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16 Feb 2009

Abbaye de la Lucerne d'Outremer

Not far from La Haye-Pesnel, near Avranches, is the Abbey of La Lucerne-d'Outremer. Built in the twelfth century, it has recently been restored, and there is even talk of installing a new religious order there.

The name Outremer means overseas, as in the DOM, les Départments Outre Mer, the former colonies of France. It earned the name because during the Hundred Years War the abbots generally sided with the English. This was part of the long lasting connection – and confusion – between what was French, what was English, in the land we now call France.

Whilst probably every British person remembers the basic facts of 1066 and the Norman conquest, the following two or three centuries of war, alliances and occasionally peace, is rarely taught these days. Yet the whole of the more romantic parts of English history that people know from classical novels, folk tales, and not least Shakespeare's history plays still has some bearing on how the two countries developed.

If you have heard of Robin Hood, the Black Prince, Richard the Lionheart, Henry V and Agincourt, you have heard something of the time and its characters and events.

After 1066, William the Conqueror's grandson, Henry was still Duke of Normandy as well as King of England. The France of the 11, 12 and 13C was a small area, mainly around Paris, with some feudal overlordship of other parts, but not direct control. Affairs were managed by wars, alliances, and especially marriages. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Duchess of Aquitaine, Countess of Poitiers etc etc, was the wife firstly of King Louis VII of France, and then Henry II of England. The daughter of Phillip IV of France, Isabella, married Edward II of England, and was the mother of Edward III; and she was the sister of Kings Louis X, Phillip V and Charles IV of France. Family gatherings for these families at the beginning of the 14C would have been a a bit fraught.

One interesting little fact is that there was a successful Normandy invasion by the English in 1417, when Henry V took Caen, and later Rouen. Throughout the Hundred Years War, Normandy changed hands fairly regularly, English at first, then French, then English, then French again.

During this time, there were obviously many divided loyalties. Some parts of Normandy were owned by what had become English nobility, who expected loyalty to England, other parts had owners, and/or feudal overlords, who were French. And of course many families, as with the two royal families, had complex connections by marriage with both sides. The Abbey of La Lucerne was just a forceful example of being ultimately on the wrong side.

The Abbey itself is worth a visit – it reopens on March 15 for the summer. The church is still largely Norman, or Romanesque, style, with thick walls and columns, and round arches. Now that it has been patched and cleaned it is rather splendid.

We went on a tour guided by a young French girl: many historic sites seem to have tour guides who appear to be students earning some money, and usually they are very well informed and interested in the place.

The acoustics inside are dramatic. She pointed out a number of the features inside the church, and her voice was amplified with extraordinary clarity by the building. Far clearer than any public address system I have ever heard, and with that wonderful resonance and almost echo that you can only get from reality rather than technology. No wonder the peasant populace were terrified of the priests: voices louder than anything heard anywhere else, resounding around them, and with no apparent effort by the person speaking.

Some of the monastic buildings remain, with a number of interesting details, such as carving in some of the roof beams in the refectory, and a splendid large dovecote. This is now empty, (there is a photo in the album top right), but there is another dovecote at the Chateau of La Lande d'Airou (privately owned and not open to the public normally), which has a restored circulating ladder assembly inside. This is so finely balanced that a child can move it, but is allows someone to reach every nesting hole in the walls without effort. Well worth a visit.

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