They built with their bare hands, in deserts and wild places…

850 years of history


The Abbey de la Réau, a testimony to the extraordinary zeal for creation that seized the monastic communities of the Middle Ages.

The history of an abbey

Founded in the twelfth century, under the protection of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the abbey is situated in a fairly remote location on the border of Poitou and La Marche, in order for a community of canons to live there in accordance with the rules of St Augustine.

Towards the end of the thirteenth century the abbey underwent considerable development, its spiritual influence spreading as far as Brittany through association with numerous priories. The structure of the abbey was fortified during the Hundred Years’ War.

Trouble started in the sixteenth century with abuses within the system of commende, which sent the abbey into a period of decline and decadence.

In 1531 Antoine de Guillerville, an old brigand chief and a real bandit figure, seized the abbey by surprise and lived the high life there for several weeks, having chased away the religious inhabitants. After his arrest, he was beheaded and his head fixed to the highest tower.

There was a strong infiltration of Calvinist ideas to the point where the abbey was placed under protection and confidence in it was lost for a while. In 1616 Louis XIII made a gift of La Réau to Francois de la Rochefoucauld.

In 1653 his nephew Louis reformed the abbey, installing the Génovéfains in order to restore more vigorous observance to monastic life. The abbey was then under dual governance; the Abbot took the revenues and the Prior directed the abbey.

We need to wait until the eighteenth century before a programme of reconstruction restored the abbey’s glory. The Prior Hénin played an essential role with his wise administration in renovating and upgrading the buildings.

The dissolution of the monastic orders led to the dispersion of the monks in 1791. Then in 1798 the sale of the buildings as national property marked the beginning of the dismantling of the church.

A boarding school was set up there during the Napoleonic Empire. In 1824, Nicholas du Verrier de Boulzac purchased La Réau to turn it into a private residence.

The abbey was designated a Historic Monument in 1941.


Glossary
Commende : ecclesiastical profits could be given to a religious or lay person by the church. This was called commende. Under this system the Abbey de la Réau had become an asset which could be  “attributable to the first to come along”.
The Augustinians and the Génovéfains : the Augustinians are a religious order which follows the rules said to be of St Augustine. The canons were clergymen endowed with a canonry, i.e. an income. The Génovéfains are regular canons of the congregation of Saint Genevieve.

Architecture

The view on arrival at La Réau is a sight that excites the imagination, a discovery of imposing structures dating from the twelfth to the eighteenth century. Surrounded by woodland, the abbey lies in the valley of the Clain river, whose channel was dug by monks for a distance of 500 metres.

The abbey, whose foundation dates from the twelfth century, has been rebuilt many times and saved from ruin.

On the left is a seventeenth century lodging belonging to the Abbot and several outbuildings.  On the right are mostly monastic buildings, with a fortified machicolation tower (with projecting floor openings through which stones or burning objects could be dropped on attackers) and the abbey church, open to the sky, with its distinctive overhanging turrets. It is difficult to form an idea of the importance of the abbey from what remains.

The monastic buildings are presented in a strict and simple layout which does not convey the state of the abbey in the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. Only the elevated view at the cabinet des estampes (national archives) gives a picture of how the abbey looked at the end of the seventeenth century, and a model allows visitors to reconstruct in spirit this monastery which neither time nor man have spared.

The abbey appears to have been a fortress, yet all the buildings have since disappeared, as well as those alongside the river Clain. Today all that remains are the ruins of the abbey church, the monastic buildings between the church and the river, and the cloister on the north of the site.

Kitchen garden and grounds

An essential, long and costly restoration.

By the courtyard there are French formal gardens, planted with yew that unfortunately has not been cut back for over ten years. The shape will be restored with gradual and progressive pruning.

The gardens to the south, abandoned for many years, offer more of a romantic view of an English landscape. Previously planted as large parterre gardens, archaeological and historical work is necessary before undertaking any modifications.

A kitchen garden was created in 2017 to provide for the family of our gardener, and also for the delight of our visitors, who may taste a garden tomato salad prepared by Sylvie, and for children who may try their hand at hoeing.

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Plus de 10 000 visiteurs sont venus soutenir le projet de restauration de l’abbaye!

 

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