Mont Saint-Michel,
Unconquered
during the
Hundred Years' War
Mont Saint-Michel as it stands today.

Monument and evidence of the incomplete English Conquest of Normandy in 1415-1450.

The English king, Henry V's victory at Agincourt and the Treaty of Troyes did not accomplish a complete conquest of Normandy as is often implied -- at times even emphasized -- in many accounts of the Hundred Years' War. Many communes and fortresses in Normandy changed hands during the English partial occupation of northern France. Even Rouen had been briefly seized by the French. However, most spactacular is the story of Mont Saint-Michel.

Mont Saint-Michel's Early History

The Abby dates to c.709, when legend has the Archangel Michael appearing before, and directing bishop Aubert of Avranches to build a shrine on an islet called 'Mount Tombe'. This islet lies at the southern most point off the Normandy coastline, just before Brittany to the west. This is the base of a Bay of Mont Saint-Michel that opens into La Manche [channel waterway between England and Northern France]. The islet consists of a nearly 80 meters high rock with a circumference of about .8 km. It is connected to the mainland by a very narrow and long causeway.
Bishop Aubert had an oratory constructed on the top of the rock. A monastery was started in 1017, with stones hauled at low tide from the mainland in Brittany. Blanche of Castile, regent of France, ordered the gothic cloister in 1211 added to the earlier Carolingian abbey. A town developed at the base. Both the abby and the town had fortified defenses. The Mont is half surrounded by water, except twice a day it is besieged by swift moving tides that leave only the causeway route for access. Defenders of this fortress abbey have the advantage of its Saint Aubert's spring. Nearby is a smaller islet, called 'Tombelaine Island', which is very baren and was used to discpline individuals.
In 966, monks of the Benedictine order under abbot Maynard replaced the previous monks. They encouraged the cult of Saint Michael and received pilgrams. By the time of William the Conqueror, the abbey benefited from many noble protectors. The abbot Robert de Thorigny administered the abbey at its peak of fortune. The shrine has seen is number of miracles and fostered many legends. Site of early medieval religious feasts and ceremonies.
Mont Saint-Michel was besieged and taken as part of Philippe Auguste's conquest of Normandy from the Plantangenets in 1214. The site continued to have an increased role in medieval European pilgrimages. Sometimes it was the destination, and at others it was only a stop for those traveling to sites further south. Lower class pilgrims were quartered in the town, but nobles were received by the abbot in the grand abbey.

The Story of Mont Saint-Michel in the Hundred Years' War

Following the defeats at Crécy abd Poitiers, Charles V began a comeback for France with the help of Du Guesclin. The Breton knight was the captain of the Mont Saint- Michel when he left for Spain. His wife, Tiphaine Ragenel, lived in a house built at the top of the town, undertaking good works and practicing astrology.
Charles VI visited the abbey and made abbot Pierre le Roi his counsellor. He immediatley began to fortify the abbey. He defended the entrance by building towers, successive courtyards, and ramparts, thereby creating a veritable fort together with its 'barbican'. He completed living quarters on the south side. These were reserved for the abbot and for administration.
Normandy fell into English hands in 1415-1417 [following the defeat at Agincourt]. The region was govered by duke Bedford, brother of Henry V. Bedfort succeeded in winning a number of Norman personalities to his cause. One was the abbot of Mont Saint-Michel, Robert Jolivet, Pierre le Roi's successor. Jolivet became Bedford's counsellor.
The monks refused to support the treasonous abbot. The original French Norman knights who had been dispossed of their lands sought refuge at Mont Saint-Michel and stayed faithful to the Valois cause. The Romanesque chancel at the Mont collapsed, and could not be rebuilt due to the war. One of the Mont's captains died in combat; the small island of Tombelaine fell into English hands. But Mont Saint-Michel defied the English.
During these troubled times, the rather disorderly 'Shepherd's Crusade', that began in Cologne, Germany, passed through Mont Saint-Michel. Even in those trying times, the site remained one of the most important shrines in France.
The English made one of their most determined assaults on Mont Saint-Michel beginning in 1424. News of Mont Saint-Michel's heroric defense spread wide and gave hope to the French loyal to their rightful king. No one was more influenced by the story than the girl in Lorraine, Jeanne d'Arc. Most of the authors attrubute the dominant role of Saint Michael in her visions as derived from hearing about the valient defense of the fortress-abby. One might note that Jeanne d'Arc began to hear voices in 1423, in 1425 they gave her specific directions, in 1428 she made her first attempt to go to the king.
The English took up positions around the bay. They build small wooden forts called 'bastilles' [as at Orléans in 1428-29] at Ardevon, in front of the Mont. These were to meet possible attacks from the defenders, and to keep guard over the shore.
Finally, a flotilla arrived to complete the English blockade from the sea. However, some Breton noblemen commanded an expedition from Saint Malo (to the west), skillfully attacked the English ships, and dispersed the English fleet. This naval victory enabled the Mont to receive provisions by sea, and caused the English siege to fail.
Charles VII put a very able captain, Louis d'Estouteville, in charge of the Mont's garrison. D'Estouteville ended to the poor discpline in the abbey which had developed due to the war-time conditions. These reforms enable the citadel to withstand the last and most severe English attack in 1433. A fire broke out in the town and destroyed wooden houses and the ramparts. The English tried to take advantage of this destruction by a massive assault. Their artillery managed to breach the walls and partly enter the town. However, the English were forced to withdraw, leaving many dead and two cannon [small, wrought-iron 'bombards'], known as les Michelettes. These are displayed at the outter defense walls.
The Battle of Formigny (1450) destroyed the last formal English army in Normandy, and eventually led to the complete reconquest of Normandy by Charles VII. [See Battle of Formigny (15 April 1450).]

'Les Michalettes', two wrought-iron bombards, left in by the English in their failed 1423-24 siege of Mont Saint-Michel during the Hundred Years' War. They stand on one side to the gateway into Mont St. Michel. The guns known history and structure are described in considerable detail in Bombards, Mons Meg and her sisters by Robert D. Smith and Ruth Rhynas Brown (Royal Armories Monograph 1, London, 1989), pp.69-78.

Special Note on dates: While most accounts reference the guns having been associated with the 1423-24 failed siege. It should be noted that the plaque on the wall at Mont St Michel gives 17 Jun 1434 for the date of abandonment.


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This page was established May 2000, and last revised 13 July 2011.