16 September 2017

The history of the Grandmont-Villiers priory

[Below are some photos I took in 2006 at the Grandmont-Villiers priory, half an hour south of Saint-Aignan, near Montrésor, along with my translation of this article in French detailing the history of the monastery...]

Author: Father Philipe-Etienne, hermit at the Grandmont-Villiers priory, which was founded in 1162 by Henri II Plantagenet.

On February 8 in the year 1124, Saint Stephen of Muret died. Muret was the name given to the place where Saint Stephen lived and died, in the commune of Ambazac near the city of Limoges. The following year, his disciples transferred Stephen’s body and their community to the place called Grandmont, eight kilometers to the north in the commune of Saint-Sylvestre, giving birth to a religious order of impoverished hermits that was to grow in the 12th and 13th centuries to as many as 160 hermitages in France, three in England, and two in the Spanish province of Navarre.

This photo of Father Philippe-Etienne appeared in the newspaper in 2012 (my post yesterday),
with a note that said he did not want to be photographed, or identified by his legal name.

The French kings Louis VII and Philip Augustus, who with the Plantagenet family reigned over  the Touraine, Maine, Anjou, Normandy,  and Aquitaine provinces, as well as England, lent support to the nascent Grandmont order in their territories.

Henry II Plantagenet, taught by his mother Mathilde "The Empress" to venerate the founder of the order, hastened, after becoming the king of England in 1156, to create seven hermitages in his lands: Pare-lès-Rouen, La Haie d’Angers,  Sermaize (La Rochelle), Bercey (Bercé Forest in the Maine), Grandmont-lès-Chinon (aka Pommier-Aigre), Grandmont-lès-Tours (aka Bois-Rahier), and also Grandmont-Villiers (aka Villiers, Villiers-près-Loches, or Villiers-près-Montrésor), which was and is located in the parish of Coulangé and known as "Notre-Dame and St. Stephen."

In 1157, the first twelve hermits of Grandmont arrived at Coulangé and moved into wooden huts. In 1162, the king pledged these grants: an annual rent of 36 livres to be taken from the royal treasury and 100 to 120 hectares of woodlands, moors, and grasslands bordered on the east by the "public road" running from Saint-Aignan to Châtillon-sur-Indre. The  first buildings were built around 1170.

The hermitage at the time of its construction

Subsequent Demolition Dates

1360 - portico and chapel
1650 - cloister galleries
1724 - six meters of the church on the west side
1724 -latrines
1780 - church sanctuary
1780 - west façade of chapter hall
1780 - guests' refectory and left hallway
1851 - right hallway
1902 - collapse of the vault of the nave

As he was departing on a Crusade with Philip Augustus in 1189, Richard the Lionhearted pledged to preserve his father's grants to the hermits of Grandmont-Villiers. There remain few documents recounting the history of the hermitage in the Middle Ages. In the year 1200, Geoffroy of Palluau, Lord of Montrésor, pledged as a gift a chandelier for the church at Villiers that was to be fabricated by a lord of Marsin (in the village called Genillé), Abbot Jean-Louis Denis, Chartulary of the Abbey of Villeloin.

In 1295 there were about twenty hermits living in the monastery, including six clerics and a dozen or so lay brothers. A reorganization of the order by Pope John XXII in 1317 retained only 39 "active" Grandmont priories out of 160 existing, with consolidation of the brotherhood. The hermitages that were kept, including Grandmont-Villiers, were known from that point on as "priories." The prior of Villiers was given the title of Abbot of Grandmont.

The Villiers priory was then home to about thirty men. In 1323 it was visited by King Charles IV (aka Charles le Bel). Grandmont-Villiers’ revival was short-lived because a plague was ravaging the region and reducing the number of monks there.

Around 1358-1360, along with the abbeys near Villeloin — Beaugeray, Aigues-Vives (near Montrichard), Beaulieu-lès-Loches, the Carthusian monastery of Liget — the Villiers priory was attacked by Anglo-Navarrese vandals living at the Château du Plessis in nearby Nouans-les-Fontaines and Châteauvieux.

Declining birthrates because of wars and plague made it difficult to recruit new brothers into the order. By 1420 the hermit monks would number no more than five or six. This did not prevent them from welcoming, in November 1472, King Louis XI, who signed two ordinances at the Villier priory. In 1495, the institution by the king of the system of  "commendation," under which the superior of a monastery was no longer required to be a member of the order and elected by his brothers, but could be a secular nobleman appointed by the king — as a way of giving responsibilities to the sons of noble families and income to these families at the expense of the monasteries — accelerated the decline of religious orders in general.

