Ardenne Abbey


In 1121, a small community of Christians settled in Ardenne, on an ancient Gallic place of worship. The new community was quickly entrusted to the Premonstratensian canons of nearby Lucerne Abbey. In 1160, the small priory became an independent abbey. In 1206, Ardenne Abbot was elected the General Abbot of the Order of the Prémontré.

The Ardenne estate consists of conventual priories, obedientiary priories and chapels, which are dependencies of the abbey. For instance, The Priory of Saint-Vincent de Lebisey, in the nearby parish of Hérouville, became part of its estate in 1291, and the Priory of Saint-Thomas, at Lion-sur-Mer, in 1328. The influence of the abbey extended beyond the nearby districts: the heads of the twelve parishes located in Calvados and Orne were appointed by Ardenne and four parish churches were under its patronage.

In the 15th century, the abbey fared much better during the Hundred Years’ War than Mondaye, Lucerne or Silly abbeys. However, Ardenne Abbey was not entirely spared: On 14th December 1417, it was attacked and looted, forcing the monks to seek refuge in their property in Caen. In 1450, the English had taken over Caen. When French King Charles VII came to retake the city, he settled in Ardenne during the siege. This was the climax of the abbey.

After fifty years of prosperity, Ardenne Abbey entered a long period of decline. The in commendam system was established in Ardenne: Authority over the abbey shifted to a person outside the Order. This system deprived the canons of a large part of their revenue, which fell under commendatory abbots showing little interest in maintaining the abbey. Religious wars intensified the precarious state of Ardenne Abbey: The Premonstratensians had to seek refuge twice behind Caen’s walls. The abbey was ransacked and desecrated: it was used as a stable and left unprotected from severe weather. Two records kept in the Departmental Archives of Calvados reported “ruins, demolitions, dilapidations and lootings” which took place in 1562, and concluded “twenty years of the Abbey’s income would not be enough to cover repair costs”. Till the end of the 16th century, the Abbey was left in ruins, and only few canons lived there and tried to manage.

The Order of Prémontré

Norbert of Xanten, born in 1080, at the time of feudalism and the crusades, was a rich German lord and canon of the Imperial Chapel of Henry V. In 1115, he underwent a “lightning conversion”, was ordained as a priest, and became an itinerant preacher.
This was the time of new foundations: La Chartreuse, Cîteaux, military Orders… Bishop Bartholomew of Laon encouraged Norbert to found a religious house in 1120 at a hamlet called Prémontré, where Saint-Gobain forest currently is (Aisne). Norbert’s influence is such throughout Medieval Europe that the young community at Prémontré quickly developed by establishing new monasteries or winning over existing houses such as Ardenne Abbey. Elected Archbishop of Magdeburg, Saxony, Norbert had to leave Prémontré in 1126. Having caught malaria in Italy, he died in 1134.

The Order of Prémontré, also known as the Norbertines or the White Canons, is a community of canons. They live in community, dedicating themselves to study, prayer and liturgy. But, unlike monks living self-sufficiently and avoiding lay people, canons regular remain open to the world and are engaged in pastoral work.
At the end of the Ancien Régime, the Order of Prémontré included about a hundred abbeys and priories in France, almost all located in the North. Still established in Normandy, the Premonstratensians are now settled in Saint-Martin de Mondaye Abbey, founded in 1202, about eighty years after Ardenne Abbey.