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When he placed his shrine under the protection of Archangel Saint Michel in 693, bishop Ursmer of Hainault and Thiérache was not expecting the crowds that this holy patronage would soon attract.
Boosted by the influence of the symbolism of Good against Evil that Saint Michel represents, the chapel was still a well-known sanctuary and a place of pilgrimage when Ursmer died in 713.
However, when Charlemagne died, Thiérache once again found himself torn between France and the holy German Empire, and the chapel eventually fell into disrepair. It was certainly not forgotten, though, and is still remembered as a cradle of the Christian faith.
Even a hundred years later, with the revival of Christian practices, the site hadn't been forgotten, and Herisinde (who had already had the church expanded in 942) and her husband Eilbert (a friend of the Count of Vermandois) had a monastery built on the site of the former church.
Kaddroe, a Scottish evangelist, and his 12 companions from Scotland (the 'peregrini Scots') took up residence here and were granted ownership of the oratory in 945. The abbey, which became Benedictine under the influence of Herisinde, went on to experience a great period of influence over the Thiérache region throughout the 11th Century.
It enjoyed three and a half centuries of relative prosperity, until eventually troubles shook the Thiérache region in 1297, resulting in the destruction and looting of the abbey property.
In 1471, the last 'regular' Abbey of Saint Michel was established, but in 1516 a 'partner' abbey was set up by the royal power, which granted it the right to receive two-thirds of the abbey's income.
This was a hard blow to the abbey, inevitably resulting in the departure of the monks, who could no longer bear the situation, a situation which would not improve with the outbreak of the War of Religion in 1573, which was to last some 20 years, and the constant looting of the abbey by the Calvinists, leaving the abbey in a pitiful state.
Jean de Mornat, the 37th abbot of Saint Michel, could be considered the second founder of the abbey in that he had the church rebuilt, working at reconstructing it and giving it new life under the rule of Henri IV. With Jean de Mornat in charge, the abbey experienced a new period of prosperity.
It once again fell on hard times on his death, with the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War, and only after the Peace of Nimeguen (1674-1679) did peace return to the region and restoration work resume, giving the building a new steeple and reading, and sleeping and working areas to replace the old dormitory. The abbey was later damaged by a fire in 1715, though fortunately the the jewel of the abbey-church, the organ, donated by Jean Boizard the previous year, was spared.
After the Revolution, the abbey was bought for 10,500 francs by Jean-Louis Lalouette, a very religious grain merchant, who donated the abbey-church to the town and sold the rest, resulting in a glassworks being set up inside the monastery.
By 1792, 8 of the 11 monks the abbey initially housed were still there.
In 1807, a woollen mill was set up in the monastery, where it remained until it was sold in 1864.
1871 saw the building once again severely damaged by a fire which saw the church and surrounding buildings go up in flames, destroying the magnificent grand staircase in the process.
The church, belonging to the town at the time, was listed as a historical monument in 1837, with the organ donated by Jean Boizard following suit in 1950.
In terms of architecture, the abbey boasts several remarkable features.
The chancel, which is the oldest part of the abbey, dates back to the 12th Century and is a prototype for which Saint Michel is renowned. It is original in that it features apsidal chapels positioned at 45° to the centre of the chancel, the walls of which are clad in 15th-Century marble.
The intersection of the transept (the northern façade of which features a rather impressive large rose of over 23 ft in diameter) was originally topped with a 'lantern tower' similar to the one at Laon Cathedral, which was later replaced with a lighter spire.
The nave, for its part, artfully represents the transition between the 12th-Century Gothic chancel and the 17th-Century highly Classical façade adorned with large rounded arcades, pilasters and the Ionic capitals of the lateral stacks.
Saint-Michel en Thiérache Abbey.
Abbey site. - Rue du Chamiteau - 02830 Saint-Michel.
Tel.: +33 (0)3 23 58 87 20.
Adult abbey and museum: ?4.
Youth (13-18 years) abbey and museum: ?2.50.
Free entry for children under 13.