Abbaye du Bec-Hellouin – Benedictine Abbey
Abbaye du Bec-Hellouin's foundation
The Abbaye du Bec-Hellouin was one of the most influential Benedictine abbeys of the Duchy of Normandy.
The Norman knight Herluin founded the abbey in 1034.
It was also the first abbot (1034-1078), hence the abbey's name.
Nothing is left of this first monastery that stood on the banks of the small river Bec.
Prior Lanfranc of Pavia founded the theological school Ecole du Bec that established the abbey’s reputation of excellence in 1045.
One of the most influential Norman abbeys
This reputation attracted exceptional students, such as the future Pope Alexander II.
The charismatic Anselm of Aosta, who was abbot from 1078 to 1093, took the Abbaye du Bec-Hellouin to new heights.
He rebuilt and significantly enlarged the abbey; Lanfranc of Pavia consecrated the new church in 1077.
William the Conqueror had indeed appointed Lanfranc as archbishop of Cantorbory in 1070 in order to establish his authority on England.
In exchange for their help in reforming the Anglo-Saxon church, William rewarded the Norman monks with generous donations of money and lands taken from the conquered territories.
The Abbaye du Bec-Hellouin, therefore, owned several dozen priories and various religious properties in Normandy, England and France.
The abbey kept thriving under the protection of William’s descendants, and retained close ties with Anglicanism.
Anselm of Aosta, who became archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, turned the abbey into an active center of intellectual life.
This charismatic personage left many philosophical and theological works of the highest quality.
The abbey's exceptional affluence and influence resulted in significant expansion during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.
Many renowned abbots (some also became archbishop of Canterbury) dedicated their whole life and energy to the service and development of the abbey.
The many patrons and benefactors multiplied their generous donations.
The monks were thus able to reconstruct the abbey that had been destroyed by fire in 1263, then the church whose central tower collapsed in 1274 taking down the chancel and transepts.
Slow decline of the Abbaye du Bec-Hellouin
The conflict that opposed French and English kings after the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry II of England triggered the decline of the abbey.
By the end of 13th century the Abbaye du Bec-Hellouin had indeed fallen into ruins.
It was restored in the first half of the 14th century and encompassed within a rampart.
As a result several of its architectural features and outbuildings were sacrificed.
However, these heavy work as well as the maintenance of the troops in charge of its protection, engulfed a large portion of the abbey’s income.
This defence wall didn’t prevent the troops of Henry V of England, though, from entering and sacking the abbey from top to bottom.
Reconstruction begun in 1450 when the French re-seized Normandy.
From the 16th century onward, things went from bad to worse!
The Concordat of 1516 put an end to the influence and prosperity of the abbey.
This agreement concluded between Pope Leo X and Francois I, indeed, empowered the king with the appointment of abbots of his choice (Regime of Commendation).
Most of these secular abbots were greedy individuals mostly interested in increasing their personal wealth at the expense of the prosperity and influence of their abbey.
The Abbaye du Bec-Hellouin was sacked during the Wars of Religions, then during the French Revolution.
The church and chapter house were sold as stone quarries!
All that was eventually left standing was the 15th century Tour St-Nicolas.
The monastic buildings were allocated to the army and turned into warehouses and stables.
Revival of the abbey
The Abbaye du Bec-Hellouin remained in this sad state until 1940.
However, monastic life was restored in 1948 and the abbey renamed Abbaye Notre-Dame de Bec.
An association, placed under the supervision of the French Historical Monuments, was founded in order to restore the abbey.
The Abbaye du Bec-Hellouin has since recovered most of its former glory.
Department of Eure
Coordinates: Lat 49.228642 - Long 0.721304
Photos via Wikimedia Commons: Tour St. Nicholas - Main entrance - Monastic buildings - Cloister