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Mont Saint Michel

Rising improbably from the flat tidal plain on the border of Lower Normandy and Brittany, Le Mont Saint Michel is one of France's most recognisable landmarks. Visited by three million people each year, this spectacular and well-preserved Gothic-style Benedictine Abbey of St Michel is surrounded by the winding streets and convoluted architecture of a medieval town.

Built between the 11th and 16th centuries, the abbey is dedicated to the archangel St Michael and is a technical and artistic tour de force, having had to adapt to the problems posed by this unique natural site.

Mont Saint Michel was used in the 6th and 7th centuries as an Armorican stronghold of Romano-Breton culture and power, until it was ransacked by the Franks, thus ending the trans-channel culture that had stood since the departure of the Romans in AD 460. Before the construction of the first monastic establishment in the 8th century, the island was called "monte tombe".

According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in 708 and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel's instruction until Michael burned a hole in the bishop's skull with his finger.

The mount gained strategic significance in 933 when William "Long Sword", William I, Duke of Normandy, annexed the Cotentin Peninsula, definitively placing the mount in Normandy. It is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry which commemorates the 1066 Norman conquest of England. Norman Ducal patronage financed the spectacular Norman architecture of the abbey in subsequent centuries.

In 1067, the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel gave its support to duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. It was rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island located to the west of Cornwall, which was modeled after the Mount, and became a Norman priory named St Michael's Mount of Penzance.

During the Hundred Years' War, the English made repeated assaults on the island, but were unable to seize it due to the abbey's improved fortifications.

When Louis XI of France founded the Order of Saint Michael in 1469, he intended that the abbey church of Mont Saint-Michel be the chapel for the Order, but because of its great distance from Paris, his intention could never be realized.

The wealth and influence of the abbey extended to many daughter foundations, however, its popularity and prestige as a centre of pilgrimage waned with the Reformation, and by the French Revolution there were scarcely any monks in residence.

The abbey was closed and converted into a prison, initially to hold clerical opponents of the republican régime. High-profile political prisoners followed, but by 1836, influential figures – including Victor Hugo had launched a campaign to restore what was seen as a national architectural treasure. The prison was closed in 1863 and the mount was declared a historic monument in 1874. The Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979 with criteria such as cultural, historical, and architectural significance as well as human-created and natural beauty.

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