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Abbey of Saint-Denis

Situated in a small town, to which it has given its name, about four miles north of Paris

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Saint-Denis, Abbey of, is situated in a small town, to which it has given its name, about four miles north of Paris. St-Denis (Dionysius), the first Bishop of Paris, and his companions, martyred in 270, were buried here and the small chapel built over the spot became a famous place of pilgrimage during the fifth and sixth centuries. In 630 King Dagobert founded the abbey for Benedictine monks, replacing the original chapel by a large basilica, of which but little now remains. He and his successors enriched the new foundation with many gifts and privileges and, possessing as it did the shrine of St-Denis, it became one of the richest and most important abbeys in France. In 653 it was made exempt from episcopal jurisdiction. A new church was commenced in 750 by Charlemagne, at the consecration of which Christ, according to popular tradition, was supposed to have assisted in person. During the ninth century irregularities crept in and the monks transformed themselves into canons with a relaxed rule. Abbot Hilduin tried in vain to reform them and was obliged to retire for a time, with a few of the more fervent monks, to a neighboring priory. At length, however, he succeeded in bringing about a better state of things and was able to resume the government of his abbey. From that time forward its splendor and importance continued to increase under the wise rule of a succession of great abbots, to whom the right of pontificalia was granted by Alexander III in 1179. Most famous perhaps amongst these was Suger, the thirty-sixth of the series (1122-52). Besides being a great ecclesiastic he was also a great statesman and acted as Regent of France whilst King Louis VII was absent at the Crusades. The present church of St-Denis was commenced by him about 1140 and marks the beginning of the Gothic tendency in architecture and its transition from the Romanesque style. Further additions and alterations under succeeding abbots resulted in producing one of the finest Gothic buildings in France (see Gothic Architecture).

The abbey figured prominently in the history of France and its abbots were for several centuries amongst the chief seigneurs of the kingdom. The “Oriflamme“, originally the banner of the abbey, became the standard of the kings of France and was suspended above the high altar, whence it was only removed when the king took the field in person. Its last appearance was at the battle of Agincourt in 1415. Joan of Arc hung up her arms in the church of St-Denis in 1429. Many kings and princes and other noble persons were buried there and three of the Roman pontiffs stayed in the abbey at different times: Stephen II in 754, Innocent II in 1131, and Eugenius III in 1146. Another great abbot, Matthieu de Vendome, acted as administrator of the kingdom when St. Louis went to the Crusades in 1269. After the Council of Trent the Abbey of St-Denis became the head of a congregation of ten monasteries, and in 1633 it was united, with its dependent houses, to the new Congregation of St-Maur, when its conventual buildings were entirely reconstructed. In 1691 Louis XVI suppressed the abbacy and united the monastery with its revenues to the royal house of noble ladies at St-Cyr, founded by Madame de Maintenon. The abbey was finally dissolved at the revolution, when much damage was done to the church and tombs. It was subsequently restored, under Napoleon III, by Violletle-Duc. The relics of St-Denis, which had been transferred to the parish church of the town in 1795, were brought back again to the abbey in 1819. It is now a “national monument” and one of the show-places of Paris. Many of the chartularies and other manuscripts relating to its history are now either in the Archives Nationales or the Bibliotheque Nationale.


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