Mont Saint-Michel was founded in 708AD by Aubert, Bishop of Avranches. According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared to him in a dream, instructing him to found a church on the cone-shaped island in the gulf of St. Malo.
In 922AD, the church was seriously damaged by fire, but the island gained strategic importance when William I, Duke of Normandy, annexed the area. In 966AD, Richard I, Duke of Normandy, established a colony of Benedictine monks under the rule of Abbot Maynard. The church was reconsecrated and repair work undertaken. It was subsequently rebuilt on a larger scale in 1023AD under the direction of Abbot Hildebert II. Numerous underground crypts and chapels were built to support the weight of the Romanesque church, which included a transept crossing placed at the very top of the mount.
In 1067AD, Mont Saint-Michel was rewarded for its support of William the Conqueror with properties on the English side of the channel. These included a small island off the coast of Cornwall - St. Michael's Mount. This was subsequently modelled on Mont Saint-Michel and transformed into a Norman priory.
The original church structure was completed by 1144AD. At the same time, Geoffrey Plantagenet, count of Anjou, seized Normandy. This led to it being reunited with the English throne when Geoffrey's son, Henry II, became king.
In 1204AD, Normandy was recaptured from the Plantangenets. Following this, King Philip of France made donations to the church enabling a start to be made on the imposing Gothic structure of two three-storey buildings crowned by the cloister and the refectory, known as "The Merveille" ("the marvel").
During France's hundred-year war with England, Mont Saint-Michel benefited from significantly increased fortification due to its increased strategic importance. The English made a number attempts upon the island, but were unable to capture it. During the siege of 1423-1424AD, two wrought-iron "bombards" were utilised by the attacking forces, and these can still be seen on display outside the outer wall.
Further building work was undertaken on the church following the collapse of the choir. In 1622AD, three western nave bays were removed and replaced with a large terrace.
The abbey continued to prosper for many years, and a busy village sprung up in the tight lanes that wound around the island. However, following the reformation, it began to fall into decline as revenues generated by its previous prestige as a place of pilgrimage began to fall. By the time the abbey was dissolved following the French revolution, only a handful of monks remained in residence. At this time, Mont Saint-Michel was transformed into a prison, intended to hold opponents of the new regime.
In 1836AD, a number of influential French figures began campaigning to restore the abbey to the people, since it was seen as a national architectural treasure. The prison was closed in 1863AD, and Mont Saint-Michel was declared a historic monument in 1874AD - at which time extensive restoration work was undertaken. In 1979AD, Mont-Saint-Michel was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.
Today, Mont Saint-Michel exists as a tiny town, with many of its buildings surviving in remarkable condition. The lower area contains a warren of small shops and businesses, which include buildings from all periods of the islands history. Little evidence of modern building is evident. The top of the island is dominated by the monastic buildings, and these survive in their full splendour.
Many people site the numbers of tourists at Mont Saint-Michel as being detrimental to the atmosphere. At any other site, I'd be inclined to agree. Here however, the tight crush of the crowd in the winding medieval street lends an atmosphere of authenticity. Today's town is little different in some regards from the bustling community of old. There's a sense of continuity in the mayhem, and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience.
The climb to the church is undeniably long and steep, but the journey is broken into enough small chunks that it really shouldn't pose an obstacle to anyone reasonably mobile and in good health. I was surprised by how quickly I reached the summit, and didn't find the climb strenuous. It's certainly worth the effort - the church is a magnificent and atmospheric piece of architecture that easily transports the visitor back in time. Despite negative expectations, tourist numbers seem reasonable, allowing sufficient space for an appreciation of the surroundings. On a number of occasions, I found myself in areas of the church that were tourist-free for a few minutes.
In many ways, Mont Saint-Michel is best appreciated from a distance. The sight of the island and abbey rising up out of the bay is absolutely unparalleled - especially when the sun breaks through the clouds and bathes the top of the church in golden light.
While the island remains connected to the mainland via a causeway, there are plans afoot that will change all this. A dam has been constructed that will release tidal waters from the river in twice-daily flushing actions, which will have the effect of removing the silt beds that have built up around the island. If all goes to plan, the causeway will be removed and replaced with a bridge, banishing the blight of cards and coaches to a distance of half a mile away. Access will then be provided by shuttle buses.
Overall, Mont Saint-Michel is a unique and distinctive monument, possessing a character that sets it apart from the pack. Embrace the crowds, enjoy the busy atmosphere, accept the place as you find it, and I guarantee it will reward the effort. Highly recommend.