In 1047, Geoffrey Martel, Earl of Anjou and his wife, Agnès de Bourgogne, founded the first monastery for women in Saintonge. This Benedictin abbey (order of Saint Benoît) was richly endowed with lands and salt pans on the coast of the “Saintongeais” but also with inland properties in Sèvre Niortaise. These possessions were to be preserved and enlarged till the 18th century. However, the abbey still shows the scars of this eventful history (the 100 hundred year War, Religious wars). In the 17th century, two successive fires caused a lot of damage. Following those two unfortunate events, the convent buildings were rebuilt under the supervision of Françoise de Foix.
At the time of the Revolution, the nuns were chased away, the buildings transformed into a prison. Under Napoleon I, they became a military garrison house.
Then, the Abbey was bought by the city and restored in 1924. It was given back to religious cult in 1939, but it was not until the years 1970-1980 that the cloistered buildings were fully restored and inaugurated by President François Mitterrand in 1988.
The famous Saintes festival is held within the abbey (40th edition in 2011) and represents one of the most appreciated summer musical events in France. But apart from the Festival, music is present all year long within the abbey: musical season, Young Orchestre atlantique, musical education with collective vocal training, exhibitions etc.
The building was finished in the year 1047. The starting plan was originally cross-shaped like a basilica and the church was simply covered with a plain roof structure. But it was modified in the middle of the 12th Century:
At the beginning, the plan of the abbey was centered on its cloister (today, only archeological remains) around which were located the refectory, the kitchens and the dormitory.
But after the 1648 fire, the nun Françoise de Foix decided to rebuild the stone buildings along the extension of the abbey transept. At the time, these conventual buildings which could accommodate about 100 nuns were built in a classical style by the architect, Jacques Guérinet who also constructed several military places on the coast. This explains why these conventual buildings can evoke the 17th century military architecture.
Dating back to the 12th century, the western door and the abbey steeple sculptures reveal the art of Romanesque sculpture in Saintonge. This style was to be largely diffused in the area (Trizay, Corme-Ecluse, Aulnay etc.)