Around the year one thousand, a first hermit named Gombaud settled down in a cave on the left bank of the River Creuse, at the bottom of which rose a spring, the "Fount of Gombaud", which gave its name to the abbey and the village.
Over the years, a small colony of hermits carved their cells out from the rock, then built a chapel dedicated to St. Julien, first bishop of Le Mans.
In the year 1091, the superior of this small community of hermits, Pierre de l'Étoile, decided with some of his companions to cross the Creuse to found a monastery under the Rule of St. Benedict.
The first abbot of Fontgombault knew St. Bernard de Tiron. He was his advisor and friend, as well as of Bl. Robert d'Arbrissel, founder of the Order of Fontevraud, St. Raoul de la Futaye, and St. Vital de Savigny. He died in 1114 of ergotic poisoning ("St. Anthony's Fire") and did not see the dedication of the abbey church, which probably took place around 1145. His remains were found in 1954 in the former chapter-house, then transferred to the nave of the church.
For more than two centuries, the monastery enjoyed a period of prosperity. In the neighbourhood of the monastery, as in Loups, but also in Touraine, Poitou, Orléans and Vendôme, and as far as Aunis, the monks of Fontgombault created some twenty priories, all of which were originally inhabited by a few monks who had to watch over land use, sometimes working with their own hands, and ensuring the divine service in a chapel.
The new abbey was part of the "new monasticism" movement, of which the best known example is the Cistercian Order, which wanted to promote a more literal compliance with the Rule and to restore the role of manual labour.
Material prosperity is not without danger for the purity of monastic life: various claustral charges were erected as benefices, which their beneficiaries administered as they deemed fit, and soon the income received from certain priories were allocated to these charges, along with other income. Such an arrangement went contrary to the Benedictine ideal whereby the abbot held the prerogative of administering the entire monastery, both in spiritual and material matters, all the monks being obliged to individual poverty.
In addition to the ravages of the Black Death, the Abbey suffered greatly from the Hundred Years' War between the English and the French. In 1356, the region became the theatre for military operations, and the abbey was destroyed for the first time. After the Treaty of Brétigny (1360), which ceded Poitou to England, English troops were garrisoned in the abbey, the last bays of the church's nave being fortified. It was not until 1372 that Knight Bertrand du Guesclin liberated the region: it is known that he fought at the fort of Fontgombault.
Then there came a few moments of respite, but in order to meet the requests for subsidies, both from the King and the Church, the abbey, like many other communities, was forced to sell off parts of its assets. The number of monks gradually dwindled to twelve only at the end of the 14th century, and in the following centuries barely exceeded this figure, because the domains no longer supported a large community.
From 1412, a second phase of the war handed the region over to rampaging armed soldiery and plunderers. But from the 1460s on, a certain economic revival of the region, as well as royal donations, allowed for the development of the domains by the creation of ponds in the Brenne, as well as a restoration of the conventual buildings: the calefactory and the refectory were provided with new Gothic vaulting, as well as the sacristy, and the original cloister, which no longer exists today, was partially re-built.
In 1500, a competition for the abbot's see between the candidate elected by the community and the one favoured by the King gave rise to an armed intervention in which the monks were seriously molested. The Paris Parliament, seized of this affair, found in favour of the monks' candidate in 1501.
But soon, and until the Revolution in 1789, all the abbots of Fontgombault (with one exception) were appointed under the Commendatory or "Commendam" system, instead of being elected by the monks: chosen by the King and presented by him to the Pope, these ecclesiastics, who were not monks, were often more concerned with the income they could obtain from their benefice than with the spiritual good of the community.
This institution of secular commendatory abbots was a blight on monasteries, as was that of the so-called "confidentiary abbots", clerics who were titulars of the Abbey, but were in fact in the pay of unscrupulous laymen of the region to whom the King had delegated his power of appointment, and who administered the goods of the monastery for their own benefit. Thus, the Abbey of Fontgombault fell under the control of Protestant lords who had no qualms about plundering the monastery's temporal assets.
In 1569, a Calvinist detachment from Coligny's great army plundered the monastery and set fire to the church and conventual buildings. The monks were forced to seek accommodation outside the enclosure in the abbey's outbuildings, to the detriment of monastic life. Twenty years later, in 1589, during the struggle between Henry IV and the Catholic League, the Fontgombault Fort had to maintain a garrison of twenty troops at the Abbot's expense.
In the first half of the 17th century, the few monks still finding shelter among the ruins often had to seek redress in defence of their rights. Observance of monastic life was therefore seriously undermined; there was no longer a Prior, each individual lived as he fancied, and the community gathered only for Divine Office.
In 1656, the appointment of Anselme Mornet as Abbot Commendatory was the occasion of a renewal. An Augustinian religious, he intended to keep the Abbey as a regular Abbot and not as a commendatory. Although he did not reside himself in the Abbey, he re-grouped the community members and subjected them to a stricter rule of life. Above all, in 1674, he named an outstanding man as Prior: Dom Andrieu. He suppressed the "peculium" (a monk's individual earnings) and shared the abbey's total revenue from its benefices with the whole community. He launched an overall restoration of the monastery: choir of the abbey church, dormitory, infirmary, refectory, cloisters, bakery, wine-press and St. Julian's chapel. He wrote a History of the Abbey. By the time of his death in 1705, the community had both recovered its fervour and replenished its ranks.
