FONTEVRAULT, or Fontevraud (Lat. Fons Ebraldi), a town of western France, in the department of Maine-et-Loire, 10 m. S.E. of Saumur by road and 2 m. from the confluence of the Loire and Vienne. Pop. (1906) 1279. It is situated in the midst of the forest of Fontevrault. The interest of the place centres in its abbey, which since 1804 has been utilized and abused as a central house of detention for convicts. The church (12th century), of which only the choir and apse are appropriated to divine service, has a beautiful nave formerly covered by four cupolas destroyed in 1816. There is a fifth cupola above the crossing. In a chapel in the south transept are the effigies of Henry II. of England, of his wife Eleanor of Guienne, of Richard I. of England and of Isabella of Angoulême, wife of John of England - Eleanor's being of oak and the rest of stone. The cloister, refectory and chapter-house date from the 16th century. The second court of the abbey contains a remarkable building, the Tour d'Evrault (12th century), which long went under the misnomer of chapelle funéraire, but was in reality the old kitchen. Details and diagrams will be found in Viollet-le-Duc's Dictionnaire de l'architecture. There are three stories, the whole being surmounted by a pyramidal structure.
The Order of Fontevrault was founded about 1100 by Robert of Arbrissel, who was born in the village of Arbrissel or Arbresec, in the diocese of Rennes, and attained great fame as a preacher and ascetic. The establishment was a double monastery, containing a nunnery of 300 nuns and a monastery of 200 monks, separated completely so that no communication was allowed except in the church, where the services were carried on in common; there were, moreover, a hospital for 120 lepers and other sick, and a penitentiary for fallen women, both worked by the nuns. The basis of the life was the Benedictine rule, but the observance of abstinence and silence went beyond it in stringency. The special feature of the institute was that the abbess ruled the monks as well as the nuns. At the beginning the order had a great vogue, and at the time of Robert's death, 1117, there were several monasteries and 3000 nuns; afterwards the number of monasteries reached 57, all organized on the same plan. The institute never throve out of France; there were attempts to introduce it into Spain and England: in England there were three houses - at Ambresbury (Amesbury in Wiltshire), Nuneaton, and Westwood in Worcestershire. The nuns in England as in France were recruited from the highest families, and the abbess of Fontevrault, who was the superior-general of the whole order, was usually of the royal family of France.
See P. Hélyot, Hist, des ordres religieuses (1718), vi. cc. 12, 13; Max Heimbucher, Orden und Kongregationen (1907), i. 46; the arts. "Fontevrauld" in Wetzer and Welte, Kirchenlexicon (ed. 2), and in Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie (ed. 3), supply full references to the literature. The most recent monograph is Edouard, Fontevrault et ses monuments (1875); for the later history see art. by Edmund Bishop in Downside Review (1886).
(E. C. B.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)