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Royaumont Abbey: 1226 - 1914

Grace E.F. Holmes, MD
Professor of Pediatrics and of Preventive Medicine Emerita
University of Kansas School of Medicine

In 1226, the last wish of French King Louis VIII at Chateau de Montpensier, was “that the proceeds of the sale of our jewels and crowns be devoted to the erection of a new Abbey. . . .” This wish gave birth to the building of the Abbey Royaumont established under the Cistercian Order. Seven centuries later it would be transformed into a British hospital for the care of French soldiers wounded in The Great War. In the intervening years many changes took place in that historic building and its surroundings. This essay will serve as a brief historical background to the Abbey itself.

When King Louis VIII died, (1226), his son, Louis IX, had attained the age of eleven years. His mother, Blanche of Castillo (Dõna Blanca), was her son’s guardian until 1236, when he attained his majority and became king in his own right. This young man possessed enthusiasm, sympathy, and impulses characteristic of Christian piety. He was handsome, intelligent, and made friends easily.

King Louis IX
King Louis IX, King of France, Lived 1214 – 1270, Reigned 1226-1270, Portrait in Stained Glass

In 1228 the site of the new Abbey was located in the Valley of the Oise River. King Louis IX, granted to the soon-to-be built monastery a Royal Charter that included extensive landed properties, contributions, and grants which flowed in from private and royal sources. The new monastery was to become the seat of learning and agricultural activity and the abbey church would become a mausoleum for the interment of members of the royal family.

From 1228-1230 Louis, himself, performed the duties of assistant mason during construction of the first buildings. This construction, in which monks also participated, was completed in seven years.

The Abbey Church of Royaumont was one of the finest specimens of 13th century Gothic ecclesiastical architecture in France. Built in the form of a Latin cross, it measured 105 meters in length. The first event of importance to grace the finished Abbey Church was the marriage in 1234 of the young King Louis to Marguerite, daughter of Benanger IV, Comte de Provence. From 1240 until the death of Louis in 1270, the splendour of Royaumont was at its height.

During his life the King’s constant sympathy and generosity were seen in numerous menial acts, but always in conformity with kingly dignity. He visited the courtyard, or infirmary, of the Abbey, felt the pulse of each sufferer, and obtained a report on each man. One patient, a leper, Frère Légier, by name, was a special friend of Louis who visited him, cut up his meat, and with his own hand fed the leper. For that day and others, the patient’s anguish was muted by remembering the loving devotion to him by the King of France.

St. Louis Statue
Equestrian Statue of Louis IX at St. Louis Art Museum, in St. Louis, Missouri, Designed by C.H Niehaus and Executed by W.R. Hodges

This soon became a troubling time, however, for France and its King, as they faced a particularly alarming menace from Islam. The King participated in two Crusades, the first from 1248-1254, and the second in 1270. Both crusades were considered failures for France, and, sadly, King Louis, IX, died in Tunis from a “pestilence” on August 25, 1270.

It is not clear when Vincent deBeauvois, an eminent French scholar, became known to King Louis, but it was a matter of record that from 1254 he and the King worked constantly together at Royaumont to continue to shape the Abbey to become “a seat of learning and study,” and to fulfil the king’s early dream of founding a library. Royaumont was known for its agricultural development and medical science, but had very little in the way of literary or scientific activities. Within the space of ten years, deBeauvois, with help from his Royal patron, compiled the monumental Speculum Majus, an encyclopedia of the presumed total knowledge of the 13th century world. Thus, King Louis finally had the library for which he had hoped.

After the death of Louis IX, the spiritual status of the Abbey developed in abundant measure and his holiness and liberality became the stimulus for increasing piety and generosity both at Court and in the country at large. King Louis IX was canonized in the year 1297, thus, becoming Saint Louis. He had contributed to the French nation a great and fruitful reign, and to Royaumont, and France, his loss was irreparable.

St. Louis
St. Louis Window of Stained Glass

For almost a century, the integrity of the Cistercian Order was to benefit from the scrupulous adherence to its early spirit of reform. However, a general decline in that resolve resulted in major negative changes throughout France, while also spelling disaster for the Abbey. By the end of the 13th century there were grave conflicts between the Papacy and the kings of France resulting in sharp antagonism between church and state. The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) consisted of a series of wars between France and England. It also brought to a disastrous end the cultivation of vast Abbey property, its principal source of revenue.

The 15th century brought numerous miseries, both large and small, for France and the Abbey: the Abbey Church spire was struck by lightning in 1473. The Commendatory System which included choosing “temporary trustees,” who held abbeys by grant, not by title, resulted in serious abuses of the entire abbey system. This was the beginning of general secularization of monasteries. By the last quarter of the 17th century, large, disfiguring marks had appeared on the Abbey architecture, caused by vandalism from 17th century restorers and general indifference by many of the “temporary trustees.”

Royaumont Abbey Cloisters
Cloisters of Royaumont Abbey, as Restored

In April 1760 the lofty spire of the Abbey Royaumont was again struck by lightning resulting in extensive damage. Soon after, a new brutal era brought with it de-Christianizing movements that had taken over, resulting in secularization of religious orders. “On July 14, 1789, the blow fell, with all the fury and suddenness of a thunderbolt.” The Revolution which had begun earlier, overthrew the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons and the system of aristocratic privilege, and ended with Napoleon’s overthrow of the executive body of directors who represented the power of France, and seizure of that power in 1799.

In the midst of on-going and massive destruction of the violent and bloody French revolution, the Abbey Royaumont was pulled down, all rooms emptied and desecrated, along with their many contents. Great cathedral bells were loaded in disgrace on two groaning trucks. “Clarions of Christianity, for five hundred years ringing faithfully the hours of prayer; now unhung, their occupation gone, on their way to liquefaction and eternal silence.” Violation of tombs with exhumation of distinguished bodies that had been buried there was accompanied by sacrilege, profanity, and other desecrations.

Royaumont Abbey Courtyard
Courtyard of Restored Royaumont Abbey with Tower of Old Abbey in the Background

In 1905 the Abbey was sold by the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux, by order of the government, to Edouard Goin, a financier and devout Catholic. “Thus, ends the history of the Abbey: 100 years of spiritual and temporal majesty; five centuries of hounding adversity; the greater span of its existence, a dignified struggle against the profanities of a dislocating world.”

Ten years later the Abbey would have been transformed into a Hospital, used for the care of the French wounded during the Great World War (1914 – 1918). The old monastic practices of Christian mercy and hospitality would be revived in a new chapter in the life of the Abbey Royaumont in the Valley of the Oise River.

Direct quotations in this essay are from deNavarro, Antonio D, The Scottish Women’s Hospital of the French Abbey of Royaumont. London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1917. The reader is invited to find in this book, greater detail and more information about the history of the Abbey Royaumont along with listings of many authorities consulted by the author in his research on this subject. Images are from Promanades Photographiques:

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