Travel Guides Crafted by Experienced Archaeologists & Historians

Monasteries & Abbeys in France

Many of the abbeys and monasteries in France were established by wealthy nobles. Some of these would become centres of great intellectual and artistic activity. The Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris had one of the most important libraries in Europe. During the French Revolution many of these institutions were destroyed or repurposed. Since then a number have been restored and attract many visitors. These are important historical landmarks that were  influential in the political and cultural development of medieval France.


Founded as a monastery for women by Mathilda of Flanders following her marriage to William, Duke of Normandy. And it was here that Mathilda was laid to rest: her tomb can be seen in the choir. The abbey church was built in a typical Romanesque style and dedicated to the Trinity. In the ceiling of the apse is a restored but spectacular 18th century fresco that depicts the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The original spires were destroyed in the ‘Hundred Years War’, and replaced in the 18th century, otherwise much of the church is original.


Founded by William the Conqueror in 1059 as a monastery for men following his marriage to Mathilda of Flanders. The Gothic abbey church is dedicated to Saint-Etienne, and has the tomb of the Duke of Normandy in the church’s choir. Although much of the 11th century church is original, the monastic buildings were destroyed in the 16th century and rebuilt in the 18th century. Today these buildings are used for the Hôtel de Ville. Daily guided tours of the Abbey are provided free of charge.

Bernay Abbey

Founded in around 1013 by William the Conqueror’s grandmother, Judith of Brittany, Bernay’s abbey is the oldest surviving Romanesque abbey in Normandy. Following a period of decline due to religious wars and peasant revolts, the abbey experienced a renaissance in the 17th century. This did not last long, by the start of the French Revolution there were only five monks. After the revolution the various buildings were used to house the town’s  various administrative offices, including a court and prison. The latter ceased in 1950. Today a town hall and a museum of fine arts occupy parts of the abbey.

Cerisy-la-Forêt Abbey

Cerisy-la-Forêt Abbey was founded by Saint Vigor around 510. Although the Norman invasions of 9th century resulted in much destruction, the abbey began to prosper in the 11th century as a result of its influence over nearby abbeys. The 11th century saw a significant rebuilding. During the Hundred Years’ War the abbey was fortified and temporarily under English control. As a result of protestant seizure and fire, the abbey began to lose its influence and the buildings started to decay. It faced further dismantling during the French Revolution, with almost all of its buildings destroyed. Only the church and abbot’s chapel remain. The church is considered one of the finest Romanesque churches in Normandy. Displays in the Abbot’s Chapel recount the history of the abbey.

Cluny Abbey

Cluny Abbey is a former Benedictine monastery, that at its height of power and influence is said to have controlled some 1,500 monasteries around Europe. Founded in 910 by Duke William I of Aquitaine, it was built in the Romanesque style, with three churches built in succession from the 4th to the 12th centuries. Much of the monastery was destroyed during the French Revolution, and only the bell tower of the church and a few other buildings remain intact. A fascinating tour through the various buildings that have survived, making use of different media and display techniques, is available and a must see for anyone with an interest in the history of France and religion in Europe.

Fontenay Abbey

Founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard, Fontenay Abbey is one of the oldest Cistercian monasteries in Europe; and is now a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site. The abbey has retained its Romanesque style, with the exception of the refectory which was destroyed in 1745. An optional guided tour or enables you to see the very well preserved church, dormitory, cloister, council room, heating room, abbot’s lodgings, and the forge.

Fontevraud Abbey

Founded at the start of the 12th century, there were both men and women at the abbey, all governed by an abbess. Eleanor of Aquitaine made the abbey her residence. She and her husband, Henry II King of England, their son, Richard the Lionheart, and Isabella of Angoulême are buried in the abbey church. After the French Revolution the abbey became a prison. Today much of the abbey is open, the priory is a 4* hotel. A museum of Modern art will open soon, with over 500 works of 19th and 20th century European artists.

Jumièges Abbey

These picturesque ruins have been described by many as the most beautiful ruins in France. Although founded in 654 by Saint Philbert, the ruins that we see today are the remains of successive abbeys built, destroyed and rebuilt over the centuries since, such was the importance of this religious centre. The abbey was burned by Norse Vikings as they conquered Normandy between 841 and 940 AD, then rebuilt and consecrated in 1067 in the presence of William the Conqueror

Moissac Abbey

Legend has it that the Saint-Pierre Abbey in Moissac was founded by the Frankish king, Clovis I, in 506 AD to mark his victory over the Visigoths. More reliable historical records suggest the monastery was established in the 8th century. By the 11th century as a result of its association with the Cluny Abbey, it had become a wealthy religious centre in south-west France. The cloister is one of the largest and the best preserved Romanesque cloisters in Europe. The south portal is one of the largest Romanesque portals. Moissac Abbey is a listed UNIESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Pilgrimage to Saint-James of Compostela.

Monastery of Saint-Paul de Mausole

For about 1,000 years there has been a monastery near the archaeological site of Glanum. And for much of this time the community of monks has been known for taking in people with mental illness. The convent was nationalised after the French Revolution, and in 1807 it was sold to a doctor who then established a psychiatric asylum. On 8 May in 1889 Vincent Van Gogh was admitted, staying until 16 May 1890. Besides seeing his room, there is a walking tour of the gardens showing where he made some of his finest paintings. Also, a great place to see lavender.

Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey

Mont Saint Michel is an island village with a Benedictine abbey unlike any other. According to legend, in 708 Saint Michael told the Bishop of nearby Avranches to build a monastery, much of which was built between the 10th & 15th centuries. Medieval builders were constrained by the natural pyramidal shape of the granite outcrop, so they created an abbey in three stories, known as La Merveille. At the very top is the abbey church and cloisters, made possible by a series of underlying crypts and buttresses

Montmajour Abbey

A fortified but ruined Benedictine monastery on the outskirts of Arles. The complex of religious architecture has its origins in the 10th century with additions throughout the centuries until the 18th century. Visitors can see the 11th century hermitage Chapel of St Peter, the 14th century fortified monastery with Romanesque sculpture in the cloister, as well as the ruins of the 17th century Maurist monastery, amongst other features. Including rock-cut graves dating to the period between the 11th and 14th century.

Vézelay Abbey - Basilica of Vézelay

Constructed between 1120 and 1150 the Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architectures in Burgundy. A Benedictine monastery was founded in the 9th century on the hill top of what is today the town of Vézelay. Soon after the monks acquired the relics of Mary of Magdalene, making this an important pilgrimage site, still today. The relics are on secure display in a crypt chapel. The church is well-known for its unique tympanum – thought to depict a spiritual defence of the Crusades. Today only the abbey church remains of the monastic buildings. The monastery was first attacked by the Huguenots and then again during the French Revolution.