By Professor Lindy Grant
The terrible and tragic events in Paris on Wednesday have led to a hunt for the perpetrators which has placed the small and sleepy village of Longpont in Picardy at the centre of world news. But this is not the first that this small village has been connected with events on the world stage, though the last time was some 800 years ago.
The village of Longpont grew up around an abbey of Cistercian monks – the order of monks who founded Rievaulx and Fountains in England. The abbey of Longpont was founded in 1131 by the bishop of the nearby cathedral town of Soissons. The Cistercians tried to distance themselves from the riches and violence of the outside world, but kings, princes and aristocrats increasingly wanted to become patrons of the monks – to give them the riches they tried to reject, and to be buried in their abbeys, knowing that the monks would pray for the salvation of their souls. In the 1140s, Count Ralph of Vermandois, a cousin of the king of France, became a major patron of Longpont. Count Ralph knew his soul needed prayers: he had been excommunicated by the church for eloping with a married woman who was the sister of Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of France. Count Ralph was left behind to help govern France when the King, Louis VII, together with Queen Eleanor, left for the disastrous Second Crusade. Count Ralph’s heirs, including his leprous son, and his daughter, Eleanor, the last Countess of Vermandois, were buried in the abbey. Other members of the local aristocracy gave the abbey of Longpont relics of saints which they had stolen from the Imperial Palace Chapel at Constantinople when the city was sacked by Crusaders in 1204. In the early 13th century, the abbey acquired its own semi-saint, when a knight of the French court, called John of Montmirail, retired to the abbey as a monk. After his death in 1217, there were attempts to have him canonised. Relics of John’s bones are preserved in a small box, decorated with heraldic shields of the French king and his courtiers. The box is now on show in the Saint Louis exhibition at the Conciergerie in Paris.
So by the end of the 12th century, the abbey of Longpont had become rich, with close connections to the highest levels of the French aristocracy and the royal court. The monks built a grand new abbey church. The consecration of the finished abbey church took place in 1227, attended by the young king of France, Louis IX, later canonised as St Louis, and the entire French court. The ruins of that abbey church, with a vast round rose window dominating its west façade, still rise above the small village of Longpont. We must hope that the village can soon return to the peace and calm obscurity that attracted the Cistercian monks there in the first place.