10 Fascinating Facts About Mont Saint-Michel — the Medieval City on a Rock

Rising hundreds of feet above a rocky islet amidst vast sandbanks exposed to powerful tides stands a Gothic Benedictine abbey surrounded by a medieval village.

Built between the 11th and 16th centuries, Mont St Michel is a testament to the ingenuity of man inspired by God.

It takes your breath away.

Here are 10 fascinating facts about this incredible “island city”.

For added atmosphere, play the soundtrack.

1. Mont Saint-Michel was conceived in a dream

It was 708 A.D.

One night, Bishop Aubert of Avranches had a vision.

Saint Aubert, bishop of Avranches in the 8th Century, saw in dreams Archangel Michael, who ordered him to build a sanctuary on Mount Tomb. Credit Tango7174
Saint Aubert, bishop of Avranches in the 8th Century, saw in dreams Archangel Michael, who ordered him to build a sanctuary on Mount Tomb. Credit Tango7174
build here and build high

The Archangel Michael, who had defeated Satan in the war in heaven, appeared in a dream and instructed Aubert to build an oratory on the rocky island at the mouth of the Couesnon river.

Mont Saint-Michel as viewed along the Couesnon River in Normandy, France. Credit David Iliff
Mont Saint-Michel as viewed along the Couesnon River in Normandy, France. Credit David Iliff

At first, Aubert ignored the vision, until the Archangel burned a hole in his head as a gentle reminder, whispering “build it and they will come”.

build it and they will come

And come they did—pilgrims from all Christendom, and today, tourists from all corners of the world.

Aubert’s skull is displayed at the Saint-Gervais d’Avranches basilica bearing the scar of Michael.

Mont Saint-Michel soars 302 ft towards the heavens.

Mont-Saint-Michel Aerial View. Credit Sylvain Verlaine
Mont-Saint-Michel Aerial View. Credit Sylvain Verlaine

2. Mont Saint-Michel is a structural hierarchy of feudal society

On top, there is God, then the abbey and monastery; below this, the Great halls, then stores and housing, and at the bottom, outside the walls, the fishermen’s and farmers’ housing.

Spire of the abbey on Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy France
Spire of the abbey on Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy France
Mont Saint-Michel, Street
Mont Saint-Michel, Street
Historical monuments under the villa Saint-Michel. Credit EdouardHue
Historical monuments under the villa Saint-Michel. Credit EdouardHue

3. Mont Saint-Michel was one of the most important pilgrimage destinations

Second only to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Mont-Saint Michel was an important pilgrimage of faith during the Middle Ages.

Such was the difficulty of the journey that it became a test of penitence, sacrifice, and commitment to God to reach the Benedictine abbey.

Mont Saint Michel, Normandy by Edward William Cooke, R.A., 1838
Mont Saint Michel, Normandy by Edward William Cooke, R.A., 1838
Mont Saint-Michel. Credit Nicolas Raymond, flickr
Mont Saint-Michel. Credit Nicolas Raymond, flickr

Chosen by Richard II, Duke of Normandy, the Italian architect, William of Volpiano,  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, forming the foundation for the supportive upward structure that we see today.

Mont Saint-Michel Abbey Church Nave. Credit Jorge Láscar, flickr

Standing separate, not linking the abbey buildings, the cloister is a place to meditate, with the fragrance of herbs, flowers, and the sea filling the air.

Mont St Michel Cloister. Credit Jorge Láscar, flickr
Mont St Michel Cloister. Credit Jorge Láscar, flickr

Nestled at the foot of the abbey in the main street, the parish church of Église Saint-Pierre (Church of St Peter) is a little gem often overlooked by visitors.

When the abbey was secularised in the 19th century, the church became the focus of the pilgrimages to Mont Saint-Michel.

Eglise Saint-Pierre du Mont Saint-Michel. Credit Jordiferrer
Eglise Saint-Pierre du Mont Saint-Michel. Credit Jordiferrer
Église Paroissiale Saint-Pierre - Mont St Michel. Credit Jorge Láscar, flickr
Église Paroissiale Saint-Pierre – Mont St Michel. Credit Jorge Láscar, flickr.

4. The English couldn’t conquer Mont Saint-Michel

During the Hundred Years’ War, the Kingdom of England made repeated assaults on the island but were unable to seize it due to the abbey’s strong fortifications.

Mont Saint-Michel, rampart and houses
Mont Saint-Michel, rampart and houses
Mont Saint-Michel Tower. Credit Nicholas Raymond, flickr
Mont Saint-Michel Tower. Credit Nicholas Raymond, flickr

Besieging the Mont in 1423–24, and then again in 1433–34, the English forces under the command of Thomas de Scales, 7th Baron Scales abandoned two wrought-iron bombards (cannon) when he gave up his siege.

Known as “les Michelettes”, they remain on site to mark the impenetrable fortress protected by God.

Cannons abandoned by Thomas Scalles at Mont Saint-Michel on 17 June 1434
Cannons abandoned by Thomas Scalles at Mont Saint-Michel on 17 June 1434

5. Mont Saint-Michel inspired Joan of Arc to victory

When news of the island’s stand against the English reached a young peasant girl in Orléans, south-west of Paris, the tide would turn against England in the Hundred Years’ War.

