Abbaye de Lessay, an influential Benedictine abbey

Lessay Abbey (Abbaye Sainte-Trinité de Lessay) is located in the heart of Lessay, a small town 20kms north of Coutances.

Lessay Abbey
Lessay Abbey

The Barons of La Haye, close allies of the Duke William of Normandy (William the Conqueror), founded the abbey around 1056.

They richly endowed the abbey with a wealth of lands, moors, forests, fisheries, mills, salt mines, churches and farms.

Construction began in 1064 and the archbishop of Rouen consecrated the abbey church in 1178; the first monks and their abbot came from the Abbaye du Bec in Northern Normandy.

The abbey church is considered a jewel of Norman Romanesque architecture; it’s indeed one of the first to have a vault on ogival crosses, an architectural characteristic of the then emerging Gothic style.

Its impressive dimensions (16m high and 44m long) have turned it since its construction into a religious landmark.

Lessay Abbey’s heydays

The monastery thrived for the next 2 centuries under the protection of the kings of France and England and the popes of Rome.

Lessay Abbey vaulted nave
Vaulted nave

It reached its peak in the 12th and 13th century.

By then it boasted 218 vassals, 9 priories (including one in Sussex in England), collected profits from more than 40 localities and had up to 56 monks.

The monastery was so busy that in 1337 the abbot built the Church of St. Opportune for the parishioners of Lessay to alleviate his monks’ duties. Came the Hundred Years War.

The abbey was partly destroyed in 1356 but was rebuilt to the identical in 1420.

Its regenerated wealth led sadly to its decline a few decades later when it was placed in commendam.

Lessay Abbey - 15th century sculpted grave
15th century sculpted grave

This system, which transferred ecclesiastical benefices in trust to the custody of a commendatory, always led to the disintegration of the monastic morals and values.

The commendatory could be a clergyman (abbot or prior) or a layman, who collected and kept the income generated by the abbey.

However, if a commendatory abbot or prior could exercise a certain jurisdiction, he had no authority over the inner discipline of the monks.

Affluent monasteries, such as Lessay, always aroused kings and great lords’ greed who saw them as an instant and easy source of income.

Lessay Abbey - Carved capital in the nave
Carved capital in the nave

The War of Religions eradicated the last hope of recovery as the monks fled and left the premises to the looting and exactions of the Protestants.

Lessay Abbey became national property at the French Revolution, but the church was saved from destruction in 1791 when it became parish church.

A true miracle in these troubled times!

The father of Adolphe Thiers (who became president of the Republic) bought the monastic buildings and contributed to their preservation.

The abbey was fortunately classified Historical Monument in 1840.

Saved at the French Revolution, destroyed during WWII

Everything was fine until WWII as the Germans exploded their mines before retreating on July 11, 1944; the destroyed the vaults and the north-side ambulatory.

Lessay Abbey
Lessay Abbey

The architect of the Historical Monuments started to restore it a year later thanks to the plans and documents preserved in the National Archives in Paris.

The monastic buildings’ facades and roofs were classified Historical Monuments in 1946, but they are privately owned and can’t be visited.

The abbey church was returned to worship in 1958 and serves as venue for the annual music festival – Festival les Heures Musicales de l’abbaye de Lessay.

Church: daily free access from 9 am to 6 pm except during religious services; the cloister and gardens are open to pre-booked guided tours.

Department of Manche – Rue Paul Jeanson – Lessay
Coordinates: Lat 40.220412 – Long -1.532910

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