Just off the northern coast of France is a tiny island village so beautiful it has inspired castles in blockbuster movies, yet so notorious some are too scared to step foot on it. That island is Mont Saint Michel castle, a heavily fortified almost paradise.
It looks like something straight out of a fantasy franchise; so there’s no surprise it has served as an inspiration. Especially when you consider that the island is only accessible by foot during low tide.
When the tide rises, the narrow land bridge connecting it to the mainland is submerged by water. This historically has made it both easily defended and a fixture of French folklore.
Countless myths and legends reference Mont Saint Michel Castle, often claiming the island is haunted by ghosts of the past. And while this all may seem unreal, there is a very good reason a cramped fortress was built on this special island.
An Isle of Myth
Rising from the marshland of Normandy, the island was for a long time used as a rudimentary milestone by travelling pilgrims to reassure they were heading in the right direction. It was they who named the island after Saint Michael.
Some claim Saint Michael actually appeared before a group of pilgrims to command they build a church on the island and make it a holy place. Whether or not that is true, a church was certainly built, and a small community sprang up around it. Locals were primarily fishermen or traders.
Some were religiously employed. It was always a small community cut off from anything important or political. But the fact it was an island meant it could not be trampled by Viking raiders or foreign invaders. Mont Saint Michel Castle became a shining light in the sea of violence during the 100 years war.
Despite repeated attacks from the English, Mont-Saint-Michel was never conquered. This is partly thanks to it’s strong stone walls, but also due to the tide constantly coming and going.
Attacking ships would often be caught off guard and beached. It’s the kind of thing that sinks an invasion force, in more ways than one. This only added to the island’s perception as a holy site, attracting pilgrims from across Europe.
As the centuries ticked over, larger and ever more grand structures were built on the island, reflecting the prestige of Mont-Saint-Michel. But eventually that prestige would become infamy.
The Darker Side
During the French revolutions Mont Saint Michel Castlewas used as a prison. It turned out the very defences that kept foreign invaders from getting in were efficient in keeping fellow Frenchmen from getting out.
Many of the prisoners held there were actually religious officials, since the revolutionaries were sceptical of clerical intentions.
Even after the revolution was over, Mont-Saint-Michel continued to be used as a prison. Only in the mid 1800s did the island stop being a prison. At the time of closure, 650 prisoners were held there.
In the period following, the people of France began to see it as a site of national importance. But it would enter another dark period of history during world war two, when France fell to German forces.
Though used by German soldiers as a defensive outpost, Mont-Saint-Michel served as a tourist attraction for German civilians. Countless thousands of Germans visited Mont-Saint-Michel, and after the war ended millions of people from across Europe bean to.
Today more than 3 million people visit Mont Saint Michel Castle each year. Not bad considering the village has just 29 permanent residents. It’s easy to see why so many are drawn to the island village. A fortified island full of historic sites connected by a land bridge that can only be accessed at low tide.
A beautiful church atop a hill rising above gothic buildings spanning several centuries. Many of the buildings there are military in nature, giving a rare example of military first architecture. It’s amazing how many buildings are crammed onto the island, with museums and places of note around every corner.
The end product is a unique blend of natural beauty, cultural monuments, and a rich history to boot. But what draws many to the island are the claims it is haunted by ghosts of the past.
The Haunted Island
There are many legends and ghost stories connected to Mont Saint Michel Castle. Most ghosts can apparently be found in the waters surrounding the island. It is said that during the Hundred Years War, 2000 English soldiers were killed attempting to breach the island’s defences.
In the chaos, many of their souls were unable to pass on to the next world. And so they now can be heard on quiet days, when the tides are calm, moaning in pain and despair from below the waves.
For the best chance of encountering a ghost you should probably head straight to the church at the top of the island. Up until the revolution, the island was mostly home to monks and religious devotees. Many monks died on the island and were apparently interned within the walls of the church.
This was a normal practise at the time and nobody thought anything of it… At least until the revolution upturned the island. With Mont-Saint-Michel desecrated by revolutionaries and the site formerly seen as so holy used as a prison, that all changed.
Some claim the ghosts of many long dead monks were awoken in the disturbance. Still now their spirits are restless. Spiteful at being awoken, visitors are advised to stay away from any ghostly monk they might encounter on a misty morning.
A medieval army officer is also said to haunt the island. Standing guard, he is said to be aggressive towards English people, the traditional enemy of the French. His name is Captain Louis d’Estouteville and he is greatly feared.
There are stories of people seeing him appear before their eyes. Fearing for their lives, they turn around and run. Yet at the bottom of the hill they realise the tide has risen, leaving them trapped on Mont-Saint-Michel.
A Peaceful Island
Despite Mont Saint Michel Castle being so notorious for it’s ghosts and bloody history, it remains one of the most peaceful places you could ever visit.
The soft waves surrounding the island, and beautiful architecture certainly help with this. It’s no wonder Minas Tirith from Lord of The Rings was directly inspired by the real life village.