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Fontevraud Abbey in the Loire Valley

Fontevraud Abbey, Loire Valley

Fontevraud has 1,100 years of history; it was founded 1101 AD by Robert d'Arbrissel. He refused appointment as Abbot, and appointed a woman, Hersende de Montsoreau, instead. d'Arbrissel took Christ's words to John the Baptist, literally: “Son, behold thy mother”. He took this to mean that men should be subservient to women, and for all its history as an abbey Fontevraud was ruled by an Abbess, despite it being a double monastic order, having monks and nuns. Fontevraud's abbesses wielded substantial political and economic power; for centuries they answered only to the Pope on religious matters, and to the King of France on secular issues. Fontevraud's prestige and power was so great that several royal princesses served as Abbesses during the 15th and 16th centuries.

The kitchens at Fontevraud Abbey, Loire Valley

The building in the second photo is the kitchen, built in the mid-12th century, that served the whole Abbey complex. There are nine separate fireplaces so that Fontevraud's residents could be fed while some of the fireplaces were being cleaned. In the earlier part of its history the Abbey accommodated and cared for destitute women, lepers and repentant prostitutes, as well as housing the nuns and monks of the Order, so the kitchens had to cater for several hundred people at once.

Royal tombs in Fontevraud Abbey, Loire Valley

Fontevraud was well supported and funded by the Plantagenet kings of England; the tombs in the third picture are of King Henry II and his queen, Eleanor. Henry II was born in France and had claims to the French throne. Eleanor was previously married to King Louis VII of France, but he divorced her because she was too much for him to handle. She was intelligent, cultured, independent and fabulously rich; her inheritance – the lands of the Aquitaine – were the size of about a quarter of present-day France. She turned against Henry, and he kept her imprisoned in England for many years; after his death she retired to Fontevraud and died here aged 82 in 1204.

Four royal tombs at Fontevraud Abbey

In the final photo the other two tombs are of Henry and Katherine's eldest son, King Richard I (The Lionheart) (front right), and their daughter-in-law Isabella d'Angouleme, the wife of their youngest son, King John, the king who was forced to sign the Magna Carta.

Fontevraud is a large complex of buildings; as well as religious services, it houses a historical and cultural centre, a media complex, conference suites, and is active in promoting tourism and cultural exchanges with other countries.

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