Fervour was sustained for some time, but recruitment dried up and by 1741, only five monks remained. The Archbishop of Bourges then decided to close down the monastery in perpetuity, to install the Lazarists of Bourges in its place, and after them Sulpicians in 1779. The commendatory abbots continued to receive their income, and the last of them, François-Régis de Rech de Saint-Amans, even proposed in 1786 to demolish the abbey church; providentially, the operation was judged unprofitable.
The ravages of the Revolution finally completed the destruction of the monastery. Its buildings and all the domains were sold off as State assets on 2nd July, 1791. The ruins of the church were exploited as a stone quarry.
The church and the monastic buildings owed their survival to the initiative of two priests from the Bourges diocese, Fr. Lenoir and Fr. Damourette, who set about restoring them in 1848.
To repopulate the monastery, the Cistercians at Bellefontaine sent a swarm on the feast of All Saints, 1849; reinforced in 1858 by a group of about twenty monks from the Abbey of Melleray (who would send another twenty in the following years). In 1859, the status of the abbatial see was restored and Dom Dosithée Pellan took over the leadership of the community, which received a penal colony of young offenders placed there by the justice system to learn a manual trade and receive elementary religious instruction. The Abbey thus received up to three hundred children.
In 1878, Dom Albéric Baranger succeeded Dom Dosithée as Abbot. Despite material difficulties due to the reformatory for young offenders being abruptly closed down in 1880 by the anticlerical minister Jules Ferry, the monastery continued to develop, especially with the restoration of St. Julian's chapel and the guest-house.
During this time, Father Lenoir tirelessly continued his work, and the nave was raised within ten years; but the dedication of the restored church, planned for 1899, was forbidden at the last moment by the sectarian French authorities.
Dom Albéric's successor in 1902, Dom Fortunat Marchand, inherited a difficult financial situation, exacerbated by the government's harassment of religious institutions. In May of 1903, part of the community went into exile to the United States to found there a new monastery, and the others dispersed to other Trappist monasteries in France. The young American foundation, victim of an early accidental fire in its buildings, was unfortunately unable to maintain itself.
In 1905, Louis Bonjean purchased the buildings and installed various social service activities, including a cooperative button factory; this is the origin of the small group of pavilions intended for the housing of the workers' families, which is situated today near the Abbey farm.
In 1919, the Saint-Martin School was opened, a minor seminary with a section for late vocations, in a part of the buildings let to the diocese of Bourges. It prospered for about thirty years.
After the Second World War, the diocese of Bourges set about re-grouping its seminarists and proposed to the Abbey of Solesmes to revive monastic life in Fontgombault. The Abbot of Solesmes, Dom Germain Cozien, accepted, and the first founding monks arrived from Solesmes in May 1948.
In 1953, the old abbatial title was once again restored, and Dom Cozien appointed Dom Édouard Roux to head the new abbey. The latter gradually restored the conventual premises, refurbished the interior of the abbey church and prepared it for the grandiose ceremony of dedication which took place on 5th October, 1954. His main concern was to transmit the monastic ideal that he himself had lived in Solesmes, and to ensure solid foundations for a fervent and hard-working community.
After his death on 19th March, 1962, at the age of 66, the community elected Dom Jean Roy to succeed him as Abbot. During his abbotship, the monastery flourished quite remarkably, in difficult years when many communities were on the wane. He had to build new accommodation to house an influx of vocations, and soon was able to found two new monasteries, one in Randol, in the diocese of Clermont in 1971, and another one in Gricigliano in Italy, in the diocese of Florence, in 1976. The latter, having failed to attract enough Italian vocations, had to be closed, later to become the formation house of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest.
Dom Jean Roy died suddenly in Rome in 1977, and the crosier was entrusted by the monks to Dom Antoine Forgeot, his Prior. The thirty-four years of Dom Forgeot's abbotship saw the consolidation and independence of Our Lady of Randol monastery, then the undertaking of three other foundations: that of Our Lady of Triors in the diocese of Valence in 1984,...
..., that of Gaussan in the diocese of Carcassonne in 1994, a community that later moved to a mountainous part of the diocese to become Our Lady of Donezan Abbey,...
... and that of Our Lady of Clear Creek in the United States, Oklahoma, in 1999.
Feeling the weight of age, Dom Forgeot handed over his abbatial charge to the Abbot of Solesmes in the summer of 2011. The community elected Dom Jean Pateau, his prior, as his successor. Dom Pateau received the abbatial blessing on 7th October. In the first years of his government, Fontgombault experienced the departure of a swarm of monks sent to take over the Abbey of St. Paul in Wisques (2013), whose elderly community had been weakened for many years by the lack of vocations.
In the following years, work projects followed one another for the maintenance, renovation and development of monastic activities, or simply to embellish the domain of Our Lady, with a view to fulfilling the monastic ideal that had been received and faithfully transmitting it.
May the Virgin Mary continue to bless this house,
and keep the monks faithful to their vocation,
so that Fontgombault may always be a kindergarten of Mary,
walking on the path leading to eternal life.