michel
Coat of arms of Le Mont Saint-Michel
Coat of arms
Le Mont Saint-Michel is located in France
Le Mont Saint-Michel
Country France
Region Lower Normandy
Department Manche
Arrondissement Avranches
Canton Pontorson
Intercommunality Communauté de communes de Pontorson - Le Mont-Saint-Michel
 • Mayor (2014-2020) Yann Galton
Area1 0.97 km2 (0.37 sq mi)
Population (2009)2 44
 • Density 45/km2 (120/sq mi)
INSEE/Postal code 50353 / 50116
Elevation 5–80 m (16–262 ft)

1 French Land Register data, which excludes lakes, ponds, glaciers > 1 km² (0.386 sq mi or 247 acres) and river estuaries.

2 Population without double counting: residents of multiple communes (e.g., students and military personnel) only counted once.

Le Mont-Saint-Michel (pronounced: ; English: Saint Michael's Mount) is an island commune in Normandy, France. It is located about one kilometre (0.6 miles) off the country's northwestern coast, at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches. 100 hectares (247 acres) in size, the island has a population of 44 (2009).[1]

The island has held strategic fortifications since ancient times and since the 8th century AD has been the seat of the monastery from which it draws its name. The structural composition of the town exemplifies the feudal society that constructed it: on top, God, the abbey and monastery; below, the great halls; then stores and housing; and at the bottom, outside the walls, houses for fishermen and farmers.

Its unique position — on an island just 600 metres from land — made it accessible at low tide to the many pilgrims to its abbey, but defensible as an incoming tide stranded, drove off, or drowned, would-be assailants. The Mont remained unconquered during the Hundred Years' War; a small garrison fended off a full attack by the English in 1433.[2] The reverse benefits of its natural defence were not lost on Louis XI, who turned the Mont into a prison. Thereafter the abbey began to be used more regularly as a jail during the Ancien Régime.

One of France's most recognizable landmarks, Mont Saint-Michel and its bay are part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites[3] and more than 3 million people visit it each year.[4]


  • Geography 1
    • Formation 1.1
    • Tides 1.2
    • Tidal island 1.3
  • History 2
    • Abbey design 2.1
    • Development 2.2
  • Administration 3
  • Population 4
  • Personalities related to the commune 5
  • Economy 6
  • Twin towns and sister cities 7
  • Historical monument 8
  • In popular culture 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12



Now a rocky tidal island, the Mont occupied dry land in prehistoric times . As sea levels rose, erosion reshaped the coastal landscape, and several outcrops of granite emerged in the bay, having resisted the wear and tear of the ocean better than the surrounding rocks. These included Lillemer, the Mont-Dol, Tombelaine (the island just to the north), and Mont Tombe, later called Mont Saint-Michel.

Mont Saint-Michel is made of leucogranite, which solidified from an underground intrusion of molten magma about 525 million years ago, during the Cambrian period, as one of the younger parts of the Mancellian granitic batholith.[5] (Early studies of Mont Saint-Michel by French geologists sometimes describe the leucogranite of the Mont as "granulite", but this granitic meaning of granulite is now obsolete).[6]

The Mont has a circumference of about 960 metres (3,150 ft), and is 92 metres (302 ft) above sea level at its highest point.[7]


The tides can vary greatly, at roughly 14 metres (46 ft) between high and low water marks. Popularly nicknamed "St. Michael in peril of the sea" by medieval pilgrims making their way across the flats, the mount can still pose dangers for visitors who avoid the causeway and attempt the hazardous walk across the sands from the neighbouring coast.

Polderisation and occasional flooding have created salt marsh meadows that were found to be ideally suited to grazing sheep. The well-flavoured meat that results from the diet of the sheep in the pré salé (salt meadow) makes agneau de pré-salé (salt meadow lamb) a local specialty that may be found on the menus of restaurants that depend on income from the many visitors to the mount.

Tidal island

Low tide in 2005
Mont Saint-Michel in 2014 with the new bridge

The connection between Mont Saint-Michel and the mainland has changed over the centuries. Previously connected by a tidal causeway (a path uncovered only at low tide), this was converted into a raised (permanently dry) causeway in 1879, preventing the tide from scouring the silt around the mount. The coastal flats have also been polderised to create pastureland, decreasing the distance between the shore and the island, and the Couesnon River has been canalised, reducing the dispersion of the flow of water. These factors all encouraged silting-up of the bay.

