Have you heard about the new club at Camelot? Yeah, apparently it’s famous for its knight life. I showed up to a bar there carrying a giant club and the bartender asked me, ‘Why the long mace?’ I told him I couldn’t find my squire. I googled “missing medieval servant” and it came back, “Page not found.”
Ok, but seriously if any of you are history buffs those were hilarious.
So this is the penultimate post wrapping up the month-long escapade into the best medieval castles in the world. According to me. And since I’m an aficionado on the subject, you can take that as gospel.
Or not. Go write your own list.
You can find the first three posts covering castles 10-3 on the list here, here, and here. This whole thing just took off when I sat down and starting writing, and growing into more of a mini-novel than a simple blog post. It ended up taking about two weeks to write, and was almost 7,000 words! So if you’ve got a minute, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Medieval history, and especially castles, are two of my favorite subjects, so I’d be thrilled if anyone wanted to have a chat about it in the comments.
And if you’re wondering about the super cheesy cover image, I’m running out of pictures of me next to castles, so you’re stuck with an angsty photo I took in my Moscow hotel room while a German version of SpongeBob Squarepants was on TV, which is called “SpongeBob Schwammkopf.” That means “swim head.” I don’t think that last part is relevant, but I always like bringing it up when I talk about my trip to Russia.
Anywho, let’s get started with number 2 on the list…
The penultimate castle: the inimitable Mont-Saint-Michel. There really is nothing like it anywhere on earth. It epitomizes the grandeur of the old world. From the moment I first saw it, I was utterly captivated. How can such a place of impossible beauty actually exist? It defies belief to see this monumental bastion of medieval wonder rising from the mists of time, piercing the lonely sky on its solitary fortress in the sea.
I could go on all day about this incredible fortified monastery. It really is a dream come true, from an architectural standpoint, and something utterly unique in history. It’s built on a tidal island, where today just 44 people live year-round, including the monks and nuns of the Benedictine abbey. The tides, which rise a dramatic 46 feet each day, have protected the island from invaders for centuries, and create a delightfully scenic salt marsh that’s used for grazing sheep.
The island was first used a stronghold for the Armoricans back in the 6th and 7th centuries, until it finally fell to the Franks. The first monastery was built in the 8th century after the archangel Michael appeared before a bishop and instructed him to build a church there.
The mount exchanged hands a few times as England and France vied for control of Brittany. Finally William I Longsword annexed the Cottentin Peninsula, which extends north towards England, officially making Mont-Saint-Michel a part of Normandy. It’s even portrayed in the Bayeux Tapestry, where two knights are depicted being rescued from the quicksand surrounding the mount.
The abbey was built in the 11th century. It was placed at the very top of the mount, and as a result, they had to build massive support structures below to bolster the weight, including underground crypts and chapels. The monastery on the mount threw its support behind William the Conqueror in 1067 as he fought to take control of England, and for their help he rewarded the monastery with additional lands and territories.
The English never forgot that incident, however, and in the Hundred Years’ War, the Kingdom of England repeatedly tried to capture the little rocky island. They failed. Every time. Thomas de Scales assaulted the island with cannons in 1423 and then in 1433-34, but were forced to abandon the effort, along with the bombards they used in the attack, which you can still see at the Mont. The island’s resistance to the English even inspired a young peasant girl in Orléans, Joan of Arc, in her defiance and role in leading the French to repel the English invaders.
For obvious reasons, the Benedictine monastery became a major site of pilgrimage for people all over Christendom, dating back to the 8th century. It was so difficult to reach, that making the pilgrimage became a test of faith in itself. In the 10th century, both the dukes of Normandy and even French kings helped develop the island, helping to turn it into a center renown for learning and scholarly pursuits all across Europe, even back then. Some of the most famous and talented manuscript illuminators made Mont-Saint-Michel their home.
The abbey, as we see it today, was built later in the 12th century, and draws from spectacular Gothic architectural styling elements. It lost prominence after the Reformation, and after the French Revolution, the monastery was closed and, sadly, converted into a prison. Famed author Victor Hugo helped lead the charge to restore the abbey to its former glory, an the prison was finally closed in 1863.
The Mont was declared a historical monument in 1874, and restoration was undertaken. During World War II, the Nazis used the island as a lookout, and, oddly enough, it became a favorite tourist destination for German soldiers throughout the war. All this is to say, Mont-Saint-Michel is truly one of a kind. It’s the kind of place we dream of when we think of knights and chivalry and all the romance of the middle ages. It’s a place that bridges fantasy and reality, and it’s incredible to think that when man puts his mind to it, he’s capable of building Mont-Saint-Michel.
We’ll finish up next week with the number one castle on the list, which is quite worthy of a post all its own. Until then!