Royaumont, l’abbaye aux 1 001 vies
[Le Figaro]

An exceptional, enduring site

A reflecting canal and a tree-lined avenue mark the entrance to Royaumont Abbey, a monument of timeless beauty nestled in a tranquil setting. Royaumont has led several lives, first as a Cistercian monastery, then successively as a royal abbey, a cotton mill, a novitiate, a military hospital, and a country home. It has never been left unoccupied.

Founded in 1228 by the young Louis IX (later Saint Louis) and his mother Blanche de Castille, the royal abbey, governed by the Cistercian order, achieved great renown in the 13th century. Thereafter it was gradually weakened by war and famine during the Middle Ages and declined further following the granting of a benefice in the 16th century.

By the time it was declared “national property” in 1790 during the French revolution, only 10 monks remained.

The abbey was sold in 1791 and converted into a modern textile mill. The church was destroyed and its stones used to build worker’s quarters. Around 1830, in addition to its industrial activity, Royaumont became a popular excursion destination for the Paris aristocracy and upper bourgeoisie. Following several conversions, the mill was closed in 1860.

The abbey then reverted to its initial purpose, serving as a novitiate for the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux religious order, which undertook to restore it in neogothic style. In 1905, the Combes laws (separation of church and state) forced the novitiate to leave and Jules Goüin, Chairman of the Société de Construction des Batignolles, bought the former convent to use as a country home.

From the 13th century onwards, Royaumont was a center of intellectual life and art. The Dominican friar Vincent de Beauvais, author of the Speculum Maius, the great medieval encyclopedia, was a lector there between 1246 and 1260. In 1635, Louis XIII presented a ballet that he had composed, La Merlaison, at Royaumont two days after it was first performed at the Château of Chantilly. Between 1835 and 1840, the Royaumont theater hosted musical evenings for enlightened amateurs and famous professional musicians.

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A royal foundation, a gothic masterpiece

Royaumont received landmark status in 1927 and is the largest Cistercian abbey in the Ile-de-France region. It provides an exceptional picture of monastic life and gothic architecture.

The buildings are arranged around a cloister of outstanding dimensions. The chapter room, accessed from the passageway connecting the cloister and the park, today houses the Henry and Isabel Goüin library.

The monks’ refectory is one of the few remaining double-nave refectories in France. Its lofty structure, slender columns and large stained-glass windows are a reminder that meals had a liturgical function for Cistercian monks, who set great store by the symbolic purpose of their architecture.

From the 19th century onwards, the refectory was used successively as a workshop, a drying room, a chapel and finally, following the installation of the large Cavaillé-Coll organ, as a concert hall.

The lay brothers’ refectory, one of the abbey’s most spacious rooms, is a six-bay room with ribbed arches. Having successively served as a ballroom, a theater, a canteen, a dormitory, and a storeroom, it is now open to visitors, as are the former monks’ kitchens.

The latrine building, with a canal running its entire length, is one of the last buildings of this type still extant in Europe and bears witness to the Cistercians’ hydraulic engineering skills and attention to hygiene during the Middle Ages. Today, the ground floor is used as a sitting room for residents, a café-tearoom for visitors and a reception room. On the upper floor, spaces have been developed for concerts, rehearsals and corporate events. They round out the residential facilities in the monks’ building, the abbey’s largest with a length of 65 meters and a width of 23 meters.

All that remains of the church, destroyed during the Revolution, is the romantic ruins of columns and capitals north of the abbey. A digital reconstruction of the church building shows its exceptional footprint within the abbey.

The sacristy with its pointed barrel vault opens onto the South transept of the former abbey church and onto the cloister.

The Royaumont Abbey through the ages

1228 : Young Louis IX, acting on a wish of his father Louis VIII, founds a new abbey, which he entrusts to a community of Cistercian monks. The construction work comes to a close in 1235 with the dedication of the church. Its impressive size and the wealth of goods conceded to the abbey bear witness to the young king’s ambition, as he turns Royaumont into one of the largest ecclesiastical establishments north of Paris, after Saint Denis.

1246 : Vincent de Beauvais, a Dominican monk known for his opus Speculum Majus, is the first scholar hosted at the abbey, as a lector.
As of the early 14th century, maintaining the abbey’s temporal possessions becomes difficult, for want of adequate resources.

1549 : The Abbey is given in commendam, a status it will retain until the French revolution. The beneficiaries – various members of the royal circle, such as Mazarin, Richelieu, and the Lorraine family (1651-1728) – will attempt to renew its luster, launching very costly restoration work. However, commendatory abbots frequently tended to confuse private and monastic possessions, abbey and country seat.

1635 : Richelieu convenes a meeting of all Cistercian abbots to mandate renewed and rigorous compliance with their order’s rules, and makes them sign the Royaumont Articles. At the same time, the  Ballet de la Merlaison, of which Louis XIII is both author and choreographer, is performed at Royaumont.

1783 : The very last commendatory abbot, society notable Henri-Eléonore-François Le Cornut de Ballivières, organizes lavish feasts and has an Italianate abbot’s seat built. The building is however not quite completed when he flees in 1789.

1790-1792 : The Abbey is declared national property. Its books, archives, religious objects and furniture are warehoused or sold. The buildings are acquired by the Marquis de Travanet who has the church torn down and turns the monastic buildings into a textile mill.

