In August 2003 the Glastonbury Abbey Trust and the Friends of the Abbaye de St Pierre at Maillezais in France signed a charter which highlights the remarkably similar histories of the two abbeys. The document confirms their intention to work together to promote cultural understanding, to foster an appreciation of their shared Christian heritage and to provide a welcome to visitors and pilgrims.
Maillezais Abbey is situated in the south of the Vendée, a large département (or county) located on the Atlantic coast, south of Brittany and the Loire Valley. The area used to be a marsh, but was drained and improved by the monks from the abbeys of the region, much as those at Glastonbury did in the Somerset Levels and Moors. Nowadays it is sometimes referred to as 'Green Venice'.
In 988 Guillaume Fiers à Bras, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitou, started building the abbey in the marshes, on the island of Maillezais, at the request of his wife, Emma of Aquitaine. In 1003 Guillaume Le Grand, son of Emma and Guillaume Fiers à Bras gave the whole island over to the monastery. It is a Benedictine monastery, which became the seat of a bishop in 1317. The Cathedral fell into disrepair in 1562, but the monastic foundation managed to survive the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants, which ravaged France in the sixteenth century. The monks began to leave the site in 1666.
Like Glastonbury, the buildings were used as a quarry for stone for building in the surrounding villages. Today, the north wall of the nave and the west end of the abbey church and some of the domestic buildings survive. These include a hall, dormitory, refectory and impressive cellar for storing salt. Half underground, on a level with the marshes, this served as a landing for goods brought to the abbey by boat.
The site is now in the care of the Conseil Général de la Vendée and is open to the public all year. During the summer, a variety of exhibitions and theatrical, musical and cultural events tell the fascinating story of the site and surrounding area. A grand Medieval Christmas fair is held there every year, on the second Sunday in December.
The twinning is a historic link between the two abbeys. We recommend a visit to this remarkable area and the fascinating Abbey of Maillezais - you can be assured of a warm welcome.