Game of Thrones at Fontevraud Abbey
It took me awhile to write this post. When I was researching the story of Fontevraud Abbey, I got swept up in the better-than-fiction histories of the Angevin Plantagenets: Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart were all buried here, and the chronicles of the Plantagenet family seem to be source material for Game of Thrones, just without the dragons.
Fontevraud Abbey is an architectural gem that's stood its grounds almost a millennium. This monastic city was founded in the year 1101, it has been a monastery, a royal abbey, the necropolis of the Plantagenets, a state prison, and today a cultural destination with a design hotel in an old priory.
Set in the country heartland of the Loire Valley, Fontevraud Abbey is one of the most idyllic places that's worth a detour from the castle-visits and wine-tasting in the region. For the bon vivants looking for Loire Valley charms and the history buffs looking for enchanting stories, Fontevraud Abbey is the right place to visit.
The Location: the Idyllic Anjou
The city of Fontevraud-l'Abbaye, where the abbey is located, is a typical Loire Valley small town with typical limestone buildings and slate roof tiles. At the town center is Place Plantagenet, named after the family that gave a succession of kings to England.
This region used to be known as Anjou, a strategic stronghold guarding the Loire Valley's maritime exit, a place between the Franks to the east, Brittany to the north, and Aquitaine to the south. Henry II of England (Henry Plantagenet) inherited Anjou and Normandy from his father, England from his mother, and acquired Aquitaine through his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Through his energetic and relentless pursuit, he also annexed parts of Wales, Ireland, and the western half of France before his death and formed a vast and wealthy kingdom.
The home country of this French-speaking King of England and founder of the English Common Law is here in this peaceful land of Anjou in the Loire Valley. Perhaps the abundant produce of the land, the bountiful river fish and wild game, and the Loire Valley wines all contributed to the energy of this mighty king?
The Abbey Church: The Plantagenet Game of Thrones
Four effigies lay in peace in the nave of the Abbey Church. They are Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, and Isabella of Angoulême, the second wife of King John of England, the son of Henry II and the youngest brother of Richard.
But don't be fooled by this peacefully-staged scene. Their remains are no longer at the Abbey, most likely looted and destroyed during the French Revolution. This royal family was far from perfect and serene. If you enjoy the drama, thrill, and suspense of Game of Thrones, then you'll want to read about the stories of the House of Plantagenet.
To make a long story short, Henry II the charismatic king gathered land and power, managed to have an old friend who was also the Archbishop of Canterbury hacked to death in a cathedral, had a string of mistress and enraged his queen, who then masterminded to have his sons wage war on him. He then imprisoned the queen, lost the war to his son, and died a lonely death with no mourners, and finally drifted to Fontevraud Abbey in a small boat for burial.
Although his sons plotted together to overthrow their father, they hardly got along with each other. The story of Richard the Lionheart going on the Crusade and John trying to steal the kingdom is portrayed in Disney's Robin Hood. Although in reality Robin Hood is from another era, and John did finally replace Richard to become the English King and reluctantly signed the Magna Carta.
The Plantaget family quarrels later continued in the form of War of the Roses between the cousins of cadet Houses of Lancaster and York. It really makes you wonder about the Plantagenets' parenting skills and the lack thereof. The house emblem has three roaring lions against a blood-red background... blood and fire, hear them roar!
Next to Henry II is the intriguing Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was quite the Medieval queen before her time. She was both Queen of France and Queen of England through her two marriages. She bore ten children and handled domestic affairs for her husband at the same time. She even went on the Crusade at one point. After a highly dramatic life, she spent her final years as a nun at the Abbey, passed away when she was over 80, surviving most of her children. Her effigy shows her holding an open Bible quietly next to her husband, which is as inaccurate a portrait of her as possible. Perhaps after all the turmoil, she finally found peace in this final resting place.
I found an interesting article detailing the similarities between Game of Thrones and actual history here, and here's some further reading about these larger-than-life characters:
The Cloister of Fontevraud Abbey was the center of life at Fontevraud. The architecture is at crossroads between Romanesque and Medieval. The sculpted columns and arches tell many stories through the intricate stone carvings and the royal initials of many princesses that became abbesses here. It is quite surprising that these details were preserved through the years of abuse and neglect, especially during the times of the French Revolution, and from the times of Napoleon Bonaparte to the Vichy government, when the Abbey was used as a prison.
Fortunately, since the late 20th century, the Abbey was restored and opened to the world after centuries behind closed doors. Life has returned as the new generations admire the beauty of this place. Some even live here, right under the vaults of the cloister!
The Smoke House
The usage of this peculiar structure was debated over the years. Some thought it was the kitchen, but the structure with many small chimneys suggested other functions in design. The consensus now is that it was the smoke house of salmon, back then abundant in the Loire Valley.
We may never really know, but some think that the structure was probably inspired the returnees from the Crusades, who brought a bit of Byzantine and Islamic architectural influence back to Anjou, as we can see in the rounded vaults, the minaret-like chimneys, and the interesting scale-like ceiling of the smoke house. It's as if Daenerys commissions a building with Dothraki architectural style, reminiscent of her times there.
This was a panoramic picture gone wrong, but I kind of appreciate the special effect...
The Abbey Today
For centuries, these grounds were the site of daily penitence, first for the monks and nuns, then for the prisoners. Since 2014, it's a four-star boutique hotel with a gourmet restaurant and an "iBar" where patrons can learn about the Abbey and order drinks with just a few touches from the tactile screen table. Welcome to the 21st century.
O how times have changed. I wonder what the Plantagenets would think if they imagined about the possibilities of the future. A future where Anjou is part of a "French Republic", where England is governed by a Queen of Saxe origins, and where their most enduring contribution is not that of a powerful, unified kingdom, but the Common Law and the Magna Carta, the basis of constitutions that would be written in many languages in the world as the blueprint for democracy.
Who would have thought.
Interested to learn more about British history? Simon Schama's History of Britain series is one of my all time favorite documentaries... come to think of it, it's more entertainment than it is documentary.
49590 Fontevraud-l'Abbaye, France