The Refectory of Saint-Wandrille

1,000 years of history

Many pilgrims come to venerate the relics of the holy bishop Vulfran. Generous benefactors, moved by love and devotion, offer abundant alms, or even their possessions, to the monastery.

Emma, dame de Pontchardon, built this refectory with her own money. Richard II, two properties on the river Touques, Le Breuil (Calvados) and Ticheville (Orne), where the abbey established a large priory, as well as other property.

This donation was drawn up before August 23, 1026, the date of Richard II’s death; it was signed not only by Richard II, but also by his successor Duke Richard III, Abbot John of Fécamp, Abbot Odilon of Cluny, Hugues, Bishop of Bayeux, Robert, Archbishop of Rouen, and King Henry I of France.

Emma de Pontchardon also donated a splendid silver and gold shrine to the Fontenelle church. On May 31, 1027, the abbot Saint Gérard translated the relics of Saint Vulfran into the new shrine, which was then solemnly transferred to the abbey church. A large crowd attended the ceremony, then a long-remembered meal was served in the brand-new refectory, and the day came to a close with festivities.

Ainsi Emma, dame de Pontchardon fit-elle de ses deniers bâtir ce réfectoire. Décidant d’entrer en religion en se retirant à l’ombre du monastère de Fontenelle, elle fait don avec l’assentiment de son suzerain le duc Richard II, de deux propriétés situées sur la Touques, le Breuil (Calvados) et Ticheville (Orne), où l’abbaye installa un important prieuré, ainsi que d’autres biens.
Cette donation est établie avant le 23 août 1026, date de la mort de Richard II ; elle est soussignée par ce dernier, mais également par son successeur le duc Richard III, l’abbé Jean de Fécamp, l’abbé Odilon de Cluny, Hugues, évêque de Bayeux, Robert, archevêque de Rouen et le roi de France Henri premier.

Emma de Pontchardon offre également à l’église de Fontenelle une splendide châsse d’argent et d’or. Le 31 mai 1027, l’abbé saint Gérard opère la translation des reliques de saint Vulfran dans la nouvelle châsse, transférée ensuite solennellement dans l’église abbatiale. Une grande foule assiste à la cérémonie, puis l’on sert dans le réfectoire tout neuf un repas dont l’on se souvint longtemps, et la fin de la journée s’achève en réjouissances.

Henry II Plantagenet, who came to Saint-Wandrille at the end of the 12th century, was familiar with the current low decoration, which had just been completed: a Romanesque arcature with criss-crossed edges falling on columns with flat-leaf capitals, heralding the arrival of Ogival art.

During the reign of Guillaume de La Douillie (1304-1342), a large bay was opened in the west gable, in the style of the bays in the transept of the abbey church.

In 1450, Abbot Jean de Brametot (1444-1453) brought back to Saint-Wandrille the monks who had been exiled to Rouen in their rue Ganterie mansion for twenty years, and had the north wall of the refectory completely remodeled, removing the Romanesque arcature and piercing the wall with eight large third-point windows.

While three of the cloister galleries were being rebuilt between 1495 and 1515, and the double doors to the cloister and the washbasin were being created in the style of the early Norman Renaissance, a vault in the shape of an inverted carina was also installed.

Coming from Jumièges, King François I stayed at Saint-Wandrille on August 8, 1545, and saw the refectory in a state close to the present one, except for the high windows, which were later modified. Probably at the end of the 16th century, as the number of monks decreased with regularity, the refectory was divided, with the creation of a small winter refectory and an office to the east and west.

From 1634 to 1790, the monks of the Benedictine congregation of Saint-Maur restored monastic life, both spiritually and materially. In the large refectory, the bay in the west gable was blinded by the construction of the adjoining building, and thus walled up. The pantry next to the kitchen has been preserved. The Romanesque arch is embedded in plaster and hidden by wood panelling. The green glazed terracotta paving was replaced by stone paving. At the end of the 18th c., two arched passageways were created in the corners to improve communication between the buildings.

After the suppression of the religious orders, the monks left the abbey in October 1790. In 1791, the estate was sold to a merchant from Yvetot, who set up a pin factory, a tobacco factory, a spinning mill and a weaving mill, as did his descendants.

Throughout the 19th century, the abbey was visited by tourists, some of them illustrious. On July 27, 1824, it was the Duchess de Berry, daughter-in-law of King Charles X; the 16th-century washbasin attracted her interest, and the princess unsuccessfully offered to buy it.

On August 12, 1835, Victor Hugo visited the monastery, despite an altercation with the owner at the time. He was already familiar with the monastery from the engravings in Taylor and Nodier’s Voyages pittoresques et romantiques de l’ancienne France (1820), and Langlois’s Essai historique et descriptif sur l’abbaye de Fontenelle (1827).

An engraving from the latter work struck him, and he described it in 1831 in Notre-Dame de Paris: the washbasin and its “donkey-eared Bacchic monk, glass in hand, laughing in the face of an entire community”. Victor Hugo visited the monastery again on September 12, 1879.

The abbey was then owned by the Marquis de Stacpoole, later Monseigneur de Stacpoole, who, during his thirty years at Saint-Wandrille, transformed the monastery into a summer house in the style of an English chateau. The south windows of the refectory were walled up, the north bays were transformed, openings were made, the Romanesque archway was stripped of its plaster and a gallery was added to connect the east and west buildings. The large refectory became a grand hall, with oak parquet flooring, monumental staircase, billiard table and false fireplace. A dining room was added in the western section.

After their return to Saint-Wandrille on February 13, 1894, the monks made regular use of this small dining room, more suited to the still-small community, until Dom Pothier’s abbatial blessing on September 29, 1898, when they resumed use of the large refectory.

A restoration project was drawn up by the architect Sainsaulieu in 1899, but the community had to leave in exile on September 25, 1901.

From 1907 to 1914, the abbey was home to the writer Maurice Maeterlinck and his muse, the actress Georgette Leblanc, sister of the author of Arsène Lupin. It was in this refectory that Macbeth was performed in 1909, and Pélléas et Mélisande in 1910, before a select audience.

The Latham family lived at the abbey for several years afterwards, and the refectory, now a playroom, was the perfect roller-skating rink for the children of the house.

The year 1930, before the community returned to its Normandy monastery, saw a complete restoration of the abbey, with the removal from the refectory of the additions dating from the time of Bishop de Stacpoole. The woodwork, galleries and staircase were removed, but the parquet flooring remained.

During the German occupation, troops used the refectory, in particular as a theater.

The bombardment of August 10, 1944 damaged the western section and the adjacent building.

It wasn’t until December 1992 that an ambitious project to completely restore the refectory was launched, under the direction of Dominique Moufle, chief architect of historic monuments, with financial support – the refectory has been listed as a historic monument since 1863 – from the State, the Conseil Général, and numerous generous patrons and benefactors.

The project was completed at the end of 1997, and the community was able to resume use of the building on January 26, 1998.