These appointed administrators retained only only the number of monks strictly required by canon law to legally constitute a community — in other words, three monks. The order also received only one-third of the monastery's income. This regime lasted until 1772 when the Grandmont orders "headquarters) and its properties located near Limoges were granted to Mgr. Du Plessis d'Argentre, Bishop of Limoges, to allow him to pay off the enormous debts he had contracted while building his episcopal palace (100,000 livres).

At Grandmont-Villiers, revenues that had been allocated to cover the everyday needs of the brothers were granted instead to the seminary at Tours. The last hermit monks (Henri Besse, Claude Salmon, and the prior Jean Martin) soon closed the priory and returned to  live with their families.

In 1780, the secular administrator of the monastery, Louis Jacques de Baraudin, who continued living at Grandmont-Villiers, obtained from the king the right to raze the church and monastery buildings, with the exception of one wing that would serve as a country residence. He then had the church sanctuary torn down and converted into a barn, and demolished the greater part of the west wing.

He also demolished and walled off the facade of the chapter room and arrogated to himself, in 1789, the right to tear down everything that remained standing outside the south wing of the building. Barraudin died in 1790.

The remaining building was sold to the French government in 1792. Then in May 1851 it was sold to François Xavier Branicki, owner of the Château de Montrésor. The rest of the property was purchased in 1878 by Constantin Gregory Branicki.

The priory was used as a farm and a hunting lodge until 1963. Occupied for a while by tapestry-makers, it was finally abandoned and went to ruin. Finally, the priory was leased long-term in 1980, with the agreement of Mgr. Ferrand, Archbishop of Tours, to be lived in by hermits inspired by the spiritual writings of St. Stephen of Muret.

Today, three hermit monks lead a poor, lonely, and fraternal life there while rehabilitating the buildings.

* * * * * * * * * * * ** * * * * ** * * * * *
The priory can be visited on Sunday afternoons from 3.30 pm to 5.30 p.m. from 2 November to Palm Sunday and every afternoon from Monday from Easter to 31 October. Closed Christmas, Holy Week, Easter, and the last Sunday in August.

Public services: Sunday mass at 10 am. Vespers at 6:30 pm.

Day of Christmas and Easter, Mass at 10:30.

Phone 02 47 92 76 48


  1. These two posts are really interesting. Thanks for the insight into these hermits life and the history

  2. Merci de nous faire connaître ce très beau lieu.

  3. Ken, these two posts are very interesting to Pauline and I...
    Her Uncle was the vicar of Grosmont in Wales and we lived in Yorkshire where there is another Grossmont....
    both are linked to the Grandmontian order.... then we move to France, and.... lo and behold... the farm on top of the hill...Grandmont.... and our big barn were both Grandmontian linked... with the ruins of the old abbey about 3 kilometres north.
    The farm on the hill and our barn were near the old road.
    As an order, they were not allowed to beg... but were allowed to accept gifts. They were also to give to travellers what they needed.
    Grandmont itself is probably the site of, or very close to, a hermit outpost of the main abbey... an outpost that allowed them to give and receive.
    I'll get Pauline to read these two posts.... she has a excellent history of the Grandmontians.... she will have more to add, I have no doubt.

    1. You seem to be saying that one of the Grandmont priories was close to Grand- and Petit-Pressigny, if I understand...

    2. Yes, Ken.... according to the book that Pauline was given....
      sorry for the late answer, I am in the U.K. at the moment organising my brother's funeral.
      Abnormal service will be resumed when I get back from blighty

    3. Condolences, Tim. So sorry to hear about your brother's passing. Bon courage.

  4. Very interesting. I am a sucker for all things related to the Plantagenets (and Capets of the era), so this is great.

    1. We should go there the next time you come to France.

    2. There are two other places to see nearby: La Charteuse de Liget and the old fortified farm called La Corroirie.

  5. We saw lots of ruins of monasteries and friaries in Ireland. They must have been like McDonalds in the middle ages lol. Thanks for this interesting post with good photos, too.

    1. Just think how many churches there are in France. Almost as many as in the U.S. South!

  6. Very interesting...so much of the original complex was torn down. I guess there was no concept of historic preservation at the time. What remains is beautiful, however. Thanks for posting this Ken. Aren't the carved arches over the windows remarkable?

  7. Thanks for the detailed posting today. So very interesting. I am currently reading about the French revolution and how many institutions were banned or dismantled and ways of life changed.

    1. The French Revolution changed everything — for better and for worse. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...

  8. I wonder if you happen to know if the last prior, Jean Martin, succeeded his father or grand-father as prior. I am working on a genealogy of Acadian families, currently the family Jeanne de Reux Motin. Her father was "Seigneur" aka Lord of Reux, and one brother is identified as Jean, priest, prior of Villiers. But the parents were married in 1607, far too early to have been the father as the man you identify as Jean Martin.


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