On 16 June 2006, the French prime minister and regional authorities announced a €164 million project (Projet Mont-Saint-Michel)[8] to build a hydraulic dam using the waters of the river Couesnon and the tides to help remove the accumulated silt, and to make Mont Saint-Michel an island again. The project's completion is scheduled for 2015.

The construction of the dam began in 2009 and is now complete. The project also includes the removal of the causeway and its visitor car park. Since 28 April 2012 the new car park on the mainland has been in service, about 2.5 kilometres (1.6 miles) from the island. Visitors can walk or use shuttles to cross the causeway.

On 22 July 2014 the new bridge by architect Dietmar Feichtinger was opened to the public. The light bridge allows the waters to flow freely around the island and improves the efficiency of the now operational dam.

On rare occasions tidal circumstances produce an extremely high 'supertide'. The new bridge was completely submerged on 21 March 2015, by the highest sea level for at least 18 years, as crowds gathered to snap photos.[9]


Mont Saint-Michel was used in the sixth and seventh centuries as an Armorican stronghold of Gallo-Roman culture and power until it was ransacked by the Franks, thus ending the trans-channel culture that had stood since the departure of the Romans in CE 460. From roughly the fifth to the eighth century, Mont Saint-Michel belonged to the territory of Neustria, and in the early ninth century was an important place in the marches of Neustria.

Inside the walls of Mont Saint-Michel

Before the construction of the first monastic establishment in the 8th century, the island was called Mont Tombe (Latin: tumba). According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared in 708 to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel's instruction until Michael burned a hole in the bishop's skull with his finger.[10]

Unable to defend his kingdom against the assaults of the Vikings, the king of the Franks agreed to grant the Cotentin peninsula and the Avranchin, including Mont-Saint-Michel, to the Bretons in the 867 Treaty of Compiègne. This marked the beginning of the brief period of Breton possession of the Mont. In fact, these lands and Mont Saint-Michel were never really included in the duchy of Brittany and remained independent bishoprics from the newly created Breton archbishopric of Dol. When Rollo confirmed Franco as archbishop of Rouen, these traditional dependences of the Rouen archbishopric were retained in it.

The mount gained strategic significance again in 933 when William "Long Sword" annexed the Cotentin Peninsula from the weakened Dukes of Brittany. This made the mount definitively part of Normandy, and is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates the 1066 Norman conquest of England. Harold, Earl of Wessex is pictured on the tapestry rescuing two Norman knights from the quicksand in the tidal flats during a battle with Conan II, Duke of Brittany. Norman ducal patronage financed the spectacular Norman architecture of the abbey in subsequent centuries.

Bayeux Tapestry scenes 16 and 17: William and Harold at Mont Saint-Michel (at top center); Harold rescuing knights from quicksand

In 1067, the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel gave its support to Duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. This he rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the south-western coast of Cornwall which was modelled after the Mount and became a Norman priory named St Michael's Mount of Penzance.

Cannons abandoned by Thomas de Scales at Mont Saint-Michel on 17 June 1434. Currently (June 2013), only the second cannon, the one closer to the wall, is on display inside the entrance to the Mont's outer wall.

During the Hundred Years' War, the English made repeated assaults on the island, but were unable to seize it due to the abbey's improved fortifications. The English initially besieged the Mont in 1423–24, and then again in 1433–34 with English forces under the command of Thomas Scales. Two wrought-iron bombards that Scales abandoned when he gave up his siege are still on site. They are known as les Michelettes. Mont Saint-Michel's resolute resistance inspired the French, especially Joan of Arc.

When Louis XI of France founded the Order of Saint Michael in 1469, he intended that the abbey church of Mont Saint-Michel become the chapel for the Order, but because of its great distance from Paris, his intention could never be realized.