1792-1860 : The Royaumont mill is one of the leading manufactories in the region. Owned and operated by the van der Mersch family from 1815 to 1860, it draws artists and bourgeois from Paris keen on spending some time in the countryside.

1864-1905 :The Abbey is acquired by the Marseilles chapter of the Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate, and then entrusted, in 1869, to the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux, who will endeavor to restore the buildings both structurally and functionally. Under architect Louis Vernier, they undertake significant restoration work, mixing neo-gothic approaches and compliance with Cistercian simplicity.

1905 : The Combes Act on religious congregations forces the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux to leave the abbey. The site is acquired by a leading industrialist, Jules Goüin, chairman of the Société de Construction des Batignolles, a company set up by his father Ernest Goüin in 1846. The abbey becomes the Goüin family’s second home.

1915-1919 : The abbey hosts Auxiliary Hospital 301, headed by a team of women physicians and nurses from Scotland, known as « the Scottish Women ».

1927 : The abbey is listed as a protected historical monument.

1931 : Henry Goüin, Jules Goüin’s grandson, weds Isabel Lang. Together they launch a program to restore and repurpose various buildings. Work is thus undertaken on the Lay Brothers’ House and on the cloister roofing, the Latrine House timber frame is repaired, a Cavaillé-Coll organ is installed in the former refectory and the rostrum removed, the former kitchen undergoes initial restoration, the Hostel House is re-roofed, as is the Monks’ House, while central heating is put in. The Goüins turn the abbey into a meeting place for artists and scholars.

1936 : On 27 June, a first public concert is held in the former refectory, heralding musical seasons to come.

1938 : The Foyer de l’Abbaye de Royaumont, a work and rest space for artists and scholars, is set up. Its activities are suspended during the war. It resumes its work in 1947 under the leadership of Gilbert Gadoffre, becoming the Centre culturel international de Royaumont (CCIR).

1949 : Henry Goüin acquires the Paul Desjardins library (previously housed at the Pontigny Abbey).

1953 : Le CCIR becomes the  Cercle culturel de Royaumont, dissolved in 1968.
Between 1953 and 1964 : The former kitchen is restored, as is the Latrine House; work is carried out on the turret, the cloister, the former refectory and the Monks’ House…

1964 : Henry and Isabel Goüin set up the Fondation Royaumont (Goüin-Lang) pour le progrès des Sciences de l’Homme (for the furtherance of the humanities), sanctioned by a Declaration of public interest by the French Conseil d’Etat on 18 January 1964, and endow it with capital and their Royaumont estate.

1971 : The Centre de Royaumont pour une Science de l’Homme  (Royaumont Center for the Humanities) is set up. It shall exit the Foundation in 1973.

1972 : Royaumont is a founding member of the Association des Centres Culturels de Rencontre (Association of Centers for Cultural Exchange)

1977 : Henry Goüin dies (24 Febuary). On 5 April, the Foundation signs an agreement with the Val d’Oise département and in 1978 starts working on a new cultural project.

Between 1976 and 1980 : 
Further restoration work is carried out on the cloister, the former refectory and the Monks’ House, accommodation for visitors is renovated…

1984 : A number of new centers are set up: a Voice Center, a Research and Interpretation Center for Medieval Music, a Literature Center, a Visual Arts Center; an anthropology research program is also launched.

1988 : Isabel Goüin dies 28 October.

Between 1983 and 1992 : further restoration work focuses on the ruins of the abbey church, the Lay Brothers’ House, the cloister, the former kitchen. Forty rooms are renovated, as are the North and West galleries of the cloister, and the Latrine House. A new gatehouse is built.

2000 : The cultural project is redefined. It diversifies the music programs, opens up to contemporary dance, introduces poetry-centered activities within other programs, and more generally builds stronger links between heritage and the arts.

2004 : The 9-square garden is designed in medieval style Olivier Damée and Edith Vallet.

2007 : The Foundation acquires the François-Lang Musical Library.

Between 1992 and 2010 : the monks’ former refectory is restored, the former kitchen is re-paved, the cloister railings and terraces are restored, the François-Lang Musical Library is restored and open to the public, six new rooms are built, the cloister garden is restored, as is the attic of the Lay Brothers’ House, with the opening of a new rehearsal space.

2010 : The Foundation’s cultural program refocuses on music and heritage with two main thrusts: on the one hand the “Arts Programs”, including the Voice program, the Keyboard program, the New Voices program, the Oral and Improvised Music program, the Choreography program, the Stage Unit, the Main Studio, the François-Lang Library, as well as the Henry & Isabel Goüin Archive and Library and, on the other, the “Outreach Programs”, to disseminate the achievements of the various Arts Programs.

2014 : The Garden of Vegetables designed by Astrid Verspieren and Philippe Simonnet is inaugurated on 28 June. The former refectory of the Lays Brothers’ House is restored and refitted, and on 3 October a 5-year mission contract is signed with the State, the Ile-de-France region and the Val d’Oise département, covering the period 2014-2018.

2015-2016 : The Royaumont Foundation carries out major restoration work at the abbey, while renovating and extending its accommodations.

2016 : The Médiathèque Musicale Mahler (Paris) is officially linked to the Fondation Royaumont