Statue of Joan of Arc next to the transept door of the Saint-Pierre church of Mont-Saint-Michel, Manche, France. Credit EdouardHue
Statue of Joan of Arc next to the transept door of the Saint-Pierre church of Mont-Saint-Michel, Manche, France. Credit EdouardHue

That girl was Joan of Arc, and so inspired was she at the story of resistance at Mont St Michel, she would help recapture France from the English.

Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orleans by Jules Lenepveu
Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orleans by Jules Lenepveu

6. Mont St Michel has a counterpart in Cornwall, England

In 1067, the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel gave its support to William the Conqueror in his claim to the throne of England.

St Michael's Mount, Cornwall, England. Credit Chensiyuan
St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall, England. Credit Chensiyuan

Rewarding the monastery with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, he included a small island off the southwestern coast of Cornwall which was modeled after the Mount and became a Norman priory named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance.

St Michael's Mount, Cornwall, England. Credit ukgardenphotos
St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall, England. Credit ukgardenphotos

The two mounts share the same tidal island characteristics and the same conical shape, though St Michael’s Mount is much smaller.

7. Mont Saint-Michel served as a prison

With its popularity and prestige as a center of pilgrimage waning during the Reformation, by the time of the French Revolution, there were very few monks in residence.

Closed in 1791, the abbey was converted into a prison, initially holding clerical opponents of the republican regime—up to 300 priests at one point.

Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel north face. Credit Ibex73
Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel north face. Credit Ibex73

Nicknamed “bastille des mers”, meaning “Bastille of the sea”, it was named after the fortress in Paris that served as a state prison during the Ancien Regime.

Serving as a windlass, a treadwheel crane helped hoist supplies high up to the prison walls.

Prisoners would rotate the wheel by walking inside it like hamsters.

Treadwheel crane served as a windlass, installed when Mont Saint-Michel was a prison, to bring supplies prisoners. Some prisoners would walk inside the wheel to rotate it. Credit Jorge Láscar
itTreadwheel crane served as a windlass, installed when Mont Saint-Michel was a prison, to bring supplies prisoners. Some prisoners would walk inside the wheel to rotate it. Credit Jorge Láscar

Treadmill cranes were commonly used for lifting heavy objects on medieval construction sites.

Life on a 13th century fortress castle construction site, showing treadmill crane
Life on a 13th century fortress castle construction site, showing treadmill crane

After a series of high profile political prisoners were held at Mont Saint-Michel, influential figures, including Victor Hugo, launched a campaign to restore what they felt was a national architectural treasure.

Closing the prison in 1863, Napoleon III ordered the 650 prisoners to be transferred to other facilities.

8. Mont Saint Michel has deadly tides

Popularly nicknamed “St. Michael in peril of the sea” by medieval pilgrims making their way across the flats, the tides can vary by as much as 46 ft between high and low water marks.

Aerial view of Mont-Saint-Michel. Credit cea +

Connected to the mainland by a modern causeway built in 2014, the tide poses dangers for visitors who choose to walk across the sands—threatened by a tide that is said to travel at the speed of a galloping horse.

Mont Saint-Michel and its new light bridge at high tide. Credit Mathias Neveling
Mont Saint-Michel and its new light bridge at high tide. Credit Mathias Neveling
People walking along the clay sands of the bay around Mont-Saint-Michel. Credit tiger rus
People walking along the clay sands of the bay around Mont-Saint-Michel. Credit tiger rus

Polderisation and occasional flooding have created salt marsh meadows that are ideally suited to grazing sheep.

Mont Saint-Michel in September morning. Credit Vlasenko
Mont Saint-Michel in September morning. Credit Vlasenko

Richly-flavored meat resulting from the sheep’s diet in the “salt meadow” makes a dish called agneau de pré-salé “salt meadow lamb”, a local specialty served on the menus of restaurants at the mount.

9. Mont Saint-Michel and its bay are UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, Mont Saint Michel and its 11th-century Benedictine abbey have become a favored destination for pilgrims and tourists alike.

One of the most important sites of medieval Christian civilisationUNESCO
One of the charming little restaurants in Mont St Michel. Credit Trey Ratcliff, flickr
One of the charming little restaurants in Mont St Michel. Credit Trey Ratcliff, flickr
The Streets of Mont Saint Michel. Credit Trey Ratcliff, flickr
The Streets of Mont Saint Michel. Credit Trey Ratcliff, flickr
Recommendation: Mont St. Michel should be placed on the World Heritage List because of its exceptional combination of natural and cultural elements.UNESCO, 1979
Le Mont St. Michel by night. Credit William Warby
Le Mont St. Michel by night. Credit William Warby

10. Mont Saint-Michel is a top cultural attraction

Barely bigger than its gothic abbey, the island is cut off from land twice a day at high tide and yet attracts more than 3 million visitors a year.

The Grand Rue throw Le Mont-Saint-Michel seen from above. Credit Supercarwaar
The Grand Rue throw Le Mont-Saint-Michel seen from above. Credit Supercarwaar
Mont-Saint-Michel. Credit Pethrus
Mont-Saint-Michel. Credit Pethrus
Ground floor of the hotel of the Siren of Mont-Saint-Michel. Credit Edouard Hue
Ground floor of the hotel of the Siren of Mont-Saint-Michel. Credit Edouard Hue

Enjoy the video as seen from where only a drone can go!