Clinging majestically to the foot of the mountainside that rises steeply from the shores of Lac du Bourget, it’s hard to imagine that the Cistercian monks who founded Hautecombe Abbey in the 12th century could have chosen a more splendid location. Over the last 900 years, the final resting place of many of the Royal House of Savoy, has looked out over the crystal blue waters of Lac du Bourget and the mountains of the Alps rising to the east.
While it seems to epitomise the quiet calm and isolation that the severe asceticism of the Cistercian way of life demanded, during those nine centuries the Abbey has been through many difficult times. In some respects, it is fortunate that it survived at all. Were it not for its strong links to the Dukes of Savoy, Kings of Sardinia and Italy, it may have been allowed to slowly decay into a picturesque ruin. Instead, it remains a centre of religious life.
The Abbey’s links to the House of Savoy date to its founding. It was granted its lakeside site in 1125 by Amadeus III, Count of Savoy. The rulers of Savoy are one of those European dynasties that began small as the overlords of the County of Savoy in the Alps, but went on to become Kings of Sicily and Sardinia, eventually becoming the Kings of Italy after playing a leading role in Italian unification.
An indication of their widespread influence can be found in one of those buried at Hautecombe Abbey. Boniface of Savoy was the second son of Thomas I, Count of Savoy. As with all aristocratic second sons not destined to inherit the main prize, he went into the church. Nothing unusual about that, except this son of Savoy became the Archbishop of Canterbury in England in 1249.
Of course it helped that his nice, Eleanor of Provence, was married to King Henry III of England. In a nutshell, that is how European aristocracy worked and probably still does. Many other luminaries of the House are buried at Hautecombe, including the last King of Italy, Umberto II, and his wife Queen Marie Josée, who were buried in 1983 and 2001 respectively.
It was another king, Charles Felix of Savoy, King of Sardinia, who saved the Abbey from oblivion. The power and wealth of the monasteries was viewed dimly by the French Revolution. When revolutionary forces arrived at Hautecombe in 1794, the monks were thrown out and the abbey sold. It became a ceramics factory. A decade after Napoleon’s defeat, the Abbey was a ruin. Charles Felix rebuilt it in the current neo-Gothic style in 1824.
Cistercian monks returned in 1826, followed by Benedictine monks in 1922 when they ran out of Cistercians. The last Benedictines left in 1992 and the Chemin Neuf religious community took up residence and are still there to this day. We took one of the regular boats from the port at Aix-le-Bains that tour the lake and stop at the Abbey. The great views from the water really give you a sense of the Abbey’s place in the surrounding landscape.
The oldest building on the Abbey grounds, La Grange Batelière, sits by the waters edge close to where the boats dock and drop off their passenger. This late 12th century boat house-cum-grain store would have been used by the earliest generations of monks and gives an insight into the original buildings before Charles Felix’s makeover. From here, it’s a steep walk uphill to reach the Abbey proper.
Only the chapel and necropolis are open to the public, but there’s a good audio guide. The medieval tombs were smashed by French revolutionaries, so what you see today are reproductions. It didn’t take long before we found ourselves in the gift shop and back out into the forested grounds. Even with a lot of visitors, it’s not too difficult to imagine what it must have been like here centuries ago.
1 thought on “Necropolis of the House of Savoy, Hautecombe Abbey”
There’s so much more to this type of architecture than we are generally told. Very powerful.