Of all the medieval abbeys in France, the Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay is my favourite. Well to be honest I haven’t been to that many, but even if I had, this would still be my number one. Snuggled in the Valley of the Chevreuse, surrounded by verdant forest, walking through the remains of the medieval abbey will take you back 1000 years.
History of the Abbey
The Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay was built in 1128 as a Cistercian monastery (a Catholic religious order). Its church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and to St John the Baptist. The abbey soon became rich and powerful due to its association with kings and high ranking officials who gave land and treasures.
And if an abbey wanted to gain a few more followers, what better way than to perform a miracle or two.
The miracles of Saint Thibault
Enter Saint Thibault, who became the abbot of the monastery in 1235.
The story goes that as a youngster, St Thibault of Marly, trainee knight, was on his way to a jousting tournament when he was distracted by a mass being celebrated at a nearby church. After attending the mass which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, he was astonished to see his friends approaching him with congratulations for a fine win at the tournament. From this he understood that in a miraculous turn of events an angel had taken his place at the contest (and probably performed better than he!). Filled with wonderment, he immediately stepped back into the church to renounce the worldly life and all his possessions and became a monk.
St Thibault was related by blood to French royalty, his mother being a granddaughter of Louis VI. He was known for his devotion and good works, and was made abbot of the monastery in 1235. According to a contemporary historian, St Thibault gave the deaf their hearing, the blind their sight, the mute their voice, the lame their legs, the sick their health, and he exorcised demons from the possessed. Not a bad résumé!
A famous legend rose up around St Thibault and the fountain at the abbey des Vaux de Cernay. Louis IX (who eventually became St Louis) and his wife Marguerite of Provence had been married for 10 years yet had borne no children. St Thibault invited them to drink the water at l’Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay, supposedly at the fountain which now bears his name. After drinking this miraculous water Marguerite went on to have 11 children.
St Thibault died in 1247 and was buried in the abbey.
A who’s who of abbots
The abbey, as with many other medieval abbeys in France, was plundered of its riches and fell into decline over the centuries. The plague and successive wars in Europe did not help.
It had several notable abbots; Henry de Bourbon Verneuil who was the bastard son of Henri IV, and Jean Casmir who was the former King of Poland.
During the French Revolution there were only 12 monks remaining. They were quickly given their marching orders when the abbey was possessed by the revolutionary government and sold to César-Phillipe Depeuty for the sum of 36,200 francs. It subsequently went through a number of different owners. The archaeological society of Rambouillet noted that under the ownership of general baron Christophe in 1816, the abbey lost most of its treasures: he supposedly destroyed many of the buildings with explosives.
Enter the Rothschilds
Thankfully, in 1873, the Baron Nathaniel Rothschild and his wife Charlotte purchased the property. There was very little left of the original twelfth century church and most of the buildings were in ruins. Fully restored by the Rothschilds, it became one of the most beautiful medieval abbeys in France.
Who was Charlotte de Rothschild? Watch the video here to find out.
In 1940, France was occupied by Nazi Germany and all Rothschild properties, including the Abbey des Vaux de Cernay, were seized by the Germans.
The text reads:
The estate of the Jewish Rothschilds, the château des Vaux-de-Cernay is finally French again.
A château, an historic region, 900 hectares of park and forest will return to the French community.
In 1873, the ancient abbey fell into the hands of strangers.Le Matin, 5 February 1942
Hitler had long coveted the famous art collection of the French branch of the Rothschild family, even prior to the occupation of France. Within a very short time the entire collection of paintings, jewellery, books and other artefacts had been confiscated and taken to the Nazi depot for looted art in Paris.
In 1945, Henri Rothschild sold the abbey to Felix Amiot, who had made his fortune in aircraft construction.
The Abbey today
It is now run as a hotel and function centre, though thankfully you can visit the buildings and walk around the pond at your leisure (it’s free during the week).
I have visited the abbey several times, and each time I am blessed with gorgeous weather.
My favourite thing to do is to wander through the ruins, camera in hand, then sit and watch for ducks on the water.
Should you find yourself in the Valley of the Chevreuse on your next visit to Île de France, you absolutely must stop here and meander through this tranquil place, one of the most gorgeous medieval abbeys in all of France.
https://www.abbayedecernay.com/en/ If you are need of a weekend away or a magical wedding venue, check out the hotel’s official website.
https://www.parc-naturel-chevreuse.fr/ The Valley of the Chevreuse is one of the most beautiful areas south of Paris, for walking, visiting ancient castles and châteaux, and enjoying tiny villages. It’s very easy to get there from Paris (this website is in French)
https://www.port-royal-des-champs.eu/ The Port Royal Abbey was established in 1204 as a sister abbey to that of Vaux de Cernay, a female Cistercian monastery. It is now mostly in ruins but open as a museum (this website is in French).
For your information, this is not a paid post. I just really love the Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay!