Le Breuil-Benoît Abbey

Marcilly-sur-Eure, France

Le Breuil-Benoît Abbey was founded in 1137 by Foulques, lord of Marcilly, and his son Guillaume. It was settled by monks from Vaux-de-Cernay Abbey, as a member of the congregation of Savigny Abbey. The abbey was soon able to settle a foundation of its own, that of La Trappe Abbey in 1140. In 1147 the Savigniac houses became part of the Cistercian movement, among them Breuil-Benoît, which was made a daughter house of the filiation of Clairvaux.

In 1421 the troops of Henry V of England occupied the abbey, set the church on fire, plundered the conventual buildings and killed the monks.

By 1762 the monastery, which had meanwhile fallen into the hands of commendatory abbots, comprised only two monks. It was dissolved in 1790 during the French Revolution and partly demolished. it has been classed as a monument historique since 1993.

In the grounds, converted into a park, the church still stands, the only extant Cistercian church in Normandy. Restoration works were carried out in 1855, and further works have been in progress since 1995. Built between 1190 and 1224, the Gothic church contains a vaulted nave and two aisles of six spans. The west front has two lancet windows, two oculi and a double door. The western walls of the transept remain, as do the five radiating chapels that form the semi-circular chevet behind the choir. The abbot's house, converted into a gentleman's residence in the 1550s, is also still extant, but most of the other buildings have disappeared.

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Abbey of Saint-Étienne

The Abbey of Saint-Etienne, also known as Abbaye aux Hommes ('Men"s Abbey'), is a former monastery dedicated to Saint Stephen (Saint Étienne). It is considered, along with the neighbouring Abbaye aux Dames ('Ladies" Abbey'), to be one of the most notable Romanesque buildings in Normandy. Like all the major abbeys in Normandy, it was Benedictine.

Lanfranc, before being an Archbishop of Canterbury, was abbot of Saint-Etienne. Built in Caen stone during the 11th century, the two semi-completed churches stood for many decades in competition. An important feature added to both churches in about 1120 was the ribbed vault, used for the first time in France. The two abbey churches are considered forerunners of the Gothic architecture. The original Romanesque apse was replaced in 1166 by an early Gothic chevet, complete with rosette windows and flying buttresses. Nine towers and spires were added in the 13th century. The interior vaulting shows a similar progression, beginning with early sexpartite vaulting (using circular ribs) in the nave and progressing to quadipartite vaults (using pointed ribs) in the sanctuary.

The two monasteries were finally donated by William the Conqueror and his wife, Matilda of Flanders, as penalty for their marriage against the Pope"s ruling. William was buried here; Matilda was buried in the Abbaye aux Dames. Unfortunately William"s original tombstone of black marble, the same kind as Matilda"s in the Abbaye aux Dames, was destroyed by the Calvinist iconoclasts in the 16th century and his bones scattered.

As a consequence of the Wars of Religion, the high lantern tower in the middle of the church collapsed and was never rebuilt. The Benedictine abbey was suppressed during the French Revolution and the abbey church became a parish church. From 1804 to 1961, the abbey buildings accommodated a prestigious high school, the Lycée Malherbe. During the Normandy Landings in 1944, inhabitants of Caen found refuge in the church; on the rooftop there was a red cross, made with blood on a sheet, to show that it was a hospital (to avoid bombings).