Upon seeing a photo of this iconic island with the tide out, my first thought was, “Holy cow – that looks like Minas Tirith!”
My second was, “Where is this place and what is it called?”
This is Mont-Saint-Michel, a mountain church and fortification turned monastery turned tourist attraction. It is in Normandy, France, and it could serve as a dead ringer at low tide for Tolkien’s fictional Minas Tirith (the Tower of Guard), formerly Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun.
Could this have been the inspiration for the capital of the Gondorin? So far as I know from studying Tolkien and his magnum opus the answer is no, it isn’t. But it is fascinating to think that it might be. Learn more about Mont-Saint-Michel below, readers!
Interesting facts about Mont Saint-Michel
Le Mont-Saint-Michel is an island commune in Normandy, France. It is located about 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) off the country’s northwestern coast, at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches. The island covers an area of 100 hectares (247 acres) with a population of about 50 people. The Mont has a circumference of about 960 meters (3,150 feet) and its highest point is 92 meters (302 feet) above sea level.
The structural composition of the town exemplifies the feudal society that constructed it: on top, God, the abbey and monastery; below, the great halls; then stores and housing; and at the bottom, outside the walls, houses for fishermen and farmers.
The connection between Mont Saint-Michel and the mainland has changed over the centuries. Previously connected by a tidal causeway (a path uncovered only at low tide), this was converted into a raised (permanently dry) causeway in 1879, preventing the tide from scouring the silt around the mount.
The tides can vary greatly, at roughly 14 meters (46 feet) between high and low water marks.
Though now an iconic tourist destination, this unusual little town was once used as a strategic fortification, protecting the north of France from attack. According to legend, the archangel Michael appeared in 708 to Aubert of Avranches, the bishop of Avranches, and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet.
Unable to defend his kingdom against the assaults of the Vikings, the king of the Franks agreed to grant the Cotentin peninsula and the Avranchin, including Mont Saint-Michel, to the Bretons in the Treaty of Compiègne (867).
The mount gained strategic significance again in 933 when William I Longsword annexed the Cotentin Peninsula from the weakened Duchy of Brittany. This made the mount definitively part of Normandy, and is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates the 1066 Norman conquest of England.
In 966 a community of Benedictines settled on the rock at the request of the Duke of Normandy and the pre-Romanesque church was built before the year one thousand.
In the 11th century, William of Volpiano, the Italian architect, was chosen by Richard II, Duke of Normandy, to be the building contractor. He designed the Romanesque church of the abbey, placing the transept crossing at the top of the mount. Many underground crypts and chapels had to be built to compensate for this weight, forming the basis for the supportive upward structure that can be seen today.