UNESCO World Heritage Site
Mont Saint-Michel and its Bay
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Type Cultural
Criteria i, iii, vi
Reference 80
UNESCO region Europe
Inscription history
Inscription 1979 (3rd Session)

The wealth and influence of the abbey extended to many daughter foundations, including St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall. 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. The abbey was closed and converted into a prison, initially to hold clerical opponents of the republican regime. 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 an historic monument in 1874. Mont Saint-Michel and its bay were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979, and it was listed with criteria such as cultural, historical, and architectural significance, as well as human-created and natural beauty.[3]

Abbey design

Plan of the mount by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc

In the 11th century, William de Volpiano, the Italian architect who had built the Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy, was chosen by Richard II of Normandy to be the building contractor. He designed the Romanesque church of the abbey, 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. Today Mont Saint-Michel is seen as a building of Romanesque architecture.

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. In 1204, Guy de Thouars, regent for the Duchess of Brittany, as vassal of the King of France, undertook a siege of the Mount. After having set fire to the village and having massacred the population, he was obliged to beat a retreat under the powerful walls of the abbey. Unfortunately, the fire which he himself lit extended to the buildings, and the roofs fell prey to the flames. Horrified by the cruelty and the exactions of his Breton ally, Philip Augustus offered Abbot Jordan a grant for the construction of a new Gothic architectural set which included the addition of the refectory and cloister.[11]

Charles VI is credited with adding major fortifications to the abbey-mount, building towers, successive courtyards, and strengthening the ramparts.



The cloister

The islet belongs to the French Organization of World Heritage Cities.

Mont Saint-Michel has also been the subject of traditional, but nowadays good-humoured, rivalry between Normans and Bretons. Bretons claim that since the Couesnon River marks the traditional boundary between Normandy and Brittany, it is only because the river has altered its course over the centuries that the mount is on the Norman side of the border. This legend amuses the area's inhabitants, who state that the border is not located on the Couesnon River itself but on the mainland, 4 kilometres (2.5 mi) to the west, at the foot of the solid mass of Saint-Brelade.


1956–1962 1962–1968 1968–1975 1975–1982 1982–1990 1990–1999
xx 13 16 8 6 4
1956–1962 1962–1968 1968–1975 1975–1982 1982–1990 1990–1999
xx 6 6 4 5 3

Up to 20,000 people visit the city during the summer months. Among the 43 inhabitants as of 2006, 5 were monks and 7 nuns.

Personalities related to the commune


Le Mont-Saint-Michel has long "belonged" to some families who shared the businesses in the town, and succeeded to the village administration. Tourism is the main and even almost unique source of income of the commune. There are about fifty shops for 3 million tourists, while only 25 people sleep every night on the Mount (monks included), except in hotels. Nowadays, the main institutions of the city are shared by:

  • Eric Vannier, owner of the group the Mère Poulard (holding half of restaurants, shops, hotels and three museums);
  • Jean-Yves Vételé, CEO of Sodetour (five hotels, a supermarket and shops -all extramural-, including Mercury Barracks);
  • Patrick Gaul, former elected official, hotelier and intramural restaurateur;
  • Independent merchants

Twin towns and sister cities

Historically, Mont Saint-Michel was the Norman counterpart of St Michael's Mount in Cornwall, UK, which was given to the Benedictines, religious order of Mont Saint-Michel, by Edward the Confessor in the 11th century.

Historical monument

61 buildings have been protected as monuments historiques,[19] through multiple waves starting in 1928.

In popular culture

Statue of Archangel Michael atop the spire
  • In 1904, the American intellectual Henry Adams privately published Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres[20] celebrating the unity of medieval society, especially as represented in the great cathedrals of France. It was released publicly in 1913.
  • French composer Claude Debussy frequented the island and possibly drew inspiration from not only the legend of the mythical city of Ys, but also Mont Saint-Michel's cathedral for his piano prelude La Cathédrale Engloutie.[21]
  • In 1942, Helen MacInnes used Mont St. Michel as the location for a key section in her spy novel Cross Channel set in France just after the Bordeaux Armistice of June 1940. The novel was subsequently renamed as Assignment In Brittany, after a film called Assignment In Brittany was made, based on the novel, in 1943.
  • 1950 : The Elusive Pimpernel by Powell and Pressburger.[22]
  • 1955: "The Mystery of Mont Saint-Michel (La Forêt de Quokelunde)" by Michel Rouze is a children's novel featuring five children who explore the island on a camping trip.
  • 1991 : Mindwalk[23]
  • 2003 : Mont Saint-Michel was the inspiration for the design of Minas Tirith in the film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.[24]
  • 2010 : * The architecture of True Cross Academy, the boarding school from the manga and anime series Ao no Exorcist by Kazue Kato, is based on the layout of Mont Saint-Michel.
  • Renaissance Mont Saint-Michel is a playable multiplayer map in the video game Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (2010), and Assassin's Creed: Revelations (2011) by Ubisoft Montreal.
  • 2011 : The design of Dark Souls location New Londo Ruins is inspired by Mont Saint-Michel. [25]
  • 2013 : Le Mont Saint-Michel was the end point of stage 11 of the Tour de France.
  • 2013 : The design for the Tower of Mastery in the video games Pokémon X and Y versions was inspired by Mont Saint-Michel.

See also


  1. ^ "Insee – Populations légales 2009 – 50353-Le Mont-Saint-Michel". 2012. Retrieved 21 August 2012. 
  2. ^ "Mont Saint-Michel". Retrieved 2015-10-07. 
  3. ^ a b "UNESCO". UNESCO. 13 December 2006. Retrieved 31 May 2011. 
  4. ^ Pierre Le Hir, « Le Mont-Saint-Michel rendu à l’eau », dans Le Monde du 29-07-2007.
  5. ^ L'Homer, A.; et al. (1999). Notice explicative, Carte géol. France (1/50 000), feuille Baie du mont-Saint-Michel (208) (PDF) (in French). Orléans: BRGM.  
  6. ^ "Carnets géologique de Philippe Glangeaud - Glossaire" (in French). Retrieved 7 October 2015. 
  7. ^ Chantal Bonnot-Courtois, La Baie Du Mont-Saint-Michel et l'estuaire de la Rance : environnements sédimentaires, aménagements et évolution récente. Editor Technip. 2002. pages 15–20
  8. ^ "Official website of the restoring operation of the Mont-saint-Michel's maritime character". Retrieved 2015-10-07. 
  9. ^ Galimberti, Katy (31 March 2015). "PHOTOS: Supertide Turns Mont Saint-Michel Into Island in a Once in 18-Year Spectacle". AccuWeather. Retrieved 2015-10-07. 
  10. ^ "Catholic Encyclopedia: Mont-St-Michel". 1911-10-01. Retrieved 2013-07-10. 
  11. ^  
  12. ^ "Département de la Manche". Retrieved 2013-07-10. 
  13. ^ "Le Mont-Saint-Michel - Notice Communale". Retrieved 2013-07-10. 
  14. ^ "Historique des populations par commune depuis le recensement de 1962". Retrieved 2013-07-10. 
  15. ^ "Insee - Populations légales 2006 - 50353-Le Mont-Saint-Michel". Retrieved 2013-07-10. 
  16. ^ "Le Mont-Saint-Michel – Jumelage" (in French). Retrieved 31 May 2011. 
  17. ^ "Nishihiroshima Times". Archived from the original on 13 January 2010. Retrieved 31 May 2011. 
  18. ^ "Miyajima Grand Hotel Info". 16 May 2009. Retrieved 31 May 2011. 
  19. ^ "Liste des monuments historiques sur la commune du Mont-Saint-Michel", Base Mérimée, Ministère de la Culture.
  20. ^ Adams, Henry (1904). Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. self-published. 
  21. ^ Debussy's: La Cathedrale Engloutie
  22. ^ Igenlode Wordsmith (1 June 1953). "The Fighting Pimpernel (1950)". IMDb. 
  23. ^ "Mindwalk (Philosophical Films)". University of Tennessee at Martin. Retrieved 2013-07-10. 
  24. ^ "Making Of" featurette on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Extended Edition DVD.
  25. ^ "Translation of the Design Works Interview with Hidetaka Miyazaki". Giant Bomb. Retrieved 2015-07-31. 

External links

  • Mont-Saint-Michel Celebrates 1,300 yrs of History
  • Official Mont-Saint Michel Tourist site (English version)
  • Virtual recreation of Mont St. Michel in Second Life
  • Pano at 360° of Mont St Michel
  • INSEE